Do Guns Save Lives?

  • "After cabdriver Iran Bolton picked up an early morning fare at a Phoenix Ariz., night spot, the customer held a broken bottle to her throat and forced her to pull into a deserted area. Robbing her of $70, the thug pushed the woman out of her cab and threw her to the ground. When her assailant ordered her to crawl in the dirt, Bolton responded by emptying her pocket semi-auto into him. He died later in a hospital."

    Each month American Rifleman, the journal of the National Rifle Association, features about a dozen such accounts of armed citizens defending themselves against criminals. Based on newspaper clippings submitted by N.R.A. members, the stories dramatically show how a gun can sometimes prevent a crime and perhaps even save a victim's life.

    The gun lobby lands on mushier ground, however, when it leaps from such / examples into a far broader argument: that more lives are saved than lost by the firearms Americans acquire to protect themselves and their property. The N.R.A. emphasized that claim in a two-page newspaper advertisement attacking TIME for its report ((July 17)) on 464 gun deaths that occurred in the U.S. in a single week, chosen at random. "Legally-owned firearms saved the lives of far more Americans than those lost during ((TIME's)) 'seven deadly days,' " the advertisement stated. "According to noted criminologist Dr. Gary Kleck of Florida State University, every year some 650,000 Americans use firearms to thwart criminal assault. That's 12,500 a week."

    Even Paul Blackman, research coordinator for the N.R.A., concedes that the advertisement "stretches the data." He adds, "I don't know of any criminological study that has tried to quantify the number of lives saved based on the number of guns that were successfully used for protection."

    Kleck says his study did not consider the question of lives saved. Nor did he conclude, as the N.R.A. claims, that a crime or an assault had been "thwarted" in each of his estimated 645,000 (the ad upped it to 650,000) annual instances of a protective use of a gun. Kleck notes that his study may have included incidents in which a homeowner merely heard noisy youths outside his house, then shouted, "Hey, I've got a gun!" and never saw any possible attacker.

    Still, Kleck estimates that an assailant or the defender actually fired a handgun in nearly half the cases. If so, 322,000 incidents each year involved great danger, and the potential victims credited their guns with protecting them. That is about ten times the number who die from guns annually in the U.S. "It is possible that guns save more lives than they cost," Kleck says.

    His numbers are based on a 1981 poll conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates. It asked 1,228 U.S. voters whether in the previous five years any member of their household had "used a handgun, even if it was not fired, for self-protection or for the protection of property." Roughly 4% (about 50 people) said they had done so. Projecting that percentage onto the number of U.S. households in the five years covered by the poll (1976-81), Kleck came up with the estimate that handguns had been used protectively 3,224,880 times, or 645,000 a year. Comparing that with surveys that included rifles and shotguns, he estimated that all types of guns are used defensively about a million times a year.

    Is his analysis valid? "I certainly don't feel very comfortable with the way he's used the data," says Hart Research president Geoffrey Garin. While Kleck based his findings on the Hart survey, his analysis of the circumstances under which guns were used came from other studies. Protests Garin: "We don't know anything about the nature of the instances people were reporting." Says William Eastman, president of the California Chiefs of Police Association, about the Kleck conclusions: "It annoys the hell out of me. There's no basis for that data."

    There is far more research on the question of who is most likely to get killed when someone keeps a gun at home. In a 1986 study called "Protection or Peril?," Dr. Arthur Kellermann, a University of Tennessee professor of medicine, and Dr. Donald Reay, chief medical examiner of King County in Washington, concluded that for each defensive, justifiable homicide there were 43 murders, suicides or accidental deaths. Out of 398 gunshot fatalities in homes in King County between 1978 and 1983, only nine were motivated by self- defense.

    The one-week survey by TIME found a similar ratio on a national basis: only 14 of the 464 gun deaths resulted from defensive firing. An alarming 216 were suicides, 22 were accidental, and many of the rest involved homicides among people who knew each other well rather than citizens gunned down by strangers.

    Such statistics do not refute the argument that a gun, even if not fired, can save a life by discouraging a murderous attacker. Still, Tulane sociologist James Wright points out that guns have limited usefulness in preventing crimes. About 90% of crimes in homes occur when the resident is away, he notes, while violent crimes often take place on the streets. Says Wright: "Unless you make a habit of walking around with your gun at all times, you're not going to stop that either."

    A relatively balanced view of the gun question comes, surprisingly, from Kleck. "The vast majority of the population lives in low-crime neighborhoods and has virtually no need for a gun for defensive reasons," he says. "A tiny fraction has a great deal of reason to get anything it can get that might help reduce its victimization."

    Even the American Rifleman accounts of how helpful a gun can be in saving a life may not always tell the full story. In the case of cabdriver Bolton, the N.R.A. magazine failed to report how chance, rather than her pistol, saved her life. Bolton told the Arizona Republic that after she wounded her assailant, he grabbed her gun, pushed the barrel against her neck and pulled the trigger several times. What really saved Bolton was that she had emptied the chamber. Said she: "I kept thinking that maybe there was a bullet still in it and it would go off at any minute." If that had happened, the incident undoubtedly would not have appeared in the Rifleman.