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by Dr. Paul Gallant

Open any newspaper today, and it's impossible to miss the latest fad: hauling America's gun makers into court. The plaintiffs are not suing for manufacturing defects - they're suing for the cost of "street violence caused by firearms".

But the goal is not to win these lawsuits - it's to bankrupt firearm manufacturers, as Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell all but admitted, in remarks reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer on December 31: "The sheer cost of defending these suits would be hard on the gun industry".

Dr. John Lott, professor at the University of Chicago's School of Law, noted that "every product has illegitimate uses and undesirable consequences", and many other products have a higher propensity to cause harm than firearms do. For example, the New Orleans lawsuit focuses on accidental deaths involving children. Yet, for children under the age of 5, the risk of drowning in a pool is 500 times the risk of accidental death from firearms.

Lott pointed out that "bogus lawsuits" like those brought recently by Chicago and New Orleans ignore the fact that "guns also prevent bad things, by making it easier for victims to defend themselves."

Easily concealable handguns are uniquely suited for personal protection. They're also the target of many of these frivolous lawsuits, and of gun-control advocates like Dr. Philip Cook.

Cook, professor of Public Policy Studies at Duke University, co-authored a 1997 U.S. Department of Justice publication on firearms in America. According to Cook, if self-defense with a firearm is rare, "one tactic for mitigating lethal violence is...government regulation of the production, exchange, and use of personal firearms." However, if self-defense with a gun happens often, "the social cost of restricting ownership and use may be substantial."

The research of Drs. Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz, published in 1995, showed that self-defense with a gun is not a rare occurrence: ordinary, law-abiding Americans use guns defensively 2.5 million times, or more, each year. About 75% of these instances involve handguns. Furthermore, firearms provide the safest and most effective means of resisting violent criminal attack.

Defensive gun use covers a wide spectrum: a verbal threat to use a gun in response to the threat posed by a criminal, or body language implying the availability of - and willingness to use - lethal force in response to that threat. Firearm-prohibitionists often equate defensive gun use with criminal body count to minimize its importance, but most of the time a gun isn't even fired. While almost 11 million violent crimes were committed in the U.S. in 1993, the number of criminals killed each year by citizens, in lawful self-defense with a firearm, is under 3,000.

Kleck is a professor at Florida State University's School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Kleck's impeccable methodology and neutrality in the firearm debate has forced most of America's firearm-prohibitionists to accept his conclusions. Philip Cook set out to prove Kleck wrong.

Fourteen studies preceded Cook's, showing estimates between 765,000 and 3.6 million instances of defensive gun use, annually. To his dismay, Cook found himself validating Kleck's findings. He solved that problem by dismissing all studies on defensive gun use as "unreliable" - including his own.

But Kleck's research contained a measure of the very social cost for which Cook professed concern: " many as 400,000 people a year use guns in situations where the defenders claim that they 'almost certainly' saved a life by doing so...If even one-tenth of these people are accurate in their stated perceptions, the number of lives saved by [would-be] victim use of guns would still exceed the total number of lives taken with guns."

That social cost - lives potentially lost by the absence of a firearm when needed most - is apparently of no real concern to Cook. Nor are the rapes that might be prevented, the injuries that might be avoided, the medical costs that might be saved, and the property that might be protected. For, after dumping his own research overboard because it confirmed what Kleck and Gertz had found - that guns save far more lives than they cost - Cook declared that, regardless of how often citizens actually use guns to defend themselves, it would still "only be of marginal relevance to the ongoing [firearm] debate...".

Now we know what firearm-prohibitionists like Cook and some of America's big-city mayors really care about most. It's not restricting firearm ownership in order to cut costs - human or monetary - as they'd like us to believe. Because whether their fellow citizens have the means to defend themselves is only "marginally relevant" to Philip Cook and his ilk. What is supremely relevant to them is politics above science: the politics of gun-control, at any cost.

Dr. Paul Gallant practices Optomtery in Wesley Hills, New York and is a research associate with the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden Colorado.