Do Guns Protect Us? Lott Says Yes, Violence Policy Center Says No.

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The gun lobby was understandably quiet after the tragic shooting of Veronica Rutledge by her two-year old son in the Hayden, ID, Walmart.  After all, it’s pretty tough to reconcile the human cost of such carelessness with the notion that people walking around with guns make themselves and others more safe.  But sooner or later you can always count on John Lott, the author of More Guns, Less Crime to stomp into territory where others fear to tread, and he’s done it in this case with a Fox News blog in which he accuses the media of playing up the few instances of accidental shootings involving folks who legally carry guns, while ignoring or downplaying the many instances in which gun-carrying citizens protected themselves and others from crime.

John Lott

John Lott

Lott’s been on this bandwagon about how guns protect us from crime for the past twenty years, and his alleged research is cited again and again by politicians and pro-gun enthusiasts who believe America should be fully armed. The only problem is that not only has his research been debunked by other scholars time and time again, but when a panel of criminologists asked him to furnish his data so that they could replicate his results, at first he couldn’t produce any data, and when he was submitted a ‘revised’ dataset, the subsequent analysis also didn’t hold up. But Lott isn’t interested in being a scholar; he’s promoting the value of owning guns.

Which is fine as far as it goes. A man has to earn a living after all. But Lott’s one-sided approach not only forces him to make arguments not supported by facts, but also to ignore data which, at the very least, throws the whole notion of CCW for personal defense up for grabs.  I am referring here to the ongoing project of the Violence Policy Center to track killings by concealed-carry licensees, which shows that more than 600 people with CCW killed themselves or others since 2007.  The study, of course, is based on media reports that have come to the attention of the VPC, so it is necessarily incomplete, and I suspect that in the suicide category, which comprises slightly less than one-third of the shootings, the real number is substantially higher than what is estimated to have really occurred.

vpclogo                Most disturbing in the VPC report were the 29 mass shootings committed by CCW-legal individuals which resulted in 147 deaths, including 13 suicides by the shooters themselves.  What is most concerning about this category is that we all assume that individuals who commit mass shootings are the most deranged and disturbed among us, and it’s the gun lobby more than any other group that has vociferously demanded that better screening be put in place to keep mentally-unbalanced individuals from getting their hands on guns.  But it’s also assumed that when a jurisdiction grants a CCW permit, the scrutiny of that individual’s fitness goes beyond a mere background check. The data gathered by the VPC shows this assumption, like many of the assumptions about the value of CCW, to be wrong.

Lott gives the whole thing away and shows his true motives when he says that, “If Americans only hear about the bad things that happen with guns, they will be much more likely to support strict gun regulations.”  And since more regulation usually leads to fewer guns, this is certainly not the direction which the gun lobby would like us to take.  But simply claiming that guns make us safer while ignoring studies like the VPC report may play well to zealots like Ted Nugent and the NRA crowd, but it’s not in accord with the facts.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m licensed for CCW and I carry a gun from time to time.  So I’m not opposed per se to the notion that guns do more harm than good.  What I do oppose is constructing an argument for either position out of whole cloth, and John Lott has been stitching such an argument for longer than he should.

What Really Happened In Hayden.

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By sheer coincidence, I first heard about the tragic death of Veronica Rutledge while I was visiting my step-son, his wife and his three-year old daughter.  In fact, little Aliza was sitting right in front of me as I caught a bit of the story out of Hayden, and I couldn’t believe that a child who was even younger than my stepdaughter could have reached into a pocketbook, pulled out a 9mm pistol, somehow got his hand around the grip and shot it off.

My unease with the facts of the story grew greater when I then watched a report from KREM-TV, the station with reporters on the ground in Hayden, which showed a picture of the alleged weapon, which appeared to be a Smith & Wesson Model 3913.  The 3913 is a mid-size pistol which, at least in the pic on KREM, shoots double-action only, which means a very long trigger pull. This is not a gun that a two-year old, it seems to me, could very easily (if at all) either hold or shoot.  The story simply didn’t seem to fit and it was even more confusing because most of the ‘details’ about the victim’s purse, her training with guns and so forth were actually statements made by her father-in-law, who was nowhere near the Walmart when the tragic shooting occurred.

shield            On December 31, the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department issued a formal statement about the shooting and this clarified things for me in one respect but created an even greater sense of unease in another.  It turns out that Veronica Rutledge was shot with a Smith & Wesson 9mm pistol, but it was a gun called The Shield, which is one of the smaller and more compact full-caliber guns available to buy.  The Shield was designed for the concealed-carry market and with a total length of just 6 inches and an unloaded weight of slightly more than one pound, the gun slips easily into a purse and can be operated without difficulty by someone with small hands.  In other words, it’s the perfect gun for a woman who, like Veronica Rutledge, wanted to walk around with a gun.

