Firearms, Accidental Deaths, Suicides and Violent Crime: An Updated Review of the Literature with Special Reference to the Canadian Situation

7. Firearms, Self-Protection and Crime Prevention (cont'd)

7. Firearms, Self-Protection and Crime Prevention (cont'd)

7.5 Civilian Use of Firearms for Self-protection or Crime Prevention

As noted in the previous review (Gabor, 1994: 60-65), surveys looking at whether people used a firearm to protect themselves, and how often they did so, faced serious definitional and methodological difficulties. These problems are not presented in this report in detail[3].

Among them, though, is the difficulty of measuring how often firearms are actually used for self-defense or protection. A victim who has averted a crime by using a weapon may be less likely to report the crime, particularly in Canada, where the use of a firearm for self-protection is mostly prohibited by law and the victim may be uncertain of the legal status of the firearm. There are also difficulties created by the ambiguous nature of what respondents may report as defensive action (Cook et al., 1997; Cook and Ludwig, 1997; Cook and Moore, 1995; Gabor, 1997).

The question of how often Canadians use firearms to defend themselves against human threats has produced a heated debate over the validity of the limited research that has been conducted in this country (see Boyd, 1995; Buckner, 1995; Gabor, 1994; 1996c; 1997; Mauser, 1993; 1994; 1995; 1996a; 1996b).

When national estimates are produced using percentages that are based on a small sample of respondents reportedly having used a firearm defensively, the resulting number can be surprisingly large (see Mauser 1996a). These estimates remain controversial because of definitional issues and because survey respondents rarely report using firearms defensively.

U.S. estimates vary considerably depending on whether they are based on data collected through victimization surveys not specifically designed for that purpose (McDowall, 1995; McDowall and Wiersema, 1994; Marshall and Webb, 1994) or other special surveys (Cook and Ludwig, 1997; Kleck and Gertz, 1995; Rand, 1994). Theoretically, there are valid reasons why the total number of defensive uses can be underestimated (Kleck, 1991: 109) or overblown (Cook and Ludwig, 1997). As Cook and Moore (1995: 272) have argued, the puzzle of the disparities in the survey-based estimates is not yet resolved.

One of the ways that a person may use a firearm for self-protection, albeit a mostly passive one, is by carrying it on their person or in their vehicle. It is generally assumed that few gun owners do so in Canada. In the United States, where 31 states permit the carrying of firearms, recent estimates indicated that aproximately one-third of firearm owners, or 14 million adults, carried firearms at least once during the 12 months preceding the survey (Cook and Ludwig, 1997: 8).

7.6 Effectiveness of Protective Firearm Ownership and Use

Since it is rare for a firearm owner to use the firearm for self-defense, many people negate its significance as a protection strategy (e.g., Boyd, 1995; Gabor, 1996c). However, others have argued that it is indisputable that firearms can be useful for self-protection, even if not fired (Mauser, 1995: 561; Mauser, 1996a).

Kleck argued that, when considering how effective it is to own a firearm to protect oneself, it is important to distinguish between two questions:

  • the effectiveness of the individual instances of civilian gun use against criminals in preventing injury and the commission of the crimes involved, and
  • whether such actions deter criminal attempts from being made in the first place (Kleck, 1991: 122).

With respect to the first of these two questions, current research consistently indicates that victims who resist with a firearm or other weapon are less likely than other victims to lose their property in robberies or burglaries (Kleck, 1995: 8). As well, these victims are less likely to be injured (Gabor, 1994: 61; Kleck, 1995: 18; Kleck and Gertz, 1995: 151-2). From this information, some authors concluded that restricting firearms may result in lost opportunities for self-protection (Kleck, 1995: 19; Kleck and Gertz, 1995: 151; Mauser 1996a).

Research findings are far less clear with respect to the second question, concerning whether criminal attempts are deterred (Gabor, 1994: 61-63). To identify a deterrent effect, many authors continue to quote the findings of Wright and Rossi (1984), who state that criminals are, in fact, concerned about armed victims. An equivalent study has yet to be conducted in Canada. Some researchers suggest that the more firearms that are owned in a particular area, the more likely it is that burglars will be deterred from entering occupied premises, reducing confrontation with residents and the likelihood of deaths and injuries (Kleck, 1995: 18-19). Kleck noted that there may never be a definitive answer to the deterrence question, "since it revolves around the issue of how many crimes do not occur because of victim gun ownership" (Ibidem). Furthermore, one may not be able to find out to what extent criminals are deterred by victims with firearms; they may simply find a different group of victims or a different type of crime to achieve the same purpose. If that is the case then crime has not been prevented with this deterrence method; it has only been displaced.

