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Even without access to secret data, it's clear that many of Kellermann's inferences are not justified. In a 1995 JAMA study that was funded by the CDC, he and his colleagues examined 198 incidents in which burglars entered occupied homes in Atlanta. They found that "only three individuals (1.5%) employed a firearm in self-defense" -- from which they concluded that guns are rarely used for self-defense. On closer examination, however, Kellermann et al.'s data do not support that conclusion. In 42 percent of the incidents, there was no confrontation between victim and offender because "the offender(s) either left silently or fled when detected." When the burglar left silently, the victim was not even aware of the crime, so he did not have the opportunity to use a gun in self-defense (or to call the police, for that matter). The intruders who "fled when detected" show how defensive gun ownership can protect all victims, armed and unarmed alike, since the possibility of confronting an armed resident encourages burglars to flee.
These 83 no-confrontation incidents should be dropped from Kellermann et al.'s original list of 198 burglaries. Similarly, about 50 percent of U.S. homes do not contain guns, and in 70 percent of the homes that do, the guns are kept unloaded. After eliminating the burglaries where armed self-defense was simply not feasible, Kellermann's 198 incidents shrink to 17, and his 1.5 percent figure for defensive use rises to 17 percent. More important, this study covers only burglaries reported to the police. Since police catch only about 10 percent of home burglars, the only good reason to report a burglary is that police documentation is required to file an insurance claim. But if no property was lost because the burglar fled when the householder brandished a gun, why report the incident? And, aside from the inconvenience, there are strong reasons not to report: The gun may not be registered, or the householder may not be certain that guns can legally be used to repel unarmed burglars. Thus, for all Kellermann knows, successful gun use far exceeds the three incidents reported to police in his Atlanta study.
Similar sins of omission invalidate the conclusion of a 1986 New England Journal of Medicine study that Kellermann co-authored with University of Washington pathologist Donald T. Reay, another gun researcher who has enjoyed the CDC's support. (This particular study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.) Examining gunshot deaths in King County, Washington, from 1978 to 1983, Kellermann and Reay found that, of 398 people killed in a home where a gun was kept, only two were intruders shot while trying to get in. "We noted 43 suicides, criminal homicides, or accidental gunshot deaths involving a gun kept in the home for every case of homicide for self-protection," they wrote, concluding that "the advisability of keeping firearms in the home for protection must be questioned."
But since Kellermann and Reay considered only cases resulting in death, which Gary Kleck's research indicates are a tiny percentage of defensive gun uses, this conclusion does not follow. As the researchers themselves conceded, "Mortality studies such as ours do not include cases in which burglars or intruders are wounded or frightened away by the use or display of a firearm. Cases in which would-be intruders may have purposely avoided a house known to be armed are also not identified." By leaving out such cases, Kellermann and Reay excluded almost all of the lives saved, injuries avoided, and property protected by keeping a gun in the home. Yet advocates of gun control continue to use this study as the basis for claims such as, "A gun in the home is 43 times as likely to kill a family member as to be used in self-defense."
Another popular factoid -- "having a gun in the home increases the risk of suicide by almost five times" -- is also based on a Kellermann study, this one funded by the CDC and published by The New England Journal of Medicine in 1992. Kellermann and his colleagues matched each of 438 suicides to a "control" of the same race, sex, approximate age, and neighborhood. After controlling for arrests, drug abuse, living alone, and use of psychotropic medication (all of which were more common among the suicides), they found that a household with one or more guns was 4.8 times as likely to be the site of a suicide.
Although press reports about gun research commonly treat correlation and causation as one and the same, this association does not prove that having a gun in the house raises the risk of suicide. We can imagine alternative explanations: Perhaps gun ownership in this sample was associated with personality traits that were, in turn, related to suicide, or perhaps people who had contemplated suicide bought a gun for that reason. To put the association in perspective, it's worth noting that living alone and using illicit drugs were both better predictors of suicide than gun ownership was. That does not necessarily mean that living alone or using illegal drugs leads to suicide.
Furthermore, Kellermann and his colleagues selected their sample with an eye toward increasing the apparent role of gun ownership in suicide. They started by looking at all suicides that occurred during a 32-month period in King County, Washington, and Shelby County, Tennessee, but they excluded cases that occurred outside the home -- nearly a third of the original sample. "Our study was restricted to suicides occurring in the victim's home," they explained with admirable frankness, "because a previous study has indicated that most suicides committed with guns occur there."
