To Americans with a deep-seated bias against guns, it is a self-evident truth that more firearms in private hands lead to more crime and violence. The best way to reduce deadly shootings, they have insisted for years, is to make guns harder — or impossible — to acquire.
But that isn’t the prevailing view in this country, no matter how entrenched it is in progressive strongholds like the Democratic Party and traditional newsrooms. Millions of Americans believe that the ability to own guns makes them safer, which helps explain why 44 percent of adults live in a household that owns one or more guns, a rate that has remained steady for many years.
When the Commercial Appeal, the major daily paper in Memphis, published a database at the end of 2008 showing the location of all state residents with permits to carry handguns, it was criticized by gun owners who feared burglars might use the information to steal their weapons. But the paper’s then editor, Chris Peck, predicted that the opposite was more likely: Criminals, he said, would steer clear of homes where residents were apt to be armed.
He was right. As researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology later demonstrated, “burglaries increased in ZIP codes with fewer gun permits, and decreased in those with more gun permits, after the database was publicized.” Specifically, in ZIP codes with the largest number of residents who had permits to carry firearms, the number of burglaries fell by 18 percent. That decrease took place even as burglaries were going up throughout the region covered by the database.
It puzzles me that this isn’t obvious. All things being equal, criminals would rather not target victims who may be armed. Conversely, it is understandable that Americans concerned about rising levels of crime and violence would acquire a weapon for self-protection. In a 2020 column on the explosive increase in new gun-owners, especially among racial minorities and women, I noted that the coronavirus pandemic, the killing of George Floyd, and the wave of demonstrations and looting in a number of cities alarmed many Americans. And when citizens feel threatened, the Second Amendment bolsters their security.
Again and again the link between gun ownership and self-protection is reinforced. When the US Supreme Court in a landmark 2008 decision struck down a longstanding gun ban in the nation’s capital, the city’s mayor predicted in dismay that “more handguns in the District of Columbia will only lead to more handgun violence.” What actually happened was that crime rates plunged. The murder rate dropped to a nearly 50-year low.
Of course terrible atrocities and heartbreaking tragedies have been caused by people with guns. But the overwhelming majority of lawfully owned guns are never used to commit a crime. And a considerable number of Americans report using their weapons to protect themselves or their homes.
Exactly how often firearms are used defensively is a much-debated question in criminology. Over the years, respected studies have come up with a wide range of estimates. The Justice Department’s National Crime Victimization Survey has estimated that defensive gun use numbers around 100,000 times each year. Other studies have concluded that Americans use guns for self-defense as often as 2 million times a year. Whatever the precise number is, it clearly isn’t trivial. There is every reason to believe that a considerable amount of bloodshed and suffering is prevented in this country by ordinary citizens with weapons.
Now comes a new survey of gun owners, one of the largest and most comprehensive ever conducted. Supervised by Georgetown University professor William English and published on the Social Science Research Network, it surveyed 16,708 gun owners, drawn from an overall population sample of 54,000. Among its findings: roughly 32 percent of American adults, 42 percent of them female, own guns. Handguns remain the most common type of firearm owned, with 171 million in private hands, but Americans also own 146 million rifles and 98 million shotguns.
The survey shows that states vary widely in their rates of gun ownership. At the low end of the scale are Massachusetts and Hawaii, where about 16 percent of residents possess firearms, while in Idaho and West Virginia, the rate is above 50 percent. Broken down by racial groups, gun ownership ranges from 19 percent among Asian Americans to 34 percent among white Americans.
In light of the incessant clamor from Democrats that curbing gun ownership will curb crime, it is striking how many Americans believe the opposite — and act on their belief. According to English, “approximately a third of gun owners have used a firearm to defend themselves or their property, often on more than one occasion, and guns are used defensively by firearms owners in approximately 1.67 million incidents per year. . . . A majority of gun owners, 56.2 percent, indicate that they carry a handgun for self-defense in at least some circumstances.”
Note that using a gun does not typically mean firing a gun. More than 80 percent of the time, respondents said that when they “used” their weapon to respond to a threat, it was sufficient to simply show their gun or mention that they had one. It is not surprising that most defensive gun uses never rise to the level of a news story. “Woman scares off intruder, no shots fired,” isn’t a very gripping headline.
But millions of Americans need no headlines to grasp instinctively that guns make them more secure. When honest citizens are armed, criminals are less likely to attack — and those who do attack are more likely to fail. The right to own weapons keeps Americans safe. The thought of guns in citizens’ hands may give progressives the hives, but the Second Amendment is in the Bill of Rights for a reason.
Jeff Jacoby is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. This column is excerpted from the current issue of Arguable, his weekly newsletter. To subscribe to Arguable, visit bitly.com/Arguable.