Anti-Gun Lobby's Lies of Omission

The Colorado Freedom Report:  A libertarian journal of politics and culture.

The Colorado Freedom

Anti-Gun Lobby's Lies of Omission

by Ari Armstrong, February 15, 2000

Apparently anti-gun activists aren't Star Trek fans. On a recent rerun of The Next Generation, Captain Picard tells a young cadet, "A lie of omission is still a lie." This basic moral lesson has escaped some Colorado gun foes.

John Head, a founder of Sane Alternatives to the Firearms Epidemic, the name of which likens gun ownership to a disease, published an article in the February 13 Rocky Mountain News in which he argues mandatory gun storage laws will make people safer. But the "evidence" he uses consistently misrepresents the full facts. Moreover, many of Head's claims were shown to be misleading years ago by scholars such as David Kopel and Gary Kleck. That Head would continue to repeat such lies of omission, despite their apparent absurdity, can only be chalked up to his intellectual dishonesty.

For instance, Head writes, "But guns kept in the home for self-protection are more likely to kill somebody the shooter knows than to kill in self-defense -- 22 times more likely, according to the New England Journal of Medicine." (Head makes this same point several times, I suppose for effect.)

The most significant of Head's omissions is the vast number of times guns are used in the home for self-defense without resulting in death or injury. As John Lott put it in a "counterpoint" article also published in the News, "Guns clearly deter criminals, with Americans using guns defensively more than 2 million times each year -- five times more frequently than the 430,000 times guns were used to commit crimes in 1997. Some 98 percent of the time, simply brandishing a weapon is sufficient to stop the attack." [2/26/03 Update: Lott's 98% figure is unreliable -- see However, it remains the case that most defensive uses of a gun involve brandishment.] Clearly, a person is much safer keeping a gun at home for self-defense than failing to do so. In addition, some criminals never even attempt violence out of fear of gun owners.

Certainly Head's statistics have no bearing whatsoever on his suggestion that mandatory locks would not make self-defense against criminals more difficult (or often impossible), as critics argue. He says the argument that mandatory locks will empower criminals is rooted in "fear," yet he never gives any argument relevant to that point. Because mandatory locks would have the effect of impairing self-defense, some "fear" of such laws is warranted.

But Head's irresponsible statistics contain even more "damn lies." Head reifies firearms, enabling him to ignore human culpability. He writes, "guns... are more likely to kill..." (Emphasis added.) But guns aren't likely to do anything whatsoever, any more than cars are likely to drive or hammers are likely to strike. Unfortunately, domestic violence is a cause of much of the crime to which Head refers, and this problem cannot be attributed to gun ownership.

The rest of the truth is that gun accidents resulted in the deaths of 1,225 people in the United States in 1995. Fires resulted in 3,761 deaths, drowning in 4,350 deaths, poisoning in 8,461 deaths, and falls in 13,986 deaths (National Safety Council Accident Facts). While firearm safety remains an important issue, most gun owners are remarkably safe with their arms.

To compare gun accidents with homicides and suicides, in 1995 there were 1,125 accidents, 15,551 homicides, and 18,503 suicides. How do this basic numbers fit with Head's comment? He writes:

Because handguns and other firearms are so easily accessible to many children, adolescents and others in their homes, the risk of gun violence in the home increases dramatically. The risk of homicide in the home is three times greater in households with guns and the risk of suicide is five times greater. A gun in the home greatly increases the likelihood of an unintentional shooting, particularly among children.

This is a slam-dunk on a court of smoke and mirrors. One point Head omits is that both the rate of gun homicides and the rate of gun accidents are low, relative to the number of gun owners. (Actually, Head inadvertently admits this point in another part of his essay, where he says, "There are more than 200 million guns in America -- almost one gun for every man, woman, and child." But he doesn't notice how this point impacts his other comments.)

