Myth #2 - "Guns aren't an effective defense, or, the 43:1 myth"

Myth #2 - "Guns aren't an effective defense, or, the 43:1 myth."

The 43: 1 Myth claims that "Guns aren't effective defensive weapons, and are '43 to 1 times' more likely to kill their owners or family members than they are useful to defend against criminal attack."

The often-cited "studies that show" having a gun in the home is a far greater risk to you and your loved ones than to criminals, are a favorite topic of discussion among pro-second amendment advocates, in part to demonstrate the extraordinary statistical contortions that "gun control" advocates will go to in an attempt to support their flawed premises. The idea that guns (and handguns in particular) are ineffective as defensive weapons shows a distinct lack of imagination, especially since police carry them for that purpose.

The 1986 Kellerman study, the source of the famous "43 to 1" ratio, is deceptive in several ways. The basis for comparison in this study is the ratio of "firearm-related deaths" of household members vs. deaths of criminals killed in the home (justifiable homicides). The "firearm-related deaths" in the study include suicides and accidents, neither of which are randomly distributed throughout the population, as the 43 to 1 "risk ratio" would imply. Both suicides and accidents are more likely to occur in specific categories of people than they are in the general population. Of the 398 "firearm-related deaths" included in the study, the vast majority (333, or, 84%) were suicides. The number of fatal firearms accidents in the study was 12 (or 3% of the studied deaths). Since sometimes a "gun cleaning accident" is actually a suicide reported under a name less likely to deny payment from a life insurance company, there may in fact have been even fewer accidents than are apparent from the reporting. When only the criminal homicides are considered, rather than including suicides and accidents, the "43 to 1" ratio disappears, and the ratio is far less dramatic, more like "4.5 to 1". There were 41 criminal homicides reported in the Kellerman study, and 9 instances of justifiable or self-defense homicide. People who are violent, unbalanced, or involved in a life of crime are much more likely to use their home gun unwisely, and their chances of using it to harm another (or themselves) are higher than would be expected for the majority of the population.

As criminologists know and can demonstrate, the fallacy underlying the work of researchers who treat "gun violence" as an "epidemic" or as an issue of "public health" is the idea that people are all at equal risk for becoming a perpetrator of crime, and lack only a deadly weapon. If a person is stable, and not suicidal, and not prone to extreme violence, their chances of becoming involved in "firearm-related death" will be far lower than the Kellerman "43 to 1 risk ratio" would suggest. Persons with these risk factors are not only more likely to abuse guns to harm themselves or others, but they probably can't be trusted with knives, either. Aside from such obvious risk factors, the likelihood of being injured accidentally can be decreased further by training in safe gun handling, much as firearms accidents have declined in the U.S. population in recent years due to such safety education, despite an increase in the number of guns available. The Kellerman study, based on data collected in King County, WA from 1978 to 1983, is skewed towards violence associated with an urban setting, and makes little mention of the thousands of gun-owning households where no "firearm-related deaths" occurred at all. If gun ownership was the crucial factor in an "epidemiology of violence," how to explain the fact that almost all gunowners' households weren't affected?

Assessing the effectiveness of gun use against criminals as "number of criminals killed" (as the Kellerman study does) is an extraordinary presumption as well, since law enforcement officers aren't judged by such a restrictive standard. Why isn't "criminals deterred" or "crimes completed" or even "criminals wounded or apprehended" a legitimate means of measuring defensive effectiveness? Certainly in some proportion of gun-owning households where no "firearm-related deaths" occurred, it was because a firearm was used to deter, wound, or otherwise thwart an attacker.

