« Another jurisdictionality victory | Main | A Clearinghouse for Questions, 2012-2013 »

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Colorado Shooting and Gun Laws

 I almost cannot bring myself to discuss last week’s massacre, but at the same time cannot help but address it. 

When I turned on the news Friday morning and heard about the movie theater shooting, commentators invariably turned to the question of whether gun control would become an issue in the Presidential campaign.  And the answer was, invariably: no.  Neither candidate would likely find it in their interest to emphasize the issue.

I don’t purport to be a Second Amendment expert, and have never focused intensely on the issue.  But the shooting not only sickened me, it made me wonder what the available data is regarding whether, as an empirical matter, the right to bear arms yields a net benefit or not in terms of public safety.

My initial searches revealed, not surprisingly, that the answer depends on the source of the data. …

I tried to disregard obviously biased sources, but still found the data somewhat equivocal.  One posting from the University of Utah Medical School included the following:

In the U.S. for 2010, there were 31,513 deaths from firearms, distributed as follows by mode of death: Suicide 19,308; Homicide 11,015; Accident 600. This makes firearms injuries one of the top ten causes of death in the U.S….The number of non-fatal injuries is considerable--over 200,000 per year in the U.S….The cumulative lifetime cost in 1985 for gunshot wounds was estimated to be $911 million, with $13.4 billion in lost productivity. (Mock et al, 1994)

The number of firearms injuries remains high in the United States, compared with most of the rest of the world. Firearm suicide rates are strongly impacted by the rate of gun ownership. (Kaplan and Geling, 1998) There is a positive correlation between homicide rates and availability of guns in developed nations. (Hemenway and Miller, 2000)….

The issue of "home defense" or protection against intruders or assailants may well be misrepresented. A study of 626 shootings in or around a residence in three U.S. cities revealed that, for every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides (Kellermann et al, 1998)….In another study, regardless of storage practice, type of gun, or number of firearms in the home, having a gun in the home was associated with an increased risk of firearm homicide and suicide in the home (Dahlberg, Ikeda and Kresnow, 2004). Persons who own a gun and who engage in abuse of intimate partners such as a spouse are more likely to use a gun to threaten their intimate partner. (Rothman et al, 2005). Individuals in possession of a gun at the time of an assault are 4.46 times more likely to be shot in the assault than persons not in possession (Branas et al, 2009).

At the same time, another site which clearly has a conservative slant cited a variety of studies which claims that guns are used to dissuade or repel violent crimes hundreds of thousands of times per year:

*A 1993 nationwide survey…found that…at least 0.5% of households had members who had used a gun for defense during a situation in which they thought someone "almost certainly would have been killed" if they "had not used a gun for protection." Applied to the U.S. population, this amounts to 162,000 such incidents per year…..

  * Based on survey data from a 2000 study published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology, U.S. civilians use guns to defend themselves and others from crime at least 989,883 times per year.

    * A 1994 survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Americans use guns to frighten away intruders who are breaking into their homes about 498,000 times per year.

This same site also questioned the reliability of the study that found that the homicide of a household member is three times higher in a household with a gun.  (Admittedly, I did not check any of the sources cited on either of these sites, or others that I looked at.)

I realize that to a large extent, people’s views on this issue are not going to be entirely data driven.  For example, even if one could prove that gun ownership harmed more innocent civilians than it helped, many would view the cost as worth it because they see a primary value of gun ownership is to prevent the government from having a monopoly on weaponry.  Many on the other side are likely similarly entrenched for various reasons.

I have heard the view expressed that no gun laws, no matter how strict, can prevent the occasional madman from wreaking havoc, and that gun policy should not be based on such aberrations.  But, for better or worse, we exist in a realm where catastrophes, natural or man-made, wake us up from our stupor and shine the light on certain issues, be it an airplane crash, a hurricane, an oil spill, or a shooting spree.

I have also heard it said that more stringent reporting or registration laws wouldn’t have prevented this particular tragedy.  That may be.  And yet a recent story about the nature of the weapons used persuaded me that it is folly to argue that nothing can or should be done:

The semi-automatic rifle used in the Colorado theater killings jammed during the rampage, apparently because of a problem with the 100-shot magazine feeding it, a law enforcement source with direct knowledge of the investigation said Sunday.

The military-style AR-15 had a separately purchased drum magazine, which can have trouble feeding bullets into the firing chamber if the gun is fired rapidly, the source told CNN.

"These after-market extended magazines have a tendency to jam," the source said.

One of the survivors of the early Friday assault, Josh Nowlan, said Saturday that he would not have been alive if the suspect's gun had not jammed.