Kellermann also participated in CDC-funded research that simplistically compared homicide rates in Seattle and Vancouver, attributing the difference to Canada's stricter gun laws. This study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1988, ignored important demographic differences between the two cities that help explain the much higher incidence of violence in Seattle. Furthermore, the researchers were aware of nationwide research that came to strikingly different conclusions about Canadian gun control, but they failed to inform their readers about that evidence.
Two years later in the same journal, the same research team compared suicide rates in Seattle and Vancouver. Unfazed by the fact that Seattle had a lower suicide rate, they emphasized that the rate was higher for one subgroup, adolescents and young men -- a difference they attributed to lax American gun laws. Gary Mauser, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University, called the Seattle/Vancouver comparisons "a particularly egregious example" of "an abuse of scholarship, inventing, selecting, or misinterpreting data in order to validate a priori conclusions."
These and other studies funded by the CDC focus on the presence or absence of guns, rather than the characteristics of the people who use them. Indeed, the CDC's Rosenberg claims in the journal Educational Horizons that murderers are "ourselves -- ordinary citizens, professionals, even health care workers": people who kill only because a gun happens to be available. Yet if there is one fact that has been incontestably established by homicide studies, it's that murderers are not ordinary gun owners but extreme aberrants whose life histories include drug abuse, serious accidents, felonies, and irrational violence. Unlike "ourselves," roughly 90 percent of adult murderers have significant criminal records, averaging an adult criminal career of six or more years with four major felonies.
Access to juvenile records would almost certainly show that the criminal careers of murderers stretch back into their adolescence. In Murder in America (1994), the criminologists Ronald W. Holmes and Stephen T. Holmes report that murderers generally "have histories of committing personal violence in childhood, against other children, siblings, and small animals." Murderers who don't have criminal records usually have histories of psychiatric treatment or domestic violence that did not lead to arrest.
Contrary to the impression fostered by Rosenberg and other opponents of gun ownership, the term "acquaintance homicide" does not mean killings that stem from ordinary family or neighborhood arguments. Typical acquaintance homicides include: an abusive man eventually killing a woman he has repeatedly assaulted; a drug user killing a dealer (or vice versa) in a robbery attempt; and gang members, drug dealers, and other criminals killing each other for reasons of economic rivalry or personal pique. According to a 1993 article in the Journal of Trauma, 80 percent of murders in Washington, D.C., are related to the drug trade, while "84% of [Philadelphia murder] victims in 1990 had antemortem drug use or criminal history." A 1994 article in The New England Journal of Medicine reported that 71 percent of Los Angeles children and adolescents injured in drive-by shootings "were documented members of violent street gangs." And University of North Carolina-Charlotte criminal justice scholars Richard Lumb and Paul C. Friday report that 71 percent of adult gunshot wound victims in Charlotte have criminal records.
As the English gun control analyst Colin Greenwood has noted, in any society there are always enough guns available, legally or illegally, to arm the violent. The true determinant of violence is the number of violent people, not the availability of a particular weapon. Guns contribute to murder in the trivial sense that they help violent people kill. But owning guns does not turn responsible, law-abiding people into killers. If the general availability of guns were as important a factor in violence as the CDC implies, the vast increase in firearm ownership during the past two decades should have led to a vast increase in homicide. The CDC suggested just that in a 1989 report to Congress, where it asserted that "[s]ince the early 1970s the year-to-year fluctuations in firearm availability has [sic] paralleled the numbers of homicides."
But this correlation was a fabrication: While the number of handguns rose 69 percent from 1974 to 1988, handgun murders actually dropped by 27 percent. Moreover, as U.S. handgun ownership more than doubled from the early 1970s through the 1990s, homicides held constant or declined for every major population group except young urban black men. The CDC can blame the homicide surge in this group on guns only by ignoring a crucial point: Gun ownership is far less common among urban blacks than among whites or rural blacks.
The CDC's reports and studies never give long-term trend data linking gun sales to murder rates, citing only carefully selected partial or short-term correlations. If murder went down in the first and second years, then back up in the third and fourth years, only the rise is mentioned. CDC publications focus on fluctuations and other unrepresentative phenomena to exaggerate the incidence of gun deaths and to conceal declines. Thus, in its Advance Data from Vital and Health Statistics (1994), the CDC melodramatically announces that gun deaths now "rival" driving fatalities, as if gun murders were increasing. But this trend simply reflects the fact that driving fatalities are declining more rapidly than murders.