We recently noted that alcohol sales increased significantly during the pandemic and also reminded our readers that the climate crisis is still there even as our attention has been waylaid by COVID-19. Now we feel it important to identify another pandemic casualty—the marked increase in gun sales and gun ownership. Overall background checks for guns increased by 69 percent between 2020 and 2019. As Allie Volpe noted last April in Rolling Stone, one consequence of the coronavirus pandemic is that more people will own guns once it is over than did before it began.
It seems that legislation is always being introduced at state and federal levels in an attempt to control the sale of guns and the country’s biggest gun advocate organization, the National Rifle Association, is almost always in the news as well. That makes the subject of gun ownership a political one. Although Critica as an organization tries to stay apart from partisan politics, one of our readers recently pointed out that he thought it was fairly obvious how we feel about guns. Does that mean that politics is seeping through our commitment to scientific evidence?
We acknowledge, of course, that the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution has been interpreted to mean that Americans have a right to bear arms. Whether that interpretation is correct or not is best left to legal scholars. All too often those who defend ad libitum gun ownership see any advocacy for gun control legislation as an attempt to overturn the Second Amendment. Let’s stipulate for a moment that the Second Amendment does really offer the right to own a gun. Critica has a different point to make than the constitutional one.
But the Data Say They Don’t Offer Protection
Tucked in at the very end of the recent Pew Report “Key facts about American and guns” is the finding that “personal protection tops the list of reasons why gun owners say they own a firearm.” A Gallup poll is cited in the report that showed that “Roughly six-in-ten (63%) said this in an open-ended question,” a rate much higher than those who said they owned a gun or guns for hunting (40%). This raises an obvious empirical question: is an individual American indeed safer owning a gun?
We reviewed the data on this question at some length in our book Denying To the Grave and concluded that owning a gun does not make you safer. In fact, there is no evidence that an increase in gun ownership is associated with a decrease in crime. An excellent article by Melinda Wenner Moyer in Scientific American from 2017 makes the point that most of the research looking at the relationship between personal gun ownership and crime “punctures the idea that guns stop crime.” Writing in Nature, Joseph M. Pierre concluded that:
…more than 30 years of public health research supports thinking of guns as statistically more of a personal hazard than a benefit. Case-control studies have repeatedly found that gun ownership is associated with an increased risk of gun-related homicide or suicide occurring in the home…
The data on guns and safety are somewhat limited because of something called the Dickey Amendment, which limits the amount of federal money than can be used for firearm research. We also don’t have a neat randomized control trial (RCT) in which one group of people are given guns and another, matched carefully for numerous demographic factors, are not given them and then both groups followed for several years to get a picture of gun violence patterns. Such a study would be unethical if even possible. Yet the data we do have are, as Pierre notes, remarkably consistent: people rarely successfully use guns to defend themselves whereas owning a gun increases the risk a person will be shot with it. Owning a gun then, in general, makes a person less safe.
So Why Buy One Then?
The question from a Critica point of view, then, is not whether an individual has the right to own a gun but rather why anyone would want to own one. The data seem to indicate a clear decision path: given the choice, do the safe thing and shun buying a gun. In this formulation, the choice is left totally up to the individual, but the right decision is clear.
That does not mean that we are necessarily agnostic about gun control legislation. In addition to jeopardizing personal safety, guns are a threat to the public’s health. That means, of course, that just as laws are accepted that prevent children from smoking tobacco or drinking alcohol and that mandate we wear seat belts in cars and don’t smoke in public places, laws to protect the public from gun violence are fair game. It is just that in this line of thought, we are asking why any individual would, given the evidence, make the decision to buy a gun.
The Pew report we mentioned earlier also tells us that Democrats are more likely to favor restrictive gun legislation than Republicans. It is easy to see how our reading of the scientific record might seem to be the same as taking a political position on gun ownership, but we want to be clear that if the data indicated gun ownership offered real protection, we would advocate for it. That just isn’t the case.
Why then, do people choose to ignore the evidence we have and insist that owning a gun is the safe decision to make? There are likely many reasons, but here is an area where better funding for firearms research would be incredibly helpful. We need a great deal more information on what motivates people to buy guns in the face of clear evidence that doing so is anti-protective. And why are gun sales going up during the pandemic? One hypothesis advanced last year by two Oregon State University professors is that owning a gun is linked to expressions of personal freedom. Everyone on some level must feel a constriction of their usual freedoms by the pandemic. Some have taken this to an extreme by declaring wearing face masks to be an impingement on personal freedom rather than a necessary public health maneuver. Perhaps buying a gun helps overcome that feeling of restricted personal freedom for some.
Another possible reason comes from the observation that people who have bought guns during the pandemic tend to be more suicidal than other gun owners. However, although many studies have hinted at an increase in mental health problems due to the pandemic, there is no evidence that the suicide rate, including the firearm suicide rate, increased in the last year in the U.S.
Although we don’t have enough data yet to understand why gun ownership is soaring during the pandemic, we do see in it one phenomenon that has plagued overall reaction to COVID-19—the difficulty we have accurately judging risk. As Michael F. Dahlstrom notes in his recent PNAS paper, narrative stories are far more convincing than data recitations. We can give you all the numbers demonstrating that COVID-19 vaccines are safe, but a single story of an unusual adverse side effect carries more weight. Similarly, all the data in the world showing that gun ownership does not convey protection are inadequate in the face of a single news story—or perhaps even one television or Hollywood depiction—of a citizen defending himself with a gun.
Every day, someone somewhere in the U.S. who has never owned a gun before will make a decision about whether or not to buy a gun to keep in the house. How do we drive home the point to him (most guns in the U.S. are owned by men) that doing so will not make him or his family any safer but actually the opposite? Do we need to offer graphic stories about people who have shot themselves with the very gun they once bought to protect themselves? Should we be telling the sad stories of men who shoot their wives or girlfriends in the midst of an argument with the very gun they purchased to make the family safer? There are far more stories of that kind than there are of people fending off home invaders by waving the gun in the night table at them.