The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

Gun Science

published May 2013
How data can help clarify the gun-control debate
magazine cover

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 31,672 people died by guns in 2010 (the most recent year for which U.S. figures are available), a staggering number that is orders of magnitude higher than that of comparable Western democracies. What can we do about it? National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre believes he knows: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” If La Pierre means professionally trained police and military who routinely practice shooting at ranges, this observation would at least be partially true. If he means armed private citizens with little to no training, he could not be more wrong.

Consider a 1998 study in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery that found that “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.” Pistol owners’ fantasy of blowing away home-invading bad guys or street toughs holding up liquor stores is a myth debunked by the data showing that a gun is 22 times more likely to be used in a criminal assault, an accidental death or injury, a suicide attempt or a homicide than it is for selfdefense. I harbored this belief for the 20 years I owned a Ruger .357 Magnum with hollow-point bullets designed to shred the body of anyone who dared to break into my home, but when I learned about these statistics, I got rid of the gun.

More insights can be found in a 2013 book from Johns Hopkins University Press entitled Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis, edited by Daniel W. Webster and Jon S. Vernick, both professors in health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In addition to the 31,672 people killed by guns in 2010, another 73,505 were treated in hospital emergency rooms for nonfatal bullet wounds, and 337,960 nonfatal violent crimes were committed with guns. Of those 31,672 dead, 61 percent were suicides, and the vast majority of the rest were homicides by people who knew one another.

For example, of the 1,082 women and 267 men killed in 2010 by their intimate partners, 54 percent were by guns. Over the past quarter of a century, guns were involved in greater number of intimate partner homicides than all other causes combined. When a woman is murdered, it is most likely by her intimate partner with a gun. Regardless of what really caused Olympic track star Oscar Pistorius to shoot his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp (whether he mistook her for an intruder or he snapped in a lover’s quarrel), her death is only the latest such headline. Recall, too, the fate of Nancy Lanza, killed by her own gun in her own home in Connecticut by her son, Adam Lanza, before he went to Sandy Hook Elementary School to murder some two dozen children and adults. As an alternative to arming women against violent men, legislation can help: data show that in states that prohibit gun ownership by men who have received a domestic violence restraining order, gun-caused homicides of intimate female partners were reduced by 25 percent.

Another myth to fall to the facts is that gun-control laws disarm good people and leave the crooks with weapons. Not so, say the Johns Hopkins authors: “Strong regulation and oversight of licensed gun dealers—defined as having a state law that required state or local licensing of retail firearm sellers, mandatory record keeping by those sellers, law enforcement access to records for inspection, regular inspections of gun dealers, and mandated reporting of theft of loss of firearms—was associated with 64 percent less diversion of guns to criminals by in-state gun dealers.” Finally, before we concede civilization and arm everyone to the teeth pace the NRA, consider the primary cause of the centurieslong decline of violence as documented by Steven Pinker in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: the rule of law by states that turned over settlement of disputes to judicial courts and curtailed private self-help justice through legitimate use of force by police and military trained in the proper use of weapons.

topics in this column: , , ,

70 Comments to “Gun Science”

  1. Jim Delton Says:

    Most of the statistic Shermer quotes have been disproven years ago. Plus he completely ignores the number of violent crimes prevented by guns, which is somewhere between .75 million and 2.5 million per year. Also ignored is that the “civilized” countries, like the UK, New Zealand, and AU, which do have lower murder rates have far far higher violent crime rates the the US. In surveys of “do you feel safe going out at night”, the “civilized” countries of the UK, New Zealand, and AU have much lower scores than the US. People in the US feel significantly safer walking their streets at night than those “civilized” countries do.

    To anyone actually interested in facts you can find them here:

  2. Bad Boy Scientist Says:

    Doctor Mike, I sure sympathize with your point but I don’t think this approach will work. As Swift once said: It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into. The gun debate is emotionally driven – on all sides.

    Even if everyone were reasonable, when an issue is complex a handful of data won’t carry the day. The different sides of a debate may disagree on the interpretation of the data, the relevance of particular data points and even point out conflicting data points. I know this has happened with collaborators and me writing research papers … and there wasn’t nearly as much emotion in those cases.

    Go back and look at how many arguments have ensured when every scientist agreed on the ‘facts.’

  3. david Says:

    @Jim Delton: interesting point of view, but “feeling safe” and “being safe” are two different things. Maybe people in the US would feel less safe and people in other countries would feel safer knowing the datas. Don’t you think?

    @bad boy scientist: Mr Shermer is mainly giving numbers and facts. How do you interpret these datas? “in 2010 in the US, 31,672 people were killed by guns, 73,505 were treated in hospital emergency rooms for nonfatal bullet wounds, and 337,960 nonfatal violent crimes were committed with guns”.

