As proof that gun control is a bad idea, a couple of my gun owning friends have passed around this story from Salt Lake City, Utah’s ABC television affiliate. According to the story, a man bought a knife from a local store, and then began stabbing innocent bystanders on the street. Another fellow in the vicinity drew his gun and ordered the assailant to drop the knife. The assailant complied and was arrested, thereby preventing further injuries.
That’s all well and good; and kudos to the brave individual who happened to have a firearm and knew how to use it. But what does the story really tell us about gun control? Actually, not very much.
As an initial matter, if we’re going to keep track of incidents in which gun-wielding heroes stave off assailants and save the day, we also have to keep track of the incidents in which people have used guns to kill or maim. Right? If good-guys-with-guns stories are relevant to the gun control debate, then so are bad-guys-with-guns stories. And the statistics don’t help the anti-gun control side. According to Mother Jones, a recent study by the Violence Policy Center shows that in 2010, out of 8,505 reported fatal (non-suicide) shootings, only 230, or 2.7%, were deemed to be justifiable acts of self-defense. The remaining 8,275 – or 97.3% – were classified as criminal homicides. Moreover, the number of suicides in a given year usually dwarfs the number of homicides. In 2011, for example, of 30,867 total gun fatalities in the U.S., 19,766 were suicides. So, the number of times guns are used to kill in self defense is infinitesimally small in comparison to all gun deaths.
Those statistics, of course, don’t address non-fatal instances where guns are used in self-defense or in defense of others. But the Violence Policy Center study does:
For victims of both attempted and completed violent crimes, for the five-year period 2007 through 2011 in only 0.8 percent of these instances did the intended victim in resistance to a criminal engage in a self-protective behavior that involved a firearm. For the five-year period 2007 through 2011, the National Crime Victimization Survey estimates that there were 29,618,300 victims of attempted or completed violent crimes. During this same five-year period, only 235,700 of the self-protective behaviors involved a firearm. Of this number, it is not known what type of firearm was used or whether it was fired or not. The number may also include off-duty law enforcement officers who use their firearms in self-defense.
For victims of both attempted and completed property crimes, for the five-year period 2007 through 2011 in only 0.1 percent of these instances did the intended victim in resistance to a criminal engage in a self-protective behavior that involved a firearm. For the five-year period 2007 through 2011, the National Crime Victimization Survey estimates that there were 84,495,500 victims of attempted or completed property crimes. During this same five-year period, only 103,000 of the self-protective behaviors involved a firearm. Of this number, it is not known what type of firearm was used, whether it was fired or not, or whether the use of a gun would even be a legal response to the property crime. And that number as well may also include off-duty law enforcement officers. In comparison, new data from the Department of Justice shows that an average of 232,400 guns were stolen each year from U.S. households from 2005 to 2010.
(Emphasis in original.)
None of this means that people who legally own firearms shouldn’t use their weapons in self-defense or the defense of others. But if your intent is to demonstrate that all forms of gun regulation are bad, it strikes me as odd that you’d do so by citing one of the rare cases in which a firearm was used successfully to stop a criminal, because you’re essentially begging gun control advocates to point to the overwhelming statistical evidence that undermines your case.
Then, too, if you look at the specific incident in question, you’ll see that it doesn’t refute any of the arguments in favor of gun control today.
What’s particularly telling about the Salt Lake City story is what’s missing: We don’t know what kind of gun the gentleman used to stop the knife-wielding assailant; we don’t know whether his firearm had a high-capacity magazine; we don’t know where he purchased it; we don’t know whether he had to go through a background check; we don’t know if he carried openly or concealed it. We don’t know the answers to those questions, because they’re not really relevant. Even if Utah or the federal government had laws on the books that prohibited the man from owning a military-style weapon, or from owning high-capacity magazines, he could easily have accomplished the same thing with a simple handgun. Even if he had been required to undergo a background check (as most gun owners already do), there’s no evidence to suggest he wouldn’t have passed it and still obtained his gun. Even if he was prevented from carrying a concealed weapon, he could still have carried openly it and stopped the assailant. None of those regulations would have altered the outcome of the Salt Lake City incident.
And here’s the kicker: After the Supreme Court’s rulings in District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), and McDonald v. City of Chicago, ___ U.S. ___, 103 S. Ct. 3020 (2010), those are the types of regulations that remain available to state and federal authorities. They can’t ban handguns or hunting rifles; they can ban military-style weapons like M-16s and they can impose reasonable regulations on the ownership of handguns and hunting rifles. So state and federal authorities can enact regulations that fall within the parameters the Supreme Court laid out in Heller and McDonald, and lawful gun owners will still be able to do what the gentleman in Salt Lake City did just the other day.
So, given the statistical evidence of gun fatalities and the scant few incidents in which guns are successfully used to prevent crime, I’d suggest the facts actually support reasonable, constitutionally permissible gun control efforts. If, you know, you care about the facts.