Many “second amendment people,” as Trump calls them, are fond of the aphorism “Better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.” This is simple common sense. But it is lost on many intellectuals who are quick to point out how unlikely it is that one would ever need to have a gun, as well as the additional risks that come with them. But simple common sense wins the day. It is, in fact, common sense readily heeded in other contexts, such as in deciding to carry an umbrella even on days with a low chance of rain. A fortiori with respect to carrying something that could save your life! How likely is it that carrying a gun could save your life? Let’s take a look at some statistics to get a rough idea.
According to the FBI, there were a total of 1,197,704 violent crimes reported in the United States in 2015. Comparing the FBI’s data to Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Surveys (NCVS) reveal that more than twice as much violent crime occurs than is reported. Based on 2015’s NCVS, “U.S. residents age 12 or older experienced an estimated 5.0 million violent victimizations.” The precise number is 5,006,620, which (significantly) excludes homicides (you can’t take a survey if you’re dead). So let’s add the total number of murders in 2015 as reported by the FBI, which is 15,696, to get a rate of 20.16 per 1000 of residents 12 or older who experience violent crime. So the annual likelihood that you, an average American resident, will be a victim of violent crime is slightly more than 2%. Except in unusual circumstances, the use of lethal force is justified in cases of violent crime, so let’s call a case of violent crime a deadly force encounter (DFE). The (annual) chances of an average US resident of being involved in a DFE, then, is about 2%, which is indeed quite low. That the chance of a certain outcome is low, however, is not enough to determine the rationality of one’s risk assessment. In addition to the likelihood of certain outcomes, we also have to consider how much value to place on those outcomes. Most gun owners see that the value of having a gun to protect oneself or others in a DFE outweighs the unlikelihood of being in a DFE. Why? Because the value of life is incommensurately higher. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some more numbers.
There are approximately 2.5 million defensive gun uses per year. If you’re curious, here is link to a site that catalogues thousands of stories of citizens successfully defending themselves with guns as reported by local news outlets. Amazingly, according to a national survey conducted by John Lott, “about 95 percent of the time that people use guns defensively, they merely have to brandish a weapon to break off an attack.” (Lott 2010, p. 16). Let’s assume, then, that if you have a gun, the chances of being a victim in a DFE is .05. Let’s also assume that if you don’t have a gun your chance of being a victim in a DFE is .99 (the remaining 1% being cases where the criminal is completely deterred for some other reason, without you suffering injury or loss). Using these figures, we can draw up a decision theory matrix comparing the likelihood of being a victim of a violent crime [Pr(V)] in a DFE with and without a gun:
So the odds (relative risk) of not being victimized in a DFE are always about 20 times better if you have a gun compared to if you don’t. Admittedly, this doesn’t amount to much as far as the average US resident with a 2% annual chance of being in a DFE goes. But it is still something, especially considering that that something very well may be your life. Think of it this way: carrying an umbrella around with you on days forecasting just a 2% chance of rain might seem irrational to most people who don’t care that much about getting wet. But, given those same chances, would it be rational for the Wicked Witch of the West to carry one? I’d say so. Indeed, I’d be surprised if she didn’t!
And, of course, the chances of you being in a DFE can vary drastically depending on your age, race, gender, lifestyle, and where you live. I suspect that for most people, your annual chances of being in a DFE are higher than 2%. But what about your lifetime chances of being in a DFE? Unfortunately, there do not appear to be any recent studies that estimate the likelihood of being a victim of violent crime in the US over a lifetime (starting at age 12). But there was one such study, based on NCVS data from 1973-84, which put the likelihood at a staggering 83%. Thankfully, crime rates have fallen considerably since then. If we simply projected 2015’s 2% across 50 years (on the dubious methodological assumption that each year’s annual percent is independent of the others’), it drops to 64%. I’ve seen some websites cite the CDC as more recently putting it around 50% (although I haven’t been able to check that source), which seems consonant with current crime rates. So let’s say that your chances of being in a DFE in your lifetime is around 50%. On that assumption, your chances of being victimized in a DFE is just 2.5% with a gun and 49.5% without. That’s significant! Who in their right mind wouldn’t take measures to drop their lifetime chances of being victimized in a DFE from half down to 2.5%?
The intellectual at this point might chide the commonsense carrier for not factoring in the risks inherent to gun ownership, pointing to statistics like these, especially those on accidental discharges resulting in death. They’ll pull your heartstrings with tragic stories of hapless children who kill themselves while playing with daddy’s gun. But the reality is that accidental discharges resulting in fatality are extremely rare. There are approximately 130 million gun owners in the US. 2014 saw a total of 32,856 gun deaths, 1.8% of which were accidental (Lott 2016, p. 139). Assuming, which would be as dubious as it would be generous, that all of those accidental deaths occurred to gun owners themselves, 591 gun owners, or .0000045%, accidentally killed themselves in 2014.
This reveals an inconsistency in the intellectual’s position: on the one hand he thinks it’s silly to take seriously the 2% risk of being in a DFE, and yet on the other hand he thinks it’s not silly to take seriously a .0000045% risk of accidental discharge. It is also worth noting that I have more control over my risk of accidental discharges than I do over my risk of being in a DFE. Most accidental discharges are no doubt the result of gross negligence, and probably much more common among those who illegally possess firearms. Legal gun owners who value life enough to take seriously the 2% risk of threat against it would, I imagine, take the greatest of care in reducing the risk of accidental discharges. According to a 2016 study, also by Lott, Concealed Carry Permit holders are the most law-abiding people in the country, out ranking even law enforcement officers. Their risk of an accidental discharge due to negligence is therefore probably much lower than even .0000045%.
In conclusion, I value guns because I value life. I’m not suggesting that those who don’t value guns don’t value life. I’m suggesting rather that they don’t value life enough. After all, the amount of overlap among those who abandon common sense on the value of guns to protect life and those who abandon common sense on the value of the life of a fetus is probably only slightly more significant than it is non-incidental.
This is a guest post by Chad McIntosh. Mr. McIntosh is a graduate student in philosophy at Cornell University and blogs at Appeared-to-Blogly.