Unintended Consequences – Chapter Five: Facing Facts

The United States leads the industrialized world in firearms violence. Most of that violence involves handguns, which in America are uniquely easy to acquire. By what right do civilian handgun owners – a minority of one in six – think they are entitled to threaten the rest of us with this relentless violence? Is it worth it to indulge the demonstrably deluded self-defense fantasies of this minority? 

Summing Up the Violence. More than two out of three of the one million Americans who have died by firearms violence since 1962 were killed with handguns – a tally now in excess of 670,000.206 This is all the more striking because most American guns aren’t handguns. Of the more than 190 million guns estimated to be in the country, two thirds are rifles and shotguns. Only one third are handguns.207 And yet handguns are involved in the great majority of homicides and suicides and in almost nine out of 10 crimes, such as robbery, assault, and rape where a gun is used.208

The impact of our 65 million handgun population209 can be seen by comparing ourselves to countries that strongly limit access to handguns. For example, in 1995 the U.S. firearms death rate was 13.7 per 100,000; in Canada 3.9 per 100,000; in Australia 2.9 per 100,000; and, in England and Wales it was 0.4 per 100,000.210 The United States is not more violent than other cultures. In fact, as Western Europe grows more violent, the U.S. becomes less so.211The main difference between those nations and our own is the difference in lethal violence stemming from our easy access to handguns. As public health researcher Susan P. Baker has noted: “People without guns injure people; guns kill them.”212

The Lack of Basic Regulation. Because of the mythology woven around the handgun, the firearms industry has succeeded in being specifically exempted from the basic federal health and safety regulation that affects every consumer product from teddy bears to jumbo jets. Aside from the issuance of pro forma licenses for manufacturing and distribution, no federal agency reviews firearms in comparative terms, balancing the benefits they offer society against the damage they do. 

Weighed in the Balance. Clearly, handguns fail this cost/benefit standard. Public health researchers have in the past made a compelling case that this is true simply by looking at the results of handgun violence, demonstrating by this comparison the preponderance of detrimental effects of civilian handgun ownership over the theoretical benefits they are purported to deliver. For example, for every time in 1998 that a civilian used a handgun to kill in self-defense, 51 people lost their lives in handgun homicides alone. Add in suicides and the ratio stretches to 134 to one.213 This passes any point of rational justification for condoning the availability of this product on the open market. 

This is not to deny that handguns are never effectively used for self-defense. Of course, incidents do occur in which people use handguns in self-defense against an unknown attacker but, compared against the total universe of gun crime and violence, they are extremely few in number. Out of the 7,875 handgun homicides reported in 1998, only 95 (1.2 percent) were justifiable handgun killings of an assailant previously unknown to the person defending themselves.214

Then what about those cases where a handgun is wielded for defense and no one is killed? First, it must be noted how extensively handguns are used as tools of violent crimes such as assaults and robberies. In 1993, there were about 1.3 million such crimes committed with a firearm�and 86 percent of the time the weapon was a handgun.215 Conversely, the federal government reports that Americans use guns of all types to defend themselves approximately 65,000 times in an average year – a minute percentage compared to the total figure of violent crime.216 Considering what the FBI has been reporting year in and year out – that most gun deaths do not take place in the course of felony crime, but result from arguments between people who know each other217 – it is clear that a handgun purchased for self-protection poses the gravest danger to the very persons it is supposed to protect.218

Recognizing these facts as their Achilles’ heel, the National Rifle Association and other pro-gunners have�fronted by tame academicians�disseminated wildly inflated numbers supposedly showing handguns to be an effective form of self-defense.219 As noted earlier in this report, their methodologies are dubious and their numbers evaporate under scrutiny. Although handguns are marketed primarily for their self-defense value, bringing one into the home has exactly the opposite effect and places residents at a much higher rate of risk than those living in a gun-free environment. 

The Self-Defense Myth Exposed. This report adds to the scale the impeaching words of some of the strongest pro-gun advocates in the country. These men know and in their candid moments say and write evidence that the handgun is a dangerously reckless device for the vast, vast majority of Americans. This missing link in the evidence to date strongly explains why the bad uses of handguns far outweigh their good uses. 

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