Guns in the Home Do Not Deter Crime

“…most children, older adults, and women are murdered at home. A gun in the home is a particularly strong risk factor for female homicide victimization.”

A study, “Risks and Benefits of a Gun in the Home,” released in February 2011 in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, (published by SAGE, a publication by the Harvard School of Public Health) examined scientific research on both sides of the debate so that conclusions could be made based on facts and data. Author David Hemenway, Ph.D. (Director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center and the Youth Violence Prevention Center) studied the various risks of having a gun in the home, including accidents, suicide, homicide, and intimidation. He also studied the benefits of having a firearm in a household including deterrence, and thwarting crimes (self-defense).

After weighing the evidence on both risks and benefits, the study proved that the risks of having a gun in the home greatly outweighed the benefits or perceived benefits. Currently approximately one-third, possibly more, American households have a firearm.

Hemenway concluded that homes with guns are not safer or deter more crime than those homes that do not have guns. In fact, as gun control groups have been saying for decades, homes with children or women were less safe because, as the author stated, “Whereas most men are murdered away from home, most children, older adults, and women are murdered at home. A gun in the home is a particularly strong risk factor for female homicide victimization.”

“There is compelling evidence that a gun in the home is a risk factor for intimidation and for killing women in their homes, and it appears that a gun in the home may more likely be used to threaten intimates than to protect against intruders,” wrote Hemenway. A study of battered women in emergency shelters in California (a state in which more than 600 000 women each year experience intimate partner violence) found that when there is a gun in the home, nearly two thirds of the male partners used the gun to scare, threaten, or harm the women. In contrast, women rarely (fewer than 7%) used the gun in self-defense. Batterers use guns in a variety of ways to control their victims: threaten to kill the women, also sometimes threaten to kill themselves or the children – even the family pet. A national random survey found more hostile gun displays against women in the home – primarily by intimate partners – than self-defense gun uses in the home by women.

Additionally, not only is there increased risk by others in a home with a gun, but there is also an increased risk of suicide. “Even though suicide attempts with guns are infrequent, more Americans kill themselves with guns than with all other methods combined,” wrote Hemenway. “That is because among methods commonly used in suicide attempts, firearms are the most lethal.”

The author states that “On the potential benefit side, there is no good evidence of a deterrent effect of firearms or that a gun in the home reduces the likelihood or severity of injury during an altercation or break-in.” Hemenway found that the instances of using a gun “against a criminal during the commission of a crime will occur 0 times, or perhaps once in a lifetime.” In a real-world shooting situation, confusion, stress and fear make it difficult to think clearly. Even police officers with training are often unprepared to handle ambiguous but potentially dangerous situations and can make serious mistakes.

This study of 5 major cities demonstrated that home guns were 4 times more likely to be involved in an accident, 7 times more likely to be used in a criminal assault or homicide, and 11 times more likely to be used in an attempted or completed suicide than to be used to injure or kill in self-defense. The NRA called this study flawed while their so-called “expert,” John Lott, termed the study “silly.” So much for the NRA’s respecting of the fair and balanced approach Hemenway’s study exemplifies.
The Hemenway study states, “after weighing the scientific evidence, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) decided that guns do not belong in households with children” and further recommends that pediatricians incorporate questions about guns into their patient history (questionnaire) and urge parents who possess guns to remove them, especially handguns, from the home.

Editors Note: Dr. Robert McAfee, pediatrician and President of the American Medical Association 1994-1995, strongly urged all healthcare providers at that time to ask patients and clients whether they owned firearms, especially if children were present in the home. Dr. McAffee emphasized a public health approach to gun violence and was the inspiration that encouraged the formation of the Coalition Against Gun Violence. Seventeen years later Dr. Hemenway’s study has validated Dr. McAfee’s advice to the healthcare community and parents.

Toni Wellen is the chair of the Santa Barbara Coalition Against Gun Violence. She lives in Carpinteria.