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Gun control advocates often say that owning a gun makes you significantly more likely to become a victim of a violent crime.

How can that possibly be the case?

I can see how owning a gun can be correlated with being a victim of a violent crime: people who live in high-crime areas may be more likely to buy a gun to protect themselves. But, I fail to see how can owning a gun cause you to become a victim of a violent crime, much less make it much more likely (as gun control advocates often say).

I can see how, if you find yourself in a mass shooting (itself a very unlikely situation), and you try to stop it using a firearm (by shooting the shooter), you can make innocent bystanders less safe. That is, you might end up shooting an innocent bystander. But that has, as far as I know, never actually happened. This article also notes that no such case is known:

And while there’s a possibility of a bystander getting hurt, the data put together by the CPRC show that an armed citizen has yet to accidentally shoot an innocent bystander.

(Source)

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    The article you linked to is written by John Lott, a gun ownership advocate with a major pro-gun bias. He cites his own research performed by his organization, the "Crime Prevention Research Center", which has a neutral-sounding name but exists primarily to produce research that paints gun ownership in a positive light (in other words, it has a pro-gun agenda). If you want good research, look for a neutral party, not an organization promoting an agenda.
    – user45623
    Jul 1, 2023 at 0:35
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    Are you sure what they say is you're more likely to be a victim of CRIME? I thought what they say is that you're more likely to be a victim (or involved) in INCIDENTS involving firearm injuries gun, whether those be injuries on yourself, your family, criminals, accidental other otherwise.
    – DKNguyen
    Jul 1, 2023 at 16:42
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    "Gun control advocates often say that owning a gun makes you significantly more likely to become a victim of a violent crime": I've never heard this. How do I know that this question isn't just a straw man argument? I'm voting to close. If you add a citation showing that someone has actually advanced this argument, ping me so I can retract the vote or vote to reopen.
    – phoog
    Jul 1, 2023 at 21:34
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    If the Founding Fathers had not made that amendment in the constitution, USA didn't have this high gun violence today. Jul 8, 2023 at 0:40

8 Answers 8

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As I understand it, the statistical breakdown (which I don't have handy, but should be easy enough to find online) is that people who own guns are significantly more likely to see those guns used against themselves or their own family than in defense. This includes things like:

  • Domestic disputes, which can quickly escalate to deadly violence when a gun in present.
  • Improperly secured guns, which can be found by children, guests, or trespassers, and used against the owner.
  • Suicidal urges, which are quickly and easily fulfilled when a gun is present.
  • Escalation, where an otherwise non-violent intruder or aggressor might turn violent out of sheer fear when seeing a gun wielded by its owner.

The general point is that, even in the worst contexts, it's rare to need a gun for home-defense or self-defense; typical civilians would consider themselves unlucky if they needed to draw a gun in defense two or three times in their entire lives. But a gun, once obtained, is present in the household day in and day out, awaiting that exceedingly rare situation where it might be of potential use, and as such poses a consistent (if small) daily risk which will add up. Add that guns can be ineffective or even counterproductive in those rare instances where they might be useful, and the long-term odds do not favor the gun-owner.

People are notoriously bad at assessing the likelihood of rare events, and notoriously biased in their assessments of their own character. Gun owners firmly (and naturally) believe that their guns will only be used to drive off threats; but they underestimate the risk that they might at some point become careless, angry, inebriated, or confused enough to allow the gun to be used in some other way.

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    In the case of your second example, the discovery by a child or guest may not result in a crime if the gun was accidentally mishandled and discharged. In the case of children, every state has an age of criminal responsibility, which means a child below that age cannot be legally charged with an otherwise criminal action on the assumption that they are too young to know what they were doing was a crime. In your third example, Suicide is not considered a criminal use of a gun as per the question.+
    – hszmv
    Jun 30, 2023 at 14:50
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    @hszmv the point of escalation in the case of robbery/burglary is that by adding a gun it increases the odds of the burglar chosing to shoot rather than run. Even if the initial act is "inherently violent", a burglar confronted with "I might have the police called on me" makes very different decisions from one confronted with "I'm about to get shot".
    – Erik
    Jun 30, 2023 at 15:06
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    @Erik: The evidence suggest that this scenario rarely happens. According to a 2013 CDC study, in situations where the victim of a crime uses a gun in self-defense, the rate of injury is less likely than in situations where there is no defensive use of a gun.
    – hszmv
    Jun 30, 2023 at 15:11
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    @hszmv: You can minimize each of points one by one, but by doing so you avoid (intentionally, I think) the main point, which is that the mere presence of firearms in a household entails a daily, non-zero risk that they will be used against some member of the household. That small, daily, cumulative risk adds up, and when weighed against the rare occurrence in which a gun is properly used in defense, gun-owners apparently come up the losers. in gambling the house always wins, because the house holds the small, steady, cumulative loses of many against the rare victories of a few. Get it? Jun 30, 2023 at 16:29
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    @hszmv: The argument "The child can't be charged with a crime, ergo the crime of being shot by their kids doesn't count as a violent crime" essentially pushes the goalposts to "Owning a gun makes you more likely to be the victim of a gun related violent incident" - technically, it could be considered "Not a crime", but the end result being the same (Being shot) makes it essentially equivalent. Jun 30, 2023 at 22:56
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Several possible explanations may come to mind.

