• Gun suicide is a bigger killer than gun homicide. From 2000 to 2010, “firearm-related suicides significantly outnumbered homicides for all age groups, annually accounting for 61 percent of the more than 335,600 people who died from firearm-related violence in the United States,” says the report. Firearm sales are often a warning: Two studies found that “a small but significant fraction of gun suicides are committed within days to weeks after the purchase of a handgun, and both also indicate that gun purchasers have an elevated risk of suicide for many years after the purchase of the gun.”
• Guns are used for self-defense often and effectively. “Almost all national survey estimates indicate that defensive gun uses by victims are at least as common as offensive uses by criminals, with estimates of annual uses ranging from about 500,000 to more than 3 million per year . . . in the context of about 300,000 violent crimes involving firearms in 2008,” says the report. The 3 million figure is probably high, “based on an extrapolation from a small number of responses taken from more than 19 national surveys.” But a much lower estimate of 108,000 also seems fishy, “because respondents were not asked specifically about defensive gun use.” Furthermore, “Studies that directly assessed the effect of actual defensive uses of guns (i.e., incidents in which a gun was “used“ by the crime victim in the sense of attacking or threatening an offender) have found consistently lower injury rates among gun-using crime victims compared with victims who used other self-protective strategies.”
• Carrying guns for self-defense is an arms race. The prevalence of firearm violence near “drug markets . . . could be a consequence of drug dealers carrying guns for self-defense against thieves or other adversaries who are likely to be armed,” says the report. In these communities, “Individuals not involved in the drug markets have similar incentives for possessing guns.” According to a Pew Foundation report, “the vast majority of gun owners say that having a gun makes them feel safer. And far more today than in 1999 cite protection — rather than hunting or other activities — as the major reason for why they own guns.”
• Denying guns to people under restraining orders saves lives. “Two-thirds of homicides of ex- and current spouses were committed [with] firearms,” the report observes. “In locations where individuals under restraining orders to stay away from current or ex-partners are prohibited from access to firearms, female partner homicide is reduced by 7 percent.”
• It isn’t true that most gun acquisitions by criminals can be blamed on a few bad dealers. The report concedes that in 1998, “1,020 of 83,272 federally licensed retailers (1.2 percent) accounted for 57.4 percent of all guns traced by the ATF.” However, “Gun sales are also relatively concentrated; approximately 15 percent of retailers request 80 percent of background checks on gun buyers conducted by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.” Researchers have found that “the share of crime gun traces attributed to these few dealers only slightly exceeded their share of handgun sales, which are almost equally concentrated among a few dealers.” Volume, not laxity, drives the number of ill-fated sales.
These conclusions don’t line up perfectly with either side’s agenda. That’s a good reason to take them seriously — and to fund additional data collection and research which have been blocked by Congress over politics. Yes, the facts will surprise you. That’s why you should embrace them.
William Saletan overs science, technology and politics for Slate.