On one point, Head states the obvious: gun accidents and gun homicides are unlikely if there's no gun around. However, defensive uses of guns are also unlikely if there's no gun around, but this type of cost-benefit analysis doesn't lend itself to Head's politicized propaganda. As Lott writes, "During the five years from 1992 to 1996, there were two accidental gun deaths involving a child under the age of 10 [in Colorado]... less than one percent of all accidental deaths for this age group." By Head's reasoning, an increase from zero to two is a "dramatic increase" -- indeed, an increase of an infinite percent!

The mandatory storage laws Head advocates would not eliminate the gun accidents and homicides he discusses. Note how Head conflates "children, adolescents and others" in his statistics. That's just an emotion-laden way of saying "everybody." In cases of domestic violence, a mandatory lock is not likely to stop the violence (nor is the absence of a gun).

What about Head's claim that "the risk of homicide in the home is three times greater in households with guns?" This is the conclusion of a study conducted in part by anti-gun fanatic Dr. Arthur Kellermann. Kellermann and his fellow researchers made several methodological errors in their study. They relied on survey data, for which many people don't admit to owning a gun. So the number of households with guns is understated.

Nor did the researchers take into account the fact that the guns owned in the home were not necessarily the instruments used to commit the homicide. This is significant for at least a couple reasons. First, people often buy a gun for self-defense if they are being threatened by violence; say, if a woman is being threatened by her violent ex-husband. Even though the woman is better-protected with a gun than without one, she still faces an increased risk of victimization. Second, gangsters who operate on the black-market dealing drugs generally own guns (illegally) and are also at a higher risk of violence. It's important to note that the study was conducted only for select high-population areas.

In short, no evidence offered by Head suggests that a normal person who owns a gun is at any greater risk of homicide than anyone else. When we factor in the usefulness of guns for self-defense against violent criminals, it's clear that normal gun owners are at less risk of criminal victimization.

Head also claims that "risk of suicide is five times greater" in homes with guns. This is utter nonsense. When evaluating this point, remember that the rate of suicide is very low among the population as a whole. When committing suicide, true, some use a gun. Indeed, some purchase a gun with the intent to kill themselves with it. It's not the case, as Head seems to suggest, that the presence of a gun in a normal household somehow casts off evil waves that make the occupants go crazy and kill themselves. As researchers such as Gary Kleck (Targeting Guns) and David Kopel (The Samurai, the Mountie, and the Cowboy) have found, suicides will generally find some other way to kill themselves if a gun is not available. For instance, the suicide rate is twice as high in Japan even though guns are less widely available. And, again, the usefulness of guns for normal households in self-defense against violent criminals must also be kept in mind.

Head also writes, "A gun is used for protection in fewer than 2 percent of home invasion crimes." Of course, this includes home invasions which take place when the occupants are not home. Indeed, as Gary Kleck found, the presence of guns in households tends to cause criminals to break into homes when the occupants are not at home, so as to avoid getting shot. When we look at home invasions for which the occupants are home, a gun used in self-defense makes the occupants much safer than they would be otherwise.

According to Head, "From 1997-99, in the 12 states where safe storage laws were in effect at the beginning of the study period, accidental deaths of children alone decreased 23 percent." But this study didn't take into account any other possible factors that might also explain the decrease. For instance, Florida alone is responsible for most of the decrease, but the Eddie Eagle firearm safety progam for youth also caught on big in Florida schools during that period. Lott's research comparing states with various laws finds that mandatory strorage laws do not decrease accidents. Regardless, mandatory locks do increase the chances of criminal victimization.

Head's article is but one example of the intellectually dishonest means disarmament activists employ to advance their political agenda. Many such activists use pseudo-scientific statistics carefully massaged to disguise the full truth. At other times, disarmament activists merely resort to ad hominem attacks, character assassinations, and flagrantly emotionalized appeals. If we're looking for analysis on "reasonable" gun laws, documents from Head and his group are the last place to look.

The Colorado Freedom