Guns, Kids, and Tradeoffs

Guns, Kids, and Tradeoffs

Over at Slate, Evan DeFilippis and Devin Hughes have a piece claiming that the NRA is "committed to expanding firearm ownership among children," that "the NRA and extreme gun advocates vehemently oppose [measures] such as gun safes and smart guns," and that gun deaths "are not offset by defensive gun use." "The safest policy is not having a gun in the home," they advise.

They dramatically overstate their case.

First of all, while the NRA certainly supports teaching children about guns, and has been criticized for selling unsafe gun-storage products (such as a clock with a secret-but-unlocked compartment for a gun), it does not support giving children unsupervised access to guns, and it certainly doesn't "vehemently oppose" gun safes. (Heck, it sells those, too.) The core message of the group's Eddie Eagle program for kids is that if they see a gun, they should stop, don't touch, leave the area, and tell an adult. The group also tells parents:

Store guns so that they are not accessible to children and other unauthorized users. Gun shops sell a wide variety of safes, cases, and other security devices. While specific security measure[s] may vary, a parent must, in every case, assess the exposure of the firearm and absolutely ensure that it is inaccessible to a child.

So, pretty much everyone agrees that if a parent -- or, nominally, a child -- owns a gun, that gun should be kept away from the child except when the child is being supervised. There might be some disagreement about whether parents (and non-parents) should be forced to lock their guns, but there is no one saying it's fine to leave your guns lying around when there are kids in the house. Every sensible person believes that too many parents do this and should stop.

But in any given case, should a parent own a gun at all? And are guns a bad thing for a society on net? That depends on the risks and benefits. While DeFilippis and Hughes discuss the risks at great length, they don't give a full accounting of the benefits.

As common sense will tell you, having a gun in the house -- even if it's locked -- can create problems. If a child gets a hold of the gun, he can accidentally shoot himself or someone else. As kids get older the risk of suicide or murder increases. Guns are an especially terrible idea in a house with domestic violence, a criminal, or someone who is severely mentally ill. You don't have to buy every last one of the authors' blizzard of correlational studies suggesting that more guns equals more bad outcomes -- I tend to be quite skeptical of this kind of work, regardless of the ultimate conclusion -- to recognize that owning a gun is a serious responsibility and can sometimes do more harm than good.

But are the risks so great that we can say "the safest policy is not having a gun in the home," full stop? No.

The authors claim that the risks of owning a gun are "not offset by defensive gun use." But the studies they cite do not show this to be true -- and even if it is true in the aggregate, it's not clear what that means. Because gun problems are especially concentrated among irresponsible owners, overall statistics aren't particularly helpful for responsible owners, and policymakers need to consider the possibility that gun-control laws might have more of an effect on the responsible than on the irresponsible.

The first study is notorious in the gun debate. The Slate authors claim it shows that for "every time a gun is used legally in self-defense at home, there are 'four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.'" It shows no such thing -- it makes no attempt to count every time a gun is "used legally in self-defense at home." All it does is count shootings that resulted in police reports or medical treatment, and finds that there are more illegal shootings and suicides than there are self-defense shootings. Since it's possible to scare off an attacker without shooting him, this really doesn't tell us a whole lot.

The other study, meanwhile, compares defensive and threatening uses of guns by adolescents. Since, again, we can all agree that adolescents shouldn't have access to guns, this isn't helpful either.

What happens when we count up actual self-defense uses? Unfortunately, nothing definitive -- it's a very difficult topic to collect data on. One favorite stat of the gun lobby, based on a survey, is that guns are used in self-defense 2.5 million times per year -- which I find unlikely, as it suggests that about 1 in every 100 American adults defend themselves with guns every single year. (Remember, only 35-40 percent of American adults live in gun-owning households.) The National Crime Victimization Survey, which asks people to provide details about crimes committed against them but does not specifically ask about defensive gun use, suggests the number is around 100,000 -- that might serve as a decent floor, but it's possible that this method fails to unearth a lot of incidents. There's a whole range of estimates in between.

Whether defensive gun uses outnumber or outweigh problematic gun uses (somewhere around 500,000 per year) is an open question -- and, again, even if criminal uses are more common, that doesn't mean the average responsible person shouldn't own a gun, and it doesn't prove that any given gun-control measure will reduce illegal uses more than legal ones.

As a gun owner and soon-to-be father, I feel compelled to make one last point about the personal tradeoffs here: We can't forget about the joys of hunting and shooting. That might sound horrible -- how can you weigh enjoyment against a child's life? But the fact is that we do this all the time. Motor vehicles are an enormous threat to children, and yet we put kids in them unnecessarily with nary a second thought -- we take road trips to Disney World, sign them up for optional activities that take place across town, and so on and so forth. We put swimming pools, a bigger threat to children than guns, in our yards. As our kids get older, we let them play outside with decreasing degrees of supervision, putting them at risk of being run over, attacked, or kidnapped. The "safest option" is not always the best one -- and if you lock your gun up and let your child use it only under supervision, and if no adult in the household is obviously unfit for gun ownership, the safety risk is quite minimal.

Lots of things about parenthood terrify me. My securely stored handgun really isn't one of them. And I suspect that when it comes to kids, the targeting of guns above other risks has more to do with cultural disdain than with statistics.

The empirical evidence on guns and violence is very complicated and rarely suggests a definitive conclusion one way or the other. This is due not to a dearth of research -- though more research is always welcome -- but to the difficulty of teasing apart the numerous variables that affect crime. In ten years of following this work, I've been convinced of only a few things: As the Slate authors write, gun ownership probably increases suicide (and almost by definition increases accidental gun death, though that's extremely rare); assault-weapons bans are pointless; our current background-check system is a failure; concealed carry probably doesn't measurably increase crime; gun ownership, whether it's good or bad on net, is way down the list of factors that affect a nation's murder rate; the risks and benefits of gun ownership vary substantially from person to person depending on who they are and the threats they face.

Maybe I'm unusually skeptical when it comes to social science. Or maybe lots of other people are convinced one way or the other because they want to be.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

[Note: In the above I've fixed the spelling of DeFilippis's last name.]

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