Do guns stop home invasions?

Perhaps you have seen that in 2015, toddlers shot more people in the US than terrorists, but you have reasoned that neither toddlers nor terrorists kill very many people in the U.S. each year, so taking action based on that statistic might not be warranted. You have weighed the risks and benefits of gun ownership and you are willing to tolerate a certain level of risk. I agree with your logic here, if not your conclusion. Just as I think it's reasonable to risk flying on airplanes or going to movie theaters, you think its reasonable to own guns. If hunting is your passion and you're willing to tolerate some risk to share that passion with your children, that's fine with me, as long as you have a top-of-the-line gun safe and have at least considered smart weapons. Or perhaps the gun is part of your work. Again, I'm sure you've weighed the risks and benefits of keeping a service weapon in your home. 

But if your gun is for self-defense, we can't play at your house. It's not you owning a gun that's the problem. It's your wholly irrational claim about gun ownership. 

Home invasions

You may have bought a gun out of fear that you or a family member will be injured during a home invasion. It's easy to understand that impulse. A 2010 Bureau of Justice Statistics report on home burglaries identified an average of 3.7 million home invasions per year in the United States. That statistic makes it feel as though a home invasion could happen to you. But it's important to put that number in context. First, the number of home invasions is on the decline. Another BJS report indicates that in 2011, there were almost 3.4 million home invasions. In 1994, there were almost 6.4 million, meaning that home invasions have decreased by over 50 percent. 

It's also important to look at when home invasions are happening. The 2010 BJS report indicates that 72.4% of home invasions happened when no household members were present. Of the 27.6% of home invasions that happened when a household member was present, 26% resulted in violent crimes, the largest of which was simple assault. Put another way, in all home invasions, 7% included an act of violence, the majority of which were relatively minor. Although there are a large number of household burglaries, the likelihood that you'll be killed by an intruder is small: the BJS puts that figure at .004%

What is perhaps most surprising is who was committing the home invasions. Though violent acts resulting from home invasions are rare, they are somewhat predictable. In those violent incidents, 65.1% of the time the intruder committing the violence was known to the household members. Half of the time, the act of violence was committed by a former or current romantic partner. 

Overall then, the narrative that a stranger is going to come to your home to do intentional harm to you or your family is extremely unlikely. If a stranger is coming to your home, it's because the stranger wants to take your stuff and leave you alone, so much so that the stranger will wait to make sure you're not home before doing so. If someone is coming to do you harm, it's more likely that someone already knows who you are...and where you keep your gun.

Accidental shootings

Perhaps that 7% chance of a violent home invasion was enough to convince you that you needed a gun for self-defense. That gun, however, is now much more likely to be used in an unintentional shooting, a criminal assault, or a suicide. In its 2014 report on US deaths, the CDC recorded 50 deaths in children ages 0-14. But the CDC's recording method has been criticized of late, because of data it uses to measure deaths. In their 2013 investigation of child gun deaths, Michael Luo and Mike McIntire reported that gun death statistics are generally derived from death certificates marked "accident." But in some jurisdictions, such accidents are ruled homicides or suicides. 

Luo and McIntire's work suggests that we don't yet know how serious the problem of accidental shootings is. When Luo and McIntire read searched death certificates listing homicide or suicide for shooting deaths, they found that, in four of the five states included in their study, the number of unintentional shooting deaths was approximately double the CDC's recorded number, while in the fifth state there were 50% more. 

Accidents happen. When I leave the kitchen with the oven on, my child could get burned. When I don't have an outlet cover installed, he might get shocked. If I go upstairs without remembering to shut the gate, my baby might fall. As parents, we have to confront, almost daily, our own inability to protect our children from the world. But if you leave a gun under your bed, or on a high shelf in the back of the closet, or in your basement, and your child shoots you or one of your other children, a medical examiner or coroner could designate that a homicide. If your child accidentally shoots himself, that could be ruled a suicide. That should terrify you. It certainly terrifies me. 

But what terrifies me most isn't your gun. It's your judgment. I believe that, like me, you love your family and want what's best for them. But you are sufficiently deluded to think you'll be the exception when it comes to self defense. You are tolerating the risk that your gun could lead not just to a heartbreaking accident, but a homicide or suicide. So we can't come over to play. 

Copyright © 2016 Stephanie Loomis Pappas, as first published on Sammiches and Psych Meds.