Gun rights advocates say that firearms are necessary for self-defense, but, as Liam Glen writes, this argument has more basis in theory than in practice.
After yet another mass shooting in the United States, this time in west Texas, the country faces another discussion about gun control. The prevailing wisdom in times like these is that guns must be harder to obtain in order to prevent deadly incidents.
Vocal advocates of gun rights, however, take the opposite approach, touting the benefits of widespread gun ownership. Senator Ted Cruz recently argued that self-defense with a firearm is a necessary and inalienable American right.
The Second Amendment of the US Constitution, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed,” is notoriously difficult to interpret.
One common pro-gun talking point is that firearms are necessary to fight against the government should it become tyrannical.
Needless to say, this comes with a series of flawed assumptions – that a federated consolidated democracy like the US could become sufficiently dictatorial that armed resistance would be justified, or that such resistance would be effective against the most powerful military in the world.
It is also notable that those who make this argument also tend to be the strongest supporters of the military and police, so they should be the least likely to turn to armed resistance.
However, Cruz brings up a more credible side of the argument, that citizens may need firearms to defend themselves from crime. No one can deny that many Americans have used their guns to save their own lives and the lives of others.
But anecdotal evidence alone means little when we know that firearms kill around 40,000 Americans every year. The case for gun proliferation weakens when it comes to actual numbers.
Good Guys Remain Elusive
Studies of defensive gun use tend to come out inconclusive. However often people use their weapons to fend off criminals, it is not enough for researchers to effectively study it.
Gun rights supporters point to surveys where a large portion of gun owners report using their weapons for self-defense. One of the most famous is a 1995 study by Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz, which estimated between 2.2 and 2.5 million cases of defensive gun use per year in the US.
However, these bullish estimates have been heavily criticized. Survey respondents are not always reliable. Kleck and Gertz’s estimate that 200,000 people shoot criminals in self-defense per year far outnumbers the amount of known annual gunshot wounds.
The idea that a good guy with a gun is an endearing one, but it can only come into fruition in a very specific, and very rare, set of circumstances. Meanwhile, the type of person who is most eager to use their firearm against any perspective ill-doers is probably the type of person who should be least trusted with a gun.
Last year in Detroit, a one such trigger-happy man shot a 14-year-old boy who came to his door to ask for directions to the local high school. The fact that the boy in question was black probably did little to clear the man’s judgement.
Cases where guns have saved lives are difficult to track. Their misuse, however, is well-documented.
Weapons in the Wrong Hands
Most American gun deaths are, in fact, suicides. Contrary to popular belief, these are not inevitable. The success of suicide attempts depends largely on access to effective means like guns. The more firearms enter American households, the more people are likely to turn them on themselves.
Gun homicides, meanwhile, are more complex. Gun advocates will be the first to point out that many are committed using illegal firearms. Putting restrictions on legal gun purchases will not solve gun violence on its own, but that does not mean that it will not make the country safer.
While complex research into gun laws is difficult, there is an undeniable correlation between rate of gun ownership and rate of gun deaths. Among the hardest hit by legal gun ownership are victims of domestic violence, who face greater danger in America than any other developed country.
People like to have a sense of agency. While it is highly unlikely that a home invader will every break into their home while they are inside, they like to have a weapon ready just in case. Meanwhile, nearly no one will admit that they themselves might misuse a firearm.
Responsible gun use is, of course, possible. But responsibility is exactly the purpose of gun control. When restrictions on firearm ownership are loosened, as the most ardent gun rights advocates want, the room for error only increases.