Coalition for Responsible Gun Owners
August 10, 2000
Those who oppose the use of
firearms for self-defense have for fourteen years quoted a study by Arthur
Kellermann and Donald Reay published in the June 12, 1986 issue of New England
Journal of Medicine (v. 314, n. 24, p. 1557-60) which concluded that a firearm
in the home is "43 times more likely" to be used to kill a member of
the household than to kill a criminal intruder. This "statistic" is
used regularly by anti self-protection groups which surely know better, and was
even published recently without question in a letter to the Ann Arbor News.
Representative Liz Brater cited this "43 times" number in a House
committee hearing just a year ago. Thus the original study and its conclusion
deserve careful analysis. If nothing else, the repeated use of this
"statistic" demonstrates how a grossly inaccurate statement can become
a "truth" with sufficient repetition by the compliant and non-critical
The "43 times" claim was
based upon a small-scale study of firearms deaths in King County, Washington
(Seattle and Bellevue) covering the period 1978-83. The authors state,
"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…A complete determination of firearm risks versus benefits would
require that these figures be known."
Having said this, these authors
proceed anyway to exclude those same instances where a potential criminal was
not killed but was thwarted.
How many successful self-defense
events do not result in death of the criminal? An analysis by Gary Kleck and
Marc Gertz (Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, v. 86 n.1 [Fall 1995]) of
successful defensive uses of firearms against criminal attack concluded that the
criminal is killed in only one case in approximately every one thousand attacks.
If this same ratio is applied to defensive uses in the home, then Kellermann's
"43 times" is off by a factor of a thousand and should be at least as
small as 0.043, not 43. Any evaluation of the effectiveness of firearms as
defense against criminal assault should incorporate every event where a crime is
either thwarted or mitigated; thus Kellermann's conclusion omits 999 non-lethal
favorable outcomes from criminal attack and counts only the one event in which
the criminal is killed. With woeful disregard for this vital point, recognized
by these authors but then ignored, they conclude,
"The advisability of
keeping firearms in the home for protection must be questioned."
In making this statement the
authors have demonstrated an inexcusable non-scientific bias against the
effectiveness of firearms ownership for self defense. This is junk science at
This vital flaw in Kellermann and
Reay's paper was demonstrated clearly just six months later, on Dec. 4, 1986 by
David Stolinsky and G. Tim Hagen in the same journal (v. 315 n. 23, p. 1483-84),
yet these letters have been ignored for fourteen years in favor of the grossly
exaggerated figure of the original article. The continual use of the "43
times" figure by groups opposed to the defensive use of firearms suggests
the appalling weakness of their argument.
But there's more. Included in the
"43 times" of Kellermann are 37 suicides, some 86 percent of the
alleged total, which have nothing to do with either crime or defensive uses of
firearms. Even Kellermann and Reay say clearly
"…[that] the precise
nature of the relation between gun availability and suicide is unclear."
Yet they proceed anyway to include
suicides, which comprise the vast majority of the deaths in this study, in their
calculations. Omitting suicides further reduces the "43 times" number
from 0.043 to 0.006.
"Reverse causation" is a
significant factor that does not lend itself to quantitative evaluation,
although it surely accounts for a substantial number of additional homicides in
the home. A person, such as a drug dealer, who is in fear for his life, will be
more likely to have a firearm in his home than will an ordinary person. Put
another way, if a person fears death he might arm himself and at the same time
be at greater risk of being murdered. Thus Kellermann's correlation is strongly
skewed away from normal defensive uses of firearms. His conclusion is thus no
more valid than a finding that because fat people are more likely to have diet
foods in their refrigerators we can conclude that diet foods "cause"
obesity, or that because so many people die in hospitals we should conclude that
hospitals "cause" premature death. Reverse causation thus further
lowers the 0.006 value, but by an unknown amount.
In conclusion, if we use
Kellermann's data adjusted for reality, a firearm kept in a home is at least 167
times more likely to deter criminal attack than to harm a person in the home.
This number is some 7000 times more positive than the "43 times"
negative figure so often quoted. Should groups and individuals that knowingly
perpetuate a figure that is at least 7000 times too large be given any credence
With two million defensive uses of
firearms each year, both inside and outside the home, the value of protection
against criminal assault provided by firearms vastly exceeds any dangers that
they might present.
David K. Felbeck
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Director, Michigan Coalition for Responsible Gun Owners