It’s also a gun that could be grabbed and shot by a little kid since the gun’s action, known as striker fire, was specifically developed for use by law enforcement personnel who might need to activate the firing mechanism quickly without disengaging an external safety or being slowed by a long or heavy trigger ‘creep.’ The striker design was developed by Glock and when Smith & Wesson decided to revamp its pistol line to compete with the Austrian gun maker, they outfitted all their police guns with the striker-fired design.

This explains how a very young child might have been able to pick up his mother’s gun and shoot off a round.  But the story also has a rather disquieting side because in August, 2013 Smith & Wesson recalled every single Shield pistol manufactured to date.  The reason was to fix a flaw in the trigger which could result in the gun discharging if it were dropped. Which means that the gun might discharge with the trigger hardly being pulled.

I don’t know when Veronica Rutledge purchased her Shield or when it was made.  But if what I said about the defect was true for her gun, we may not just be talking about a terrible accident.  We may be talking about wrongful death.  On the other hand, no matter how and why Veronica Rutledge died, the important question isn’t whether the gun worked properly or not.  The only real question is why was the gun in her purse?  Her family said she was ‘raised’ around guns.  That’s not much of a reason to lose your life – it’s really not.


Want To Get Rid Of Gun Accidents? Get Rid Of Guns.

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It took both sides in the gun debate about two days to respond to the horrific incident in Hayden, ID and as usual, both sides behaved in kind.  Pro-gun bloggers like Robert Farago immediately attacked gun-control organizations as “bloody shirt wavers of the civilian disarmament industrial complex” because they suggested that Veronica Rutledge probably had “little” required training.  Robert can be excused for his flights into rhetorical hyperbole because:  a) his audience expects it;  and, b) his audience expects it.  But the proof he offered to contradict the claim of insufficient training, a statement from the Idaho CCW manual about the student needing to shoot a whole, big 98 rounds actually underscores what Ladd Everitt’s Coalition to Stop Gun Violence actually said.  Poor Veronica Rutledge held a CCW permit from Washington State, by the way, so Farago’s attempt to push back on the Coalition’s statement was both silly and wrong.

kid guns                Not that pundits on the other side of the issue were necessarily any more discerning in trying to explain the how’s and why’s of the tragedy at the Walmart store.  On Wednesday, the Boston Globe ran a major editorial on the incident by Michael Cohen, who is a Fellow at the Century Foundation, a liberal think-tank that was started by Edward Filene, who also founded the Filene Department Store chain.  I love think tanks that claim to be “non-partisan” but somehow always wind up on one side of the fence.  I guess it has to do with their tax-exempt status or maybe they actually believe that their approach to certain issues embraces all sides of the political spectrum; it’s no wonder the Century Foundation isn’t known for speaking out about guns.

In any case, Michael Cohen says right up front that he’s “no fan of guns.” He also believes, and here all the evidence certainly comes down on his side,  that guns don’t make us safer and that, in fact, firearm ownership increases the risk that someone will be injured or killed with a gun.  He takes issue with the cops in Hayden who termed the shooting a ‘tragic accident’ because, according to Cohen, it was an avoidable tragedy and not an accident of any kind.  “These incidents,” concludes Cohen, “will continue as long as gun-owning parents remain lax when it comes to the issue of gun safety.”

Let me make one thing very clear.  I am the last person who would ever give gun owners a ‘pass’ on locking up or locking away their guns. And I have drawn my share of fire from pro-gun zealots like Farago whenever I argue that, NRA-inspired nonsense to the contrary, guns simply don’t make us safe. But I think that advocates like Cohen need to ask themselves how to really explain the lethality of guns because otherwise they may end up making arguments which just don’t bear any fruit.

According to the CDC, intentional gun deaths have risen from 27,427 in 1999 to 32,288 in 2012, an increase of 18%, most of the increase coming from gun suicides but gun homicides are up as well.  Over the same period, unintentional gun deaths (like the unfortunate death of Veronica Rutledge) have dropped from 824 to 548, a decline of 33%.  During these same fourteen years, accidental deaths from machinery have stayed exactly the same;  accidental drownings have also remained just where they were. There is no other category of unintentional fatal injuries that has shown the same degree of decline as the decline in fatal accidents involving guns.

Let me break the news gently to Michael Cohen and his friends who are concerned about violence from guns.  As emotional and frightening as the incident in Hayden may be, when only 548 people die yearly from gun accidents in a country which contains more than 300 million guns, the only way that unintentional gun injuries will completely disappear is if we get rid of all the guns. Remember lawn darts?


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