One could argue that having a gun makes you more of a risk to an assailant so that a potential attack is more likely to escalate and be lethal compared to an unarmed person or that carrying a gun boosts confidence and empowers reckless behavior making it more like to get into dangerous situations: https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn17922-carrying-a-gun-increases-risk-of-getting-shot-and-killed/

Apparently living with a gun owner does not provide protection against homicide by strangers but increases the risk of being killed by a spouse: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/apr/07/guns-handguns-safety-homicide-killing-study

The availability of a gun also makes them very prevalent in suicides so the gun that shoots you might be your own, wielded by yourself: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/magazine/magazine_article/guns-suicide/

Not to mention that a burglar might shoot you with your own gun if they get them first and you confront them. Which in general as far as I know is not advisable, as burglars are usually in it for the money so confrontation rather than calling police and refer it to insurance, is what can make a situation dangerous whereas previously it's a mere loss of property.

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    @FlatAssembler the only thing a fingerprint sensor would protect you from is the case of the burglar getting your gun and trying to shoot you with it. The other situations are unlikely to be prevented by a smart gun. They also don't seem to be commercially available anyway.
    – Erik
    Jun 30, 2023 at 15:38
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    That first link doesn't show which direction causation goes; maybe people in violent locales are more likely to carry a gun? All they can prove is a correlation.
    – Ryan_L
    Jun 30, 2023 at 19:40
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    Second link has the same problem actually; maybe people who live in more dangerous neighborhoods are more likely to buy a gun.
    – Ryan_L
    Jun 30, 2023 at 22:36
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    @FlatAssembler Haxor is not making arguments about whether to buy a gun, because your question is not about whether to buy a gun, and the topic of whether to buy a gun would be grossly off-topic.
    – user45623
    Jul 1, 2023 at 4:24
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    @Ryan_L In the first link it says 'The team also accounted for other potentially confounding differences, such as the socioeconomic status of their neighbourhood'. Thus the effect of locality was taken into account and your suggestec bias by locality removed. Jul 2, 2023 at 12:08
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Leaving aside the partisan and emotional aspects for a moment, there's a (possible) argument along the lines of

  • If you own a gun that implies that there are more gun owners.

  • If there are more gun owners that implies that there are more guns in circulation.

  • If there are more guns in circulation that implies that you are more likely to be the victim of gun crime.

This should, in my opinion, be considered in the same context as many other forms of behaviour which could possibly be considered anti-social: driving too fast, talking too loud and so on. In any society, particularly one in which populations tend to be dense, a certain moderation is to everybody's advantage.

And the sort of behaviour which might be appropriate to somebody living in the wilderness might be deeply inappropriate to somebody living in an apartment block: something that many on the right of the political spectrum refuse to acknowledge.

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  • You mean the left of the political spectrum.
    – user76284
    Jul 1, 2023 at 19:18
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    @user76284 No, I do not. Jul 1, 2023 at 20:16
  • What might be appropriate to somebody living in an apartment block might be deeply inappropriate to somebody living in the wilderness: something that many on the left of the political spectrum refuse to acknowledge.
    – user76284
    Jul 1, 2023 at 20:17
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    @user76284 there are many people on both sides of the gun control question who refuse to acknowledge it.
    – phoog
    Jul 1, 2023 at 21:40
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    @phoog I strongly agree. We could perhaps benefit from considering a different example: in an urban environment it makes sense to restrict e.g. private ownership of pickup trucks simply because there isn't enough road space for them, while in a rural environment one is expected to have a competent vehicle to cater not only to ones own requirements but to help others should they be in need. Jul 2, 2023 at 6:41
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There's a lot to unpack in the argument, "Gun control advocates often say that owning a gun makes you significantly more likely to become a victim of a violent crime."

As with many social problems discussed as political problems, there's often a significant amount of word and position framing going on.

The argument that I've heard, often repeated and often paraphrased, "You are more likely to die if you own a gun than you are to kill in self defense." This position often gets rephrased as one of many possible iterations:

  • "You are more likely to die from gun violence if you own a gun."
  • "People in homes with handguns more likely to be shot dead."
  • "More good people with guns are killed than bad guys."

