No Duty to Retreat.

“Here’s the thing about rights—they’re not actually supposed to be voted on. That’s why they’re called rights.”–Rachel Maddow, August 2010. Still, people try to justify the “right to keep and bear arms.” One justification is that of self-defense. Is there anything to this justification for individual gun-ownership?[1] It’s controversial. Almost two-thirds (63 percent) of people believe that having a gun in the house will make a person safer. Over half (56 percent) believe that people would be safer if more people carried concealed weapons. Basically, people think that dialing 911 doesn’t save people who are already dead or those who will die between the time you make the call and time the cops make an effective response.[2]

There are a lot of risks involved in keeping a gun in the house. For one thing, the risk of death from suicide is much greater. Although gun-owners are no more likely to attempt suicides than are non-gun-owners, they are much more likely to succeed if they do try it. Guns play a large role in the roughly 20,000 suicides in the US every year. Then, one study calculated that people who keep a gun in the house are 90 percent more likely to die of homicide than are people who do not keep a gun in the house. Another study found that an armed person was 4.5 times more likely to be shot during an assault than are people without a gun.[3] Not having a gun makes one more likely to run away in the face of danger than would be the case if one had a weapon.[4]

Florida State University criminology professor Gary Kleck ran one survey that led him to believe that guns are used in some form of “self-defense” up to 2.5 million times a year. “Nonsense,” say the critics. The FBI reports that there were only 258 “justifiable homicides”[5] in 2012 out of 14,827 total homicides. Another study found that there were fewer than 1,600 self-defense shootings—fatal and non-fatal–in 2014 out of a total of 52,000 shootings.

What if somebody breaks into your house (a “home invasion”)? In theory, your chances of getting killed in such an incident are virtually nil. In practice, between 1980 and 2008, the percentage of homicides that occurred during a felony—a home break-in or a street assault–was higher for elderly homicide victims age 65 or older than for homicide victims of other ages—rising from 30 percent at age 60 to 40 percent at age 85.[6] They died of not shooting back.

Back of the envelope, if there were about 50,000 shootings a year and about 15,000 deaths, then there was a wounding-to-death ratio of about 2 to 1. If that ratio were applied to “justifiable homicides,” then 258 “justifiable homicides:” would yield a figure of non-lethal “justifiable shootings” of maybe 550 shootings in addition to the “justifiable homicides.” That makes for an annual total of about 800 shootings in which the civilian shooter was “justified” in using force. However, the 2014 figure of 1,600 self-defense shooting indicates a much higher share of woundings to deaths.

So, broadly, there isn’t much ground for claiming that guns provide self-defense.

Unless you’re one of the people who saved your life by shooting some son-of-a-bitch.

[1] “Firearms and self-defense,” The Week, 6 November 2015, p. 14.

[2] In only 7 out of a total of 160 “active shooter” incidents catalogue by the FBI between 2000 and 2013, armed people shot the assailants to bring the slaughter to an end. Only one of those cases involved an armed civilian, rather than an off-duty police officer or an armed security guard. Obviously, gun-rights advocates will argue that this small number results from people not being allowed to carry weapons in many public venues.

[3] Those are correlations, not causation. Maybe people who keep guns in the house do so because they know violent people.

[4] This raises all sorts of psycho-cultural issues about “manhood” (and “womanhood”/dealing with abusive males).

[5] “The killing of a felon, during the commission of a felony, by a private citizen.”

[6] See:

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