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Unintended Consequences

Pro-Handgun Experts Prove That Handguns Are a Dangerous Choice for Self-Defense

Executive Summary

In 1998, for every time 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. (Unintended Consequences, p. 60) And yet, over the last 30 years, the gun industry has promoted the putative value of handguns for self-defense more than any other benefit, such as recreation. The gun industry argues that this supposed self-defense benefit outweighs the risk of harm from pistols and revolvers demonstrated each year by America's unparalleled handgun death and injury rates.

Unintended Consequences for the first time documents the candid voices of pro-handgun experts. These experts demonstrate that it is difficult, if not impossible, for average people to effectively use handguns in self-defense. The 90-page study shows that the overwhelming majority of people who own handguns:

  • are ignorant of�or ignore�basic handgun safety rules;

  • do not have the necessary handgun combat marksmanship skills to effectively defend themselves without harming innocent others; and,

  • are not prepared for the extreme physiological and psychological effects that the experts, many of whom have on-the-street law enforcement experience with firearms, agree inevitably occur in an armed life-or-death confrontation (the only situation in which lethal force is justified in self-defense).

Unintended Consequences illuminates the patent danger of our present practice of allowing citizens to carry concealed handguns with only minimal screening. Statements by numerous pro-gun self-defense experts demonstrate that for entirely practical reasons handguns in particular are a dangerous choice for all but a tiny minority of exceptionally well-trained people who maintain their skills with regular and intensive practice. For example, firearms instructor and respected pro-gun author Massad Ayoob defines who ought to be allowed to own and carry a handgun. He states:

...the license to carry concealed, deadly weapons in public is not a right but a privilege. To be worthy of this privilege, one must be both discreet and competent with the weapon. The gun-carrying man who lacks either attribute is a walking time bomb. (Unintended Consequences, p. 14)

However, Ayoob also cautions that many who carry handguns are improperly trained in their use. He warns:

The uninitiated tend to make two kinds of mistakes with firearms: they either use guns when they shouldn't, or do not use them properly in the rare circumstances when they should. (Unintended Consequences, p. 5)

The problem of untrained citizens arming themselves and using guns in situations when they shouldn't can be attributed in part to the potential change in personality that accompanies handgun carrying. Pro-gun writer Chris Bird cautions new gun owners on the dangers of becoming proactively aggressive�

You may go to places that you would not have gone before simply because you are armed. You may think you are invincible, but you're not. (Unintended Consequences, p. 15)

However, even if the firearm owner is well-trained in gun handling skills, Bird points out an even greater problem rarely discussed by self-defense advocates�mainly how ill-suited handguns are for self-defense. Bird writes:

A handgun is the hardest firearm to shoot accurately, and, even when you hit what you are shooting at, your target doesn't vaporize in a red mist like on television. (Unintended Consequences, p. 5)

Gun expert Duane Thomas is even more blunt in stating the dangers that come with a public armed for self-defense: the real world, people with less-than-expert skill levels often do wind up carrying and using handguns, and to base your attitude toward firearms safety on the way you think the world should be, instead of the way the world is, strikes me as more than a little stupid.... (Unintended Consequences, p. 18)

The propensity for gun owners to approach self-defense from an idealized view, rather than a practical one, is most alarming in relation to protecting their homes. Ayoob explains:

The average American has more misconceptions about lethal force in the home than in any other self-defense situation. He not only has little understanding of his legal position under these circumstances; he has no idea of how to conduct himself if, by infinitesimal chance, the day comes when his home actually is turned into a battleground he must defend against armed criminals. (Unintended Consequences, p. 24)

Homes with children pose an even greater challenge to the self-defense gun owner�how does one store a gun safely, while also keeping it accessible for instant use? The answer, according to Bird, is that you can't. He suggests the only way to keep curious children from finding your gun is to wear it�

If you are not wearing it and it isn't under your direct control, it must be made secure. Putting the gun on a high shelf will keep it out of reach of a toddler but not from a teen. Hiding it is also not a good approach. Remember when you were a kid? Was there anywhere in your house that you hadn't explored? As a kid, I remember finding a .32 semi-automatic and ammunition in a drawer in my father's dressing room. (Unintended Consequences, p. 20)

