In 1993 Art Kellerman, Frederick Rivara and several other colleagues published an article which found that guns in the home increased the risk of homicide in the home. I recall reading this article a year after it was published and wondered how something so incontrovertible; i.e., guns are lethal, needed to be validated in a peer-reviewed medical journal. I didn’t understand it then and I still don’t understand it now. Of course there are lots of ways that you can kill someone, but a gun really doesn’t have any other purpose. It’s not like a knife which you can also use to cut a slice of steak.
Nevertheless, within a year after this article appeared, the gun folks produced a contrary argument about guns, in their case an alleged national survey conducted by Gary Kleck, who claimed on the basis of an alleged 213 telephone interviews that Americans used guns each year to prevent more than 2 million crimes. Did his publication appear in a scholarly, peer-reviewed journal? No. Did he attempt to validate in any way the reports of respondents who said they used a gun to prevent a crime? No. But Kleck’s argument became the basic selling-point for justifying gun ownership and it remains the war-cry of the pro-gun movement to this day. After all, even if Kellerman was right and guns lying around the home resulted in higher levels of injury and death, what’s 30,000 deaths from guns when compared to 2 million crimes that didn’t take place?
Meanwhile, within two years after Kellerman’s article appeared, the NRA successfully moved to cut off funding by the CDC of all gun violence research, citing Kellerman’s work among others as promoting a negative view of guns, gun ownership and gun owners, not necessarily in that order. The debate between pro-gun and anti-gun advocates continued and went over the top again after Sandy Hook, with the two sides basically holding to the positions taken by Kellerman and Kleck. According to groups like the Violence Policy Center and others who want more controls over guns, the greater number of guns floating around, the more violence will take place. The NRA counters this argument by saying that every law-abiding citizen should be walking around with a gun because it’s all those good guys carrying guns that will stop the bad guys before any harm is done.
In 2011 David Hemenway published a review of the literature on this argument (through 2007) and found that the published studies confirming the idea that more guns equals more violence outpaced the published studies that argued the reverse by something like 20 to 1. In other words, despite the fact that public health research on guns had not been funded by the CDC for more than ten years, when it came to the written word on this subject, the folks who said that guns constituted a social risk as opposed to a social benefit were way out in front.
There was only one little problem. In the place where the argument really counts, the arena of public opinion, the folks who believe that guns are a risk have fallen far behind. This week the Gallup Organization published a poll on whether Americans feel safer around guns, the fourth time they have conducted this poll in the last 14 years. In 2000, the poll showed that 35% of respondents thought the house with a gun safer and 51% thought it was less safe. This year, more than 60% thought a house with a gun was safer and only 30% believed it to be less safe.
Why is there such a clear disconnect between the consensus among health researchers and the general public regarding the safety of guns. Somehow, the results of an awful lot of research doesn’t seem to be getting through. I’ve been a gun guy all my life and if anyone tries to convince me that guns aren’t lethally dangerous, it’s a discussion that will come to a quick end. But it’s not a discussion that seems to be happening between gun scholars and anyone else.