Whatever the phrasing, it comes down to the actual words that are used.

An article discussing a 2022 study, indicated

...that for every 100,000 people living with a handgun, 12 will be shot do death by someone else over five years. In comparison, eight out of 100,000 who live in gun-free homes will be killed that way over the same time span.

Note that the study didn't indicate that people were more likely to be killed by the hand gun owner or the gun owned by a member of the household. It did indicate, however, that people who lived with handgun owner "particularly increased the risk of being shot to death in a domestic violence incident."

The article also highlights

The study focused only on homicide risk and did not examine how living with a handgun owner might increase or decrease the risk of being victimized in other ways, including by nonfatal assault, home invasion, or property theft.

One of the criticisms of the study, highlighted in the article, is that "the researchers said they could not determine which victims had been killed by the handgun owners or with the in-home weapons."

Without knowing if the victim had been killed by the in-home weapon or a weapon wielded by a criminal raises more questions:

  • Was a gun owned because the owner lived in a high-crime area?
  • If so, was the victim killed because they owned a gun or because they lived in an area which made them more likely to be a victim of gun violence?

That article links to another article that claims:

there was no clear association between the increase in firearm purchases and the increase in most interpersonal gun violence at the state level.

It's very difficult to correlate this lack of increased interpersonal gun violence while firearm purchases increased with the claim that owning a gun makes you more likely to be a victim. If we see gun ownership increase then we should also see gun violence increase causally rather than coincidentally.

Regarding the general discussion about guns more likely to cause the death of the owner rather than the death of a criminal, this is likely true. The more of anything you own the more likely it is to have a negative effect on you. You can't be killed by your own gun if you don't own one and a significant portion of gun deaths are by suicide, more likely to be with a gun owned by the suicidal person.

However, defensive gun use, more often than not, doesn't involve any shots being fired.

The U.S. Department of Justice has done numerous surveys related to defensive gun use and attempting to estimate is prevalence. Unfortunately, the most recent publication I can find is from 1997. The National Survey of Private Ownership of Firearms estimated anywhere from 108,000 to 2.5 million defensive gun uses per year. This is when there were about 200 million guns in the U.S., significantly fewer than today.

There are those who argue that these numbers are inflated and those who argue these numbers are suppressed. The surveys include not just the intended victim shooting the criminal, it also includes the intended victim showing a gun or telling the criminal they have a gun.

It's difficult to find a study that shows a causal relationship between owning a gun and being a victim of a crime.

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  • So "shot to death" is specifically homicide, excluding suicide and accidents?
    – phoog
    Jul 1, 2023 at 21:42
  • "social problems discussed as political problems". Social issues are always political issues. Do you perhaps mean household problems? (though, gun ownership is not really just a household problem anyway) Jul 3, 2023 at 7:59
  • Side note: if you read the linked study, on page 9, it argues the NSPOF figures on defensive use of guns are "absurd", and concludes they are "evidence of bias": "The results still suggest that DGU estimates are far too high" ... "completely out of line with other, more reliable statistics on the number of gunshot cases." They also make a mathematical argument on p10, which anyone can judge for themselves the relative merits of, that survey results about rare occurrences must be necessarily biased towards false positives.
    – John Smith
    Jul 3, 2023 at 17:25
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    @JohnSmith The linked study is a load of garbage: "For example, in only a small fraction of rape and robbery attempts do vic- tims use guns in self-defense. It does not make sense, then, that the NSPOF estimate of the number of rapes in which a woman defended herself with a gun was more than the total number of rapes estimated from NCVS (exhibit 8). For other crimes listed in exhibit 8, the results are almost as absurd" That's all argued without citing any evidence. "The numbers claim guns stopped more crimes than were reported! Inconceivable!" Yeah, sure. The bias is palpable
    – Just Me
    Jul 3, 2023 at 20:13
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As well as points made in other answers, I think there is one final limb of the argument: that possession of the gun makes the carrier more likely to behave themselves in ways that will lead to them being attacked and/or gunned down.

I don't think it's possible to fully cover all kinds of behavioural alteration, but essentially the argument is that possession of the gun contributes more to the confidence and risk-taking of the carrier, than it actually contributes to deterring attacks from others (deterrence being typically why people carry guns for defensive purposes).

This causes the carrier to enter situations which are more dangerous to them than they believe, to behave boldly where those not holding guns would behave more cautiously or even run for cover, and to take fewer other precautions of a kind which non-gun-holders would take.

Of course, this isn't necessarily an argument against carrying guns. Although carrying guns makes the carrier more likely to perish, it's unclear whether criminals fare even worse in confrontations, or to what extent it allows people to function better in general in environments characterised by high potentials for criminal attack.