Investigators say the rifle was one of three guns used by Colorado massacre suspect James Holmes in the early Friday killings, along with a shotgun and a .40-caliber pistol. The handgun also had an extended magazine that held 40 rounds, the source said.

It seems to me there are two legitimate purposes for gun ownership:  self-defense, and hunting.  Even if brandishing a weapon can scare off an attacker or home intruder, and even if that happens hundreds of thousands of times per year, in how many of those instances did the fact that the gun had a 40- or 100-round magazine make the difference in scaring off the attacker?  And how many hunters need dozens or hundreds of rounds to shoot a deer?

Admittedly, I am a city dweller who has never handled a gun, so I may be speaking from ignorance.  But there should be a baseline of assumptions about gun control—such as it should not be possible to purchase a 100-round magazine for a semi-automatic assault rifle—that most reasonable people should agree on, and that no politician should find it dangerous to endorse.  That is the naively optimistic part of me.  The realist knows it is not so.  But if we resign ourselves to the idea that these massacres are simply part of the “cost of doing business” associated with the right to bear arms, that is a tragedy unto itself.




Posted by Martin Pritikin on July 23, 2012 at 02:46 AM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The Colorado Shooting and Gun Laws:


I am a CCW gun owner. Mine is an LC9 Ruger with a 7 round magazine. Easily concealable and designed for self and home defense. I absolutely agree with limiting magazine size. No one needs a magazine larger than 10 rounds unless they are a member of the military or a criminal. Even 10 rounds is a lot! I do disagree with the violence numbers. To be a truly scientific study on the effects of guns, you also need to determine how many crimes were stopped without firing a single shot. You should determine the level of training and age of the individuals in the accidents. There are many factors that are not being looked into for a proper analysis. Guns are also great deterrents to violence and many bad guys will simply give up as soon as a firearm is pointed in their direction. Thank you for the article though. You did most of your homework, just look at the other side of it please. I feel quite comfortable with my CCW on my person at all times and am a well trained ex-military man. I have never had to use it and I hope I never will. If a couple patrons in the theater in Colorado had been legally armed, it probably would have ended much differently. And yes, I know the theater was supposed to be a "Carry-free zone". I carry everywhere, restricted or not. No one ever sees it or knows I have it on me except my wife. That's how it will stay too. I would have fought back and tried to spare some lives against that psycho with my 7 bullets. My thoughts go to the victims families.

Posted by: Bryan Ortiz | Jul 31, 2012 10:48:39 AM

Professor Pritikin,

I wanted to pass along a short article by David Hemenway on the problems inherent in trying to estimate the frequency of rare events (i.e. self defense gun usage) from survey data. He uses the statistics you mention in your post as one of his examples, so I thought the piece might interest you.

Basically: A certain percentage of survey respondents will respond incorrectly to any given survey question. If your sample is split 50-50 between A and B, perhaps in a political poll, then these errors cancel out; about as many people who should have said A mistakenly are counted as Bs as the reverse. If, on the other hand, your sample is split 999-1 (or 1000 to 0), the errors will not cancel. Instead, the smaller category will be inflated due to the number of people in the larger category who respond incorrectly. Though this point has been extensively discussed, I know of no paper that has conclusively handled the issue (I am a survey researcher rather than gun wonk, so I could have missed one).

Posted by: Matthew Kugler | Jul 30, 2012 5:20:10 PM

Something to add to the CBA: I was a recent victim of a shooting as a bystander to someone else's violence. Luckily, I didn't suffer longlasting harm or complications. The cost of my surgery and short hospitalization topped $60,000. I have great insurance, but many of the people who are at high risk of being an unintended victim of a shooting do not.

Posted by: fwiw | Jul 24, 2012 4:44:54 PM

"It seems to me there are two legitimate purposes for gun ownership: self-defense, and hunting."

I think collecting, target shooting, service in the militia or related institution (such a police service) and protecting family or related groups (this might be "self-defense" in a broad sense, I accept) are also legitimate reasons to own guns.

I think Jesse makes a good point as to scale. "Rare" does reasonably apply to something that happens on average less than twice a year. Meanwhile, there are many more firearm deaths in other contexts. But, as to it being a "close" question, not so sure. What is lost by restricting it to stop even a few deaths (and here, more injuries)?

Many regulations are in place that in practice probably stop very few fatalities. I would agree if the bottom line is that if we are concerned about gun violence, other matters need to be addressed more. There is a possible message though that we should draw lines somewhere (see also, waterboarding -- "extremely rare" but the refusal of some to draw a line there meant there didn't seem to be ANY line really) and work from there.

I appreciate those doing the work to provide some hard data here. A lot of these discussions tend to be a lot of vague talk.