While members of the non-gun owning public would assume that a gun owner who had completed a self-defense training course would have knowledge of lethal force laws, that assumption is wrong. For liability reasons, many instructors are reluctant to teach civilians when it is legally defensible to kill other civilians. As an NRA certified trainer explained�

...the NRA does not allow their instructors to teach the "when to shoot" portion of this class. Instead, they require that a guest lecturer, who must be an attorney or law enforcement officer, handle this area. (Unintended Consequences, p. 38)

The ignorance among handgun owners of the basic laws of self-defense is compounded by the distorted views of armed confrontations as seen on TV. Criminals, unlike their counterparts on the small screen, do not drop their weapons and freeze in response to a challenge. Again, the experts inform their students that:

If you analyze a number of official police reports of confrontations with armed criminals, you will reach the inescapable conclusion that sudden and violent resistance is, statistically, a much more likely response than surrender. (Unintended Consequences, p. 28)

Other factors to take into account in a "real-life" encounter�as opposed to practicing one's self-defense skills at a firing range�include: the physical environment, physiological stress, assailant movements, unexpected assailant reaction, ambiguous situations, and disarmament moves by the assailant.

Even when a gun owner has taken the pains to familiarize himself with the rules of self-defense, and has read up on what to expect during a "real-life" encounter with a criminal, the question still remains: Is the gun owner willing to kill? In life or death situations, procrastination can be fatal. According to Ayoob, people who shrink from the thought of killing another human being and believe that merely brandishing their firearm will deter a criminal attack are risking their own lives. He admonishes:

ANYONE who really feels this way should abandon any thoughts of keeping guns. A criminal can tell when a person isn't going to shoot, the way a dog can smell fear. And to pull a gun you don't intend to use is to flaunt a power you do not really command: you are inviting the opponent to take it away from you, and antagonizing him to use it against you. (Unintended Consequences, p. 35)

Handgun defense expert Gabriel Suarez agrees: "Simply stated, you must be willing to kill any man who would harm you or your family. You must be willing to offer greater violence for violence offered." (Unintended Consequences, p. 35)

Even those who feel they are prepared to take a fellow human being's life can't predict how their bodies will react in an actual armed confrontation. As San Antonio police officer Shayne Katzfey remarks: "The average person who's never been involved in a shooting cannot fathom the mental and physical stress that you undergo right during the event and immediately afterward." Often called the "fight-or-flight reflex," the relevant physiological and psychological effects include: the loss of fine motor skills, tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, trembling, loss of control of bodily functions, and more. One common effect, called tachypsychia, is distortion of perceived time, "An event that takes milliseconds may seem like minutes as everyone and everything appears to move in slow motion." Several of these effects specifically, directly, and dramatically degrade the handgun owner's ability to use his weapon. (Unintended Consequences, p. 50)

Despite the risks associated with handguns as weapons of self-defense, the gun industry continues to exploit fears of violent crime in order to boost sales. With a decline in hunting and the "shooting sports," retailers are turning to increasingly lethal "self-defense" handguns and ammunition in their marketing schemes. As expert Ayoob acknowledges:

Defensive firearms, sold with knowledgeable advice and the right accessories, offer the best chance of commercial survival for today's retail firearms dealer. (Unintended Consequences, p. 11)

Yet firearm dealers rarely acknowledge the risks associated with their products. In reality, the vast majority of handgun owners put not only themselves, but their families, their neighbors, and wholly innocent bystanders at unreasonable risk of harm, including death and catastrophic injury. On average, if someone gets shot and killed, four out of five times it will be with a handgun. In 1998, for example, handguns were used in 80.7 percent of all firearm homicides. (Unintended Consequences, p. 1)

Public health researchers have consistently proven that the detrimental effects of civilian handgun ownership drastically outweigh the theoretical benefits they are purported to deliver. 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 other�it is clear that a handgun purchased for self-protection poses the gravest danger to the very people it is supposed to protect.

Go to Unintended Consequences Table of Contents



  All contents � 2001 Violence Policy Center


The Violence Policy Center is a national non-profit educational foundation that conducts research on violence in America and works to develop violence-reduction policies and proposals. The Center examines the role of firearms in America, conducts research on firearms violence, and explores new ways to decrease firearm-related death and injury.