In point of fact, the reason these "studies" are structured as badly as they are, and are published in medical (rather than criminological) journals, is that the numbers don't work out in favor of the "gun control" viewpoint if considered in these other ways. There's no more reason to judge the ability and effectiveness of armed citizens at fighting crime by the numbers of criminals they kill than it is to do so for the police. Surprisingly, however, the numbers are quite similar. Still, it seems absurd for the anti-gun side to imply that gun owners ought to kill as many or more criminals than the number of people that criminals murder (which is the only way for the law-abiding to make a good showing in Kellerman's "kill ratio")! Kellerman implies that a general "cost-benefit" ratio can be developed which can be used to weigh the harm committed with guns against the right of the individual to have a gun for self-defense, and if it happens that more people are being harmed with guns than there are instances of self-defense, we can simply allow those few people whose lives would be saved by having a gun to become victims too.

According to U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics data, having a gun and being able to use it in a defensive situation is the most effective means of avoiding injury (moreso even than offering no resistance) and thwarting completion of a robbery or assault. In general, resisting violent crime is far more likely to help than to hurt, and this is especially true if your attacker attempts to take you hostage, such as sometimes happens in a carjacking situation. Most often in with-gun defenses, criminals can be frightened away or deterred without a shot being fired. Estimates of these types of defensive uses of firearms are wide ranging, from a low of 65,000 to 82,000 annual defensive gun uses (DGUs) reported to the U.S. Department of Justice's National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), to a high end of some 2.1-2.5 million annual DGUs, but they seem to occur at least as often (if not far more often) each year as misuses of firearms by violent criminals. Since such defensive uses are rarely reported to the police (in some cases because firearms possession in the locality is illegal), it is difficult to quantify precisely the number of instances in which defensive use of firearms has saved lives.

A variety of factors complicate the measurement of DGU, including the completeness and accuracy of self-reporting by witnesses, the nature and sequence of the questions asked (including the definition of what constitutes a DGU), the willingness of the witness to respond at all to questions about such incidents, and the difficulty in distinguishing between self-defense and assault based on a witness' own report. There is evidence to suggest that a substantial number of homicide victims have at other times been perpetrators, and Kleck suggests that criminals should comprise "a disproportionate share of both DGU and gun crime victimizations." Whether criminals are any more or less willing to report DGU in surveys than non-criminals is another factor to be considered when estimating the frequency of lawful gun use in self-defense.

Even if the number of crimes deterred by lawful armed citizens annually is no greater than the number of violent crimes committed with guns each year, in the absence of these self-protective acts, the incidence of violent crime could be far higher than it is at present, and injuries to innocent victims could also increase. The annual use of firearms for other lawful purposes, unrelated to self-defense, dwarfs both defensive and criminal uses combined.

Recommended Reading:

Point Blank: Guns and Violence in America, by Gary Kleck
Aldine de Gruyter, ISBN 0-202-30419-1 (1991)
[Dr. Kleck's book is a valuable resource for all participants in the "gun control" debate. Point Blank received the American Society for Criminology's highest honor, the Hindelang Award, at the ASC's 1993 annual meeting, for the most important contribution to the criminology literature in the preceding three years.]

Criminal Victimization in the United States, 1992, A National Crime Victimization Survey Report,_Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Dept. of Justice
SuDoc# J 29.9/2:992 (1992)

"Protection or Peril? An Analysis of Firearm-Related Deaths in the Home", Kellerman, Arthur L. and Reay, Donald T.
New England J. Medicine, v.314, n.24, pp.1557-1560 (1986)

"Armed Resistance to Crime: The Prevalence and Nature of Self-Defense with a Gun", Kleck, Gary and Gertz, Marc
J. of Criminal Law and Criminology, v.86, n.1, pp.150-187 (1995)

Subscribe to our FREE Newsletter

Get weekly news and instant alerts on the latest laws and politics that affect your gun rights. Enjoy cutting-edge commentary. Be among the first to hear about gun raffles, firearms training, and special events. Read more.

We respect your privacy and your email address will be kept confidential.


Buckeye Firearms Association is a grassroots organization dedicated to defending and advancing the right of citizens to own and use firearms for all legal activities, including self-defense, hunting, competition, and recreation. Read more.