Posted by: Joe | Jul 23, 2012 1:57:02 PM

good points Jesse, and you reminded me that there is a big picture question here: if we believe that gun violence is a problem, then what do we do about it? There are thousands of Americans killed each year by guns--in multiple and single murders, suicides, accidents. Do we simply accept these deaths and injuries as "the cost of doing business", as Prof. Pritikin wonders, or do we search for answers and solutions? It's a complicated problem and there's no one solution--banning magazines that can hold 100 rounds won't solve it, banning semi-automatic weapons won't solve it, regulating the sale of ammunition won't solve it--at least, none of these ideas will solve the problem by itself. Right now, however, gun violence is not seen as a problem that is even worthy of discussion--it's simply a given, the cost of 2nd Amendment rights. I reject that. I certainly don't pretend to have all the answers, but I don't want to live in a country where gun violence is so prevalent that people have to routinely worry about sending their kids to school or the movies. We can do better than what we're doing.

Posted by: Chris Edelson | Jul 23, 2012 1:32:39 PM

I am sorry, I should have clarified. I meant shootings of the size and scope that a ban on 100 round mags is going to be a significant limiting factor (even if it will in those cases, for the reasons I stated above.) That is, most of these shootings (certainly if the category is only limited to 4 or more) will not be impacted very much, or at all, by bans on very high capacity weapons. Many of the examples in the Brady campaign stuff are shootings involving 2-3 victims. I think the focus on these very high capacity weapons is an attempt to find a common ground, that is by focusing on weapons that admitted have very few if any legitimate functions, but which are also not that relevant to most gun crime in the United States. As I sort of indicated in my first comment, I do not think the decision to ban the 100 cap magazine matters very much one way or another, but focusing out attention such issues I think distracts from the real tradeoffs that we have to face in questions of gun control. That is to say, if we are really interested in reducing these multiple victim shootings there are things one could do, like impose a federal limit of 5 rounds (to prevent interstate trafficking to defeat state imposed limitations.)

Posted by: Jesse | Jul 23, 2012 1:14:49 PM

Most states limit magazine size for hunting to 5 rounds.

Posted by: Hunter | Jul 23, 2012 10:04:20 AM

As Patrick points out, mass killings in the U.S. are not so rare. In addition to the links he provided, I will add this one from Mother Jones which identified at least 36 mass shooting murders in the last 30 years ("mass" murder defined as 4 or more killed). It looks like additional examples were identified by commenters, here http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/07/mass-shootings-map

Posted by: Chris Edelson | Jul 23, 2012 10:03:43 AM

Re: "in view of the fact that these mass killings are so rare"

I'm afraid you're mistaken (although the terminology is not consistent on this score, with 'mass' and 'spree' killings being invoked in different ways): http://www.bradycampaign.org/xshare/pdf/major-shootings.pdf

See too this post by Kieran Healy at Crooked Timber ('America is a Violent Country'): http://crookedtimber.org/2012/07/20/america-is-a-violent-country/

Am I alone in raising the question of mental illness (as it might be implicated in such violence) rather than gun control at Ratio Juris and ReligiousLeftLaw?

See: http://www.religiousleftlaw.com/2012/07/the-aurora-massacre-violence-and-the-sick-society.html

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jul 23, 2012 8:41:42 AM

Professor Pritikin,

I agree with you brief summary of the data on the effects of gun ownership on violence, namely that the data provides no really clear answers. I also agree that there are few (if any) legitimate uses for very high capacity weapons in the hands of civilians. I wonder though, in view of the extreme rarity of this kind of tragedy if it is really sound to be making gun control policy with a view towards such disasters. You helpfully cited the national gun death stats, so by my back of the envelope calculation, since the 12 people were killed in Colorado, around 100 people have been murdered by persons using firm arms, and almost twice that many have committed suicide with them. This suggests to me that what ever the right policy choice as far as gun control is, it needs to be based on the 11,000 or so murders that happen every year, not the out of the ordinary mass killing.

Even assuming we should focus on these disasters to make policy I wonder if regulation of such weapons is ultimately worth the cost, in view of the fact that these mass killings are so rare, and any regulation will have non-zero costs of compliance, and will be less than entirely effective. After all, there are both simple ways around limited magazines (such as taping two or three together), carrying more weapons, etc. Even assuming such regulations were effective, they would only reduce the casualties caused by such events, perhaps only slightly at most. I mean, would these sorts of regulations be worth it to prevent a few deaths every few years? Perhaps it would be worth it, but it seems to me at least a pretty close question.

Posted by: Jesse | Jul 23, 2012 3:39:33 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.