Indeed, the confidence boost itself may be important to those whose communities are so dangerous that they would otherwise become mentally ill with fear and anxiety, whereas carrying the gun acts like an anti-depressant and allows them to continue functioning normally, doing their jobs, raising their families, getting along with their neighbours, and so on.

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I will add to the excellent answers already here, that as firearms advocates say, guns are only tools. This is true. This is 100% true. Like any tool, though, this means they are a catalyst - or something that reduces the activation energy required to accomplish a goal. A firearm is a catalyst for only one kind of real-world outcome, which is violence. The intention for that violence may be to direct it against prey, or against a non-living practice target. But that doesn't change the fact that a firearm only catalyzes violence. That is the only job that tool is for.

The problem arises not that it's a tool, but that any tool and any catalyst is inherently indiscriminate. You can't have a catalyst for a particular reaction that only works when that reaction is desired. For example, water is a catalyst for oxidizing iron. In some (very few) case you may want that reaction - if you are producing iron oxide for some reason. In other cases, as in when water gets into the crack in your car's paint, then rusting your car is an unwanted reaction that water is catalyzing. Water doesn't know or care what iron it is coming into contact with - it will catalyze rusting everywhere. There are only a few use cases for wanting water to catalyze rusting, the majority of time it's unwanted.

In a similar vein, having a firearm in your home catalyzes unwanted violence more often than wanted violence. This is for the simple fact that in a peaceful society there are simply more use cases for unwanted violence than for wanted violence. And, like water catalyzes rust everywhere, you can't make a firearm that only catalyzes useful or wanted violence.

You can lock them up and you can vow only to use them for certain activities. Those are your safeguards. But time and time again we learn that both those safeguards fail more often than use cases arise for wanted violence.

The more peaceful a society gets, the fewer valid use cases there are for wanted or necessary violence. Which would seem to go on to indicate that as A firearm is a catalyst for A violent reaction, that firearms in general are a catalyst for a more violent society.

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  • Kinda OT but the last paragraph reminds me of the Peelian principles on policing: "policing by consent" in ~ 1830
    – Limer
    Jul 3, 2023 at 21:08
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I have never seen the argument exactly as you claim it. There are two arguments that I have actually seen: 1. If you buy a gun because you believe owning a gun makes you safer, then we tell you that buying a gun actually makes you less safe. 2. If a large part of the population buy guns because they believe it makes them safer, then we tell you it makes everyone less safe. That's not the same argument. If a burglar knows that you have a gun but your three neighbours don't, then he will avoid your home and visit your neighbours instead. If a burglar knows that lots of people have guns then he will come to a burglary prepared to commit a violent crime, shooting a gun-owning resident before he gets shot himself. This also removes the argument about living in a bad neighbourhood: If you live in a high crime neighbourhood, your risk of becoming a crime victim is obviously higher. There is still the question whether buying a gun makes you safer or not.

What are the ways that buying a gun makes you less safe? The biggest factor are suicides. Lots of people want to commit suicide at some point in their life, and often that desire goes away quickly because they get help before killing themselves, or they never act on it because it is difficult. Especially with depression it can be hard to actually act. Access to a loaded gun makes suicide a lot easier and makes a suicide attempt harder to survive. Gun owners don't even have a much higher rate of suicide attempts (suicide attempt would be the next step after a wish to commit suicide), but they have a much much higher rate of "successful" suicides, compared to sleeping tablets for example. That is actually the strongest argument.

The second danger is accidents. Careless gun owners can easily kill themselves or family members. Yes, you have to be stupid and careless for that, but many people are stupid and careless. About 50 people a year are shot and killed by toddlers in the USA.

The third danger is giving access to a lethal weapon to family members. If you care only about your risk, and not your spouses risk, you still realise that in case of an argument, your spouse could get access to that gun and kill you.

And the last argument is escalation of violence. A burglar entering your home may carry a gun. He won't use it because it will make the police look much harder for the criminal, and there will be much more jail time, so actually using it is stupid, but he can threaten you and get all your money. Now if you have a gun and can reach it then suddenly you have two people with guns pointing at each other. You may find it satisfying to shoot a burglar, but a burglar in danger of getting shot is much more likely to try to shoot you first. Owning a gun improves your chances if someone tries to kill you, but increases the chances greatly that someone actually tries.

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As others have mentioned, one big issue is suicide. There is a major epidemic of gun suicide among middle aged white males (see e.g. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/gun-deaths/). The two largest sources of gun deaths are (by far) middle aged white men dying of suicide and young black men dying of homicide. A person may think about committing suicide for a long time, but following through with it becomes much more likely when there is a an easy means of doing it.

Random home invasions are very very rare. Suicide is (relatively) common. Your gun is vastly more likely to kill you or a family member than it is an intruder.

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