Does domestic gun ownership pose a more serious threat to Americans than foreign terrorism?
That's what New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof seems to be saying in a recent article. Alarmed by reports of a surge in gun sales after Sept. 11, Kristof cites familiar statistics on the perils of guns. Japan, where handguns are practically unavailable, had only 29 gun deaths (both murders and suicides) in 1999, while the United States had 26,800 gun deaths in 2000. England, another country with a strict handgun ban, has higher rates of assault and burglary than the United States but a murder rate only one-sixth of ours.
According to Kristof, ''it is pointless to try to deny the link between more handguns and increased murder and suicide.'' He concludes, ''Our desire to defend ourselves from terrorism by buying firearms will mean, almost certainly, that thousands more Americans will die in the years ahead from gunfire. It's not terrorism, but it should be terrifying.''
Whether handguns are an effective means of defense against terrorism is an open question. (If the next frontier of terrorism is biological and chemical warfare, then the answer is clearly no.) But is the link between handgun ownership and high rates of murder and suicide really that incontrovertible?
Consider, for instance, the fact that our nongun homicide rates exceed total homicide rates in many nations. In 1998, the murder and nonnegligent manslaughter rate in the United States was 6.3 per 100,000 people, and firearms were used in about two-thirds of these killings. Even if we had somehow gotten rid not only of handguns but of all guns, and even if, improbably, none of the killers who used guns would have substituted some other weapon, we still would have been left with 2.1 murders for every 100,000 people - about four times the average annual homicide rate in Japan (0.5 per 100,000) and higher than the homicide rates in Great Britain (1.2) or Sweden (1.4). Obviously, access to guns isn't the only factor.
Consider, too, countries where guns are common and crime is rare. Switzerland boasts a heavily armed population and a thriving gun culture (shooting contests for children are a popular tradition). Yet its homicide rates are comparable to Great Britain's. Israel, where most adults are either on active military duty or in the reserves and almost every home has a weapon, also has a low murder rate, on a par with most of Western Europe.
What's more, more than half of gun deaths in this country (about 55 percent) are not homicides, but suicides. Am I saying that we needn't be concerned if people merely shoot themselves rather than shoot others? No. But in this case, blaming the guns for the deaths is especially dubious.
Curiously, when it comes to suicide, we don't see many comparisons with all those countries that so wisely keep guns out of people's hands - maybe because old gun-crazy America wouldn't look so bad by comparison. In 1996, the suicide rate per 100,000 people was 11.8 in the United States, 13.4 in Canada, 17.9 in Japan, 20.9 in France and 25 in Finland.
While exaggerated claims about the evil of guns generally get respectful treatment in the media, no such attention is accorded to facts which suggest that the case for guns as a means of crime prevention may be more than a National Rifle Association myth. John R. Lott, an economist who is now a senior research scholar at Yale Law School, has published studies that conclude that state laws allowing any citizen with no criminal record to obtain a concealed weapon permit lead to lower rates of violent crime, including murder.
So far, Lott's research has held up well under scrutiny. Yet most of the mainstream media and punditry ignore his findings and scoff at the notion that guns may have benefits.
Gun-control advocates assert that just over 2 percent of handgun homicides are in self-defense and cite studies purporting to show that a gun in the house is more dangerous to the owner than to an intruder. Gun-rights supporters counter that these studies omit cases in which a civilian stops a crime, and perhaps escapes death or serious harm, by firing in the air or merely brandishing a weapon. Estimates of the frequency of such incidents vary widely, from 84,000 to 3.6 million a year.
Obviously, the claims of progun groups about the benefits of guns for self-defense deserve to be treated with caution. But so do the claims of the other side.