Unintended Consequences – Summary

One question lies at the heart of the public health and safety approach to gun control: Do the risks associated with firearms outweigh their benefits?a The question is particularly acute with respect to handguns, which are responsible for most of America’s gun violence. 

The gun industry’s answer is clear. Over the last 30 years it has promoted the putative value of handguns for self-defense more than any other benefit, such as recreation. The gun business argues that this supposed self-defense benefit outweighs the risk of harm from pistols and revolvers that is demonstrated year after year in America’s unparalleled handgun death and injury rates. 

This report is not a primer on the law of self-defense and lethal force, but a brief survey of basic principles and how experts view the matter, as it is popularly interpreted. It illuminates the patent danger of our present practice of allowing citizens to carry concealed handguns with only minimal screening and hardly any educational requirements. Based on the work of widely recognized pro-gun experts on the use of handguns for self-defense, it demonstrates that the industry’s position is false. These experts’ own words are quoted at length in this report. They show that for entirely practical reasons handguns in particular are a dangerous choice for all but a tiny minority of exceptionally well-trained people who maintain their skills with regular and intensive practice. The vast majority of handgun owners put not only themselves, but their families, their neighbors, and wholly innocent bystanders at unreasonable risk of harm, including death and catastrophic injury. The costs of this harm are borne largely by the non-gun owning public. 

The gun industry has made billions of dollars and sold millions of handguns over the last 30 years by zealously marketing pistols and revolvers as ideal self-defense weapons.b This marketing�fueled to a major extent by handgun imports from countries that forbid the sale of the same handguns to their own citizens�has driven handguns from a mere eight percent of firearms offered for sale in the civilian market in 1946 to 54 percent in 1994.1

Gun-industry marketing has had a clear impact on the gun-owning public. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the gun industry trade and lobbying group, 63 percent of handgun owners possess their handgun primarily for personal protection.2 The independent Police Foundation reported in 1996 that among those who own only handguns, 74 percent reported that self-defense was the primary reason they owned their handgun�compared to 10.8 percent who reported target shooting and 0.5 percent who reported hunting as the primary reason for owning a handgun. Conversely, among those who own only long guns, 14.9 percent report self-defense and 69.9 percent report hunting as the primary reason for owning their guns.3

Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other members of the gun lobby have succeeded in blocking serious controls on handguns by claiming that handguns are needed as tools for self-defense. The gun lobby’s success is in large part because the industry’s arguments�aided by the pseudo-scientific work of pro-gun advocates like author John Lott�have been accepted into conventional wisdom to an amazing degree. Many journalists and academics have been persuaded that handguns make their owners safer, and thus that continuing to pour millions of handguns into our society is an acceptable trade-off for the tens of thousands of handgun deaths, injuries, and gun crimes we suffer annually.

Even some gun-control advocates are pursuing various panaceas that they feel are more “politically acceptable” than banning handguns. These include the chimera of the “safe” or “smart” handgun,c advocating minor steps such as mandatory safety locks,d or resuscitating the hoary and ineffective idea of licensing and registration. In contrast to these limp panaceas, banning handguns responds forcefully and directly to the precise factor that is causing the carnage. 

This uncritical acceptance of the industry’s self-serving risk-benefit analysis has had another unfortunate effect: many of the five out of six Americans who do not own a handgun have overcome their sound instincts and come to believe, albeit grudgingly, that self-defense is a legitimate reason for their neighbor to own a handgun. 

This report demonstrates that precisely the opposite is true. Handguns in the real world�as opposed to the industry’s fantasy world of virtuous defensive gun use�make people who own them much less safe. Using the experts’ own words, this report shows that the overwhelming majority of people who own handguns: 

  • are ignorant of�or ignore�basic handgun safety rules;

  • do not have the necessary handgun combat marksmanship skills to effectively defend themselves without harming innocent others; and,

  • are not prepared for the extreme physiological and psychological effects that the experts, many of whom have on-the-street law enforcement experience with firearms, agree inevitably occur in an armed life-or-death confrontation (the only situation in which lethal force is justified in self-defense). 

The expert opinions documented in this report are staggering proof that gun manufacturers have falsely advertised their products for decades. Previous claims that the gun industry’s advertising is misleading have relied on academic and clinical risk studies, inferring the risk of harm from rates of death and injury. For the first time, this report adds to the debate the candid voices of pro-handgun experts and exposes through expert opinion the gun industry’s lies about the illusory benefits of handguns for self-defense

The structure of this report is outlined below: 

  • The Introduction explains the public health and safety approach to gun control and introduces the surprising views of some pro-gun experts.

  • Chapter One outlines the history of gun-industry marketing of handguns for self-defense. The rest of the report follows the trail of self-defense handgun ownership, from purchase to potential use.

  • Chapter Two documents the abysmal safety practices of gun owners in homes and businesses.

  • Chapter Three contrasts the meager training of the vast majority of handgun owners with the demands of the real world of lethal-force encounters. It includes a discussion of the ignorance of most gun owners of the relevant principles of the law of self-defense.

  • Chapter Four describes what actually happens “where the rubber hits the road” in a lethal-force encounter�the powerful psycho-physiological effects of mortal fear that are inevitable in a lethal-force encounter. It explains the enormous negative impact these effects have on the handgun owner’s ability to function safely and effectively.

  • Chapter Five recommends a number of policy actions. 

Two appendices address points related to the risk-benefit argument: 

  • Appendix A contains biographies on noted pro-gun self-defense experts quoted in the study.

  • Appendix B is a compilation of academic rebuttals to the work of pro-gun advocate John Lott, who has become the principal policy voice in favor of arming Americans – including school teachers – with more handguns. 

a) The public health approach does not conflict with the purported Second Amendment right to “keep and bear arms” because it advocates only reasonable control of some classes of guns in relation to the risk they present to society at large. This approach has been uniformly upheld in federal appellate decisions.

b) In the period from 1970 to 1997, a total of 61.1 million handguns were manufactured or imported for sale in the United States, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. In 1996 alone, new handgun sales were valued at roughly $386 million. U.S. Treasury Department, Commerce in Firearms in the United States (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, February 2000), 8. This does not include used handguns sold in the secondary market during the same period. Such sales of firearms are estimated to total about 40 percent of overall firearm sales. 

c) One prominent advocate of the “smart” gun went so far as to have secret meetings with Colt’s Manufacturing Company. Colt enjoyed a tax-funded grant of $500,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice to help it develop such a gun, which it hoped would open up a vast new market. Matt Bai, “Unmaking a Gunmaker,” Newsweek, April 17, 2000; author’s telephone conversation with advocate, April 10, 2000.

d) Safety locks would, under the best of circumstances, prevent no more than a few hundred of the more than 30,000 gun deaths America suffers every year. In 1998, a total of 262 persons 19 years of age and under died of unintentional gunshot wounds. Sherry L. Murphy, “Deaths: Final Data for 1998,” National Vital Statistics Report 48, no. 11 (2000): 67. Safety locks, if used, might have prevented some proportion of these deaths but would have had no effect on most of the 30,000 other deaths in that year.

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