Over the last decade, there has been a trend in the United States to adopt Carrying Concealed Weapons/Firearms Laws (Cramer and Kopel, 1995; Gabor, 1997). As mentioned earlier, 31 states have reacted to public concerns about crime by enacting laws under which most citizens can obtain a concealed-carry permit (Cook and Ludwig, 1997). This trend presents the question of whether liberalizing citizens’ access to firearms to protect themselves helps deter crime or merely adds to the existing crime problem (Gabor, 1997; McDowall et al., 1995; 1995a; Lott and Mustard, 1997; Polsby, 1995). Current evaluations of such laws are still rare and leave a lot of doubt about their effect. However, evaluating the impact of such measures is at least as complex a task as evaluating the impact of firearm control measures. Researchers encounter all the usual theoretical, methodological and data availability difficulties when they try to isolate the impact of one legislative initiative. They also must deal with the fact that legislation varies considerably from state to state. The impact of legislation on owning and using firearms for self-protection is difficult to ascertain, let alone the impact on criminal behaviour patterns. One analysis of cross-sectional time-series data for U.S. counties found that allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons deterred violent crimes without increasing accidental deaths (Lott and Mustard, 1997). Other researchers have questioned the methodology used by this study as well as its main findings (Webster, 1996).

7.7 The Risks Associated With Protective Firearm Ownership and Use

Firearms may protect people, but they can also yield tragic consequences (Lee and Harris, 1993). In the United States, the question of accidental deaths due to firearm injuries is increasingly linked with the issue of protective use of firearms. A study conducted by Kellermann and his associates is frequently cited as evidence that the immediate availability of a firearm is also related to a greater likelihood of both suicide and homicide in the home (Kellermann et al., 1993). The interpretation of the findings of this particular study remains controversial (Cook and Moore, 1995: 276; Mauser, 1996c). The study relied on a case-control method which is particularly suitable for an exploratory study, but it has not yet been replicated.

U.S. surveys have consistently found that keeping a firearm loaded or unlocked is related to owning it for self-protection (Gabor, 1994; Goldberg et al., 1995; Hemenway et al., 1995a; Morrison et al., 1995; Senturia et al., 1996). Firearms that are readily available for protection are also readily available to children (Lee and Harris, 1993) as well as to people who are considering suicide (Bonderman, 1995). The risks of keeping a gun in the home for self-protection or crime prevention may outweigh the potential benefits (Kellermann, 1997), particularly for women in cases of possible domestic violence (Bonderman, 1995; Boyd, 1995).

7.8 Summary

  • Whether or not it is desirable for citizens to own and use firearms to protect themselves is the subject of controversy among several authors.
  • There is little research on the extent to which Canadians use firearms for self-protection. The proportion of Canadians who state self-defence or self-protection as their main reason for owning a firearm is very low. This contrasts with the situation in other countries where firearms are considered to be an effective means to prevent crime and protect citizens. In the United States, self-protection is one of the leading reasons for owning a firearm, particularly a handgun.
  • There are several fundamental differences between Canada and the United States in relation to citizens arming themselves for self-defence.
  • Research findings consistently link owning a firearm for self-protection, in jurisdictions where it is permitted, to being or feeling vulnerable to victimization.
  • Internationally, most countries allow residents to possess a firearm for self-protection but also impose restrictions on carrying a firearm.
  • Surveys measuring self-protective uses of firearms often face serious definitional and methodological difficulties. In Canada, the question of how often Canadians use firearms to defend themselves against human threats has given rise to a heated debate.
  • Research consistently indicates that victims who resist with a gun or other weapon are less likely than other victims to lose their property in robberies or burglaries; victims are also less likely to be injured than those who do not resist or who do so without a weapon.
  • Research findings on the potential deterrent effect of owning firearms are controversial and inconclusive.
  • There is limited research addressing the risks of owning and using firearms for protection. It is clear, however, that firearms that are kept for self-protection tend to be kept loaded and unlocked in the home more often, so that firearms that are readily available for protection may also readily be misused.
  • The risks of keeping a gun in the home for self-protection may outweigh its potential benefit, particularly for women who face the risk of domestic violence.
  • The conclusion reached in the previous literature review remains valid: existing research fails to support any firm conclusions about the extent to which successful defensive uses of firearms and the deterrent effects of firearms ownership for self-protection offset their adverse effects.

[3] See the following for literature on this issue: Adams, 1996; Alba and Messner, 1995; 1995a; Boyd, 1995a; 1996a Cook and Ludwig, 1997; Cook and Moore, 1995; Cook et al., 1997; Gabor, 1994; 1996a; 1996b; 1997; Kleck, 1991; 1995; Kleck and Gertz, 1995; Mauser, 1995; 1996; 1996a; McDowall, 1995; McDowall and Wiersema, 1994; Wolfgang, 1995; 1996.

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