  4. David tucker Says:

    Jim Delton cannot face the fact that the U.S. is the most violent nation in the world, by far. Imagine what would happen if every Tom, Dick and Harry were really encouraged and motivated to carry guns! This would make our afternoon commute home from work an interesting game. “Here comes Daddy up the driveway with only 5 new bullet holes in his car!”

  5. Jack Taylor Says:

    Disappointing to see Shermer adopt a style more suited to those he devotes his efforts to expose. The LaPierre sound bite is certainly false in the use of the word “only” (although perhaps not any worse than most sound-bite arguments), but Shermer’s use of a straw-man constructed with statistics having little or nothing to do with truth or fallacy of the sound-bite does not serve him well. If anything, those statistics could be used, and I imagine are, in support of LaPierre’s statement.

    Perhaps just at a loss for a lead-in to the story, but as a lifelong Shermerite, I would have expected better.

  6. Karl Stephan Says:

    Maybe the grimness of Michael Shermer’s chosen topic for the May column led not only to a lack of his usual light touch, but waylaid him into the same type of error committed by a man who was afraid of getting on a plane that had a bomb aboard. To make himself feel better, he began packing a small, harmless bomb in his luggage, reasoning that the chances of a plane having two bombs aboard was much less than the chances that it carried just one.

    When Mr. Shermer says that a gun is 22 times more likely to be involved in accidental shootings, criminal assaults, or suicides than it is in a legitimate domestic act of defense, he is correct when he is talking about guns in general. But then he says that as a result of this fact, he concluded to get rid of his gun in particular. This is a case of misusing data to answer the wrong question.

    If the question was “What are the chances that any gun chosen at random will be used for defense?” the answer of 1 in 22 is correct, because there are evidently many more guns used by careless people, criminals, or suicides than by successful home defenders. But when the question is whether Michael Shermer’s gun will be used for defense rather than for less salutary purposes, the answer depends critically on Michael Shermer, who is presumably neither careless, a criminal, or suicidally inclined. If he resolves to use the gun only for legitimate defense and nothing else, and remains in possession both of his gun and his resolve, the probability that it will be used only for legitimate purposes is 100 percent, not 1 in 22.

    He does not state how he “got rid of” the gun, but if he simply sold it on the open market to a random individual, he has now increased the chances it will be used by a careless person, a criminal, or a suicide, because it has now passed out of the control of that responsible former gun owner, Michael Shermer, who should know better.

  7. Terry Mazanec Says:

    Shermer has permitted his politics to cloud his vision on this issue as he has done on global warming. It is disappointing (but not surprising) that he cannot apply the same skepticism to his politically held beliefs as he has to so many other topics.

  8. Ross Says:

    “Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery”? Why do all the pro-gun control studies appear in medical journals instead of criminology journals? Are medical doctors really better at peer review than scholars who study crime full-time? Just curious.

  9. Calderra Says:

    Nice case of correlation not equal causation you got there. Be a shame if anybody noticed it.

    Gun ownership and violence are strongly correlated, and symptomatic of deeper social issues such as insecurity. There is no good evidence that they are causally related, except in terms of minor counts due to accidents which can largely be remedied through education.

    Or: So the World was a safer place when everybody carried swords?

  10. Beverly Bryant Says:

    I have many times before read statistics about gun violence against domestic partners in the US and lack of gun violence against domestic partners in other countries. Never have I seen compared the total incidences of violence against domestic partners in the US and other countries. In other words, how much domestic violence in other countries using a knife, a baseball bat, an axe, etc?

  11. Beverly Bryant Says:

    In some countries, men prefer to burn their wives to death with kitchen kerosene burners.

  12. David H. Eisenberg Says:

    Mr. Shermer provides a valuable service in promoting skepticism, which is really no different than promoting reason or common sense. But, I agree with others above who are disappointed in what appears to be a political approach here. I won’t repeat their arguments. My own limited research into gun safety/violence/laws, leads me to conclude that it is very inconclusive. Much like with religion, there are “facts” supporting either side. People tend to recite those that support their conclusion. I would be most impressed with someone who addresses the facts that are contrary to his own side. But, I suppose that would ruin the fun for most people, wouldn’t it?

  13. GDC Says:

    “I harbored this belief for the 20 years I owned a Ruger .357 Magnum with hollow-point bullets designed to shred the body of anyone who dared to break into my home,”

    It IS OBVIOUS that YOU do NOT know much of ANYTHING about GUNS!!! The .357 Mag. with hollow points will NOT “shred the body of ANYONE bigger than a MOUSE!!! I have YEARS of experience with that gun and load and IT NEVER “shredded” ANYTHING I shot with it!!! As a matter of FACT IT is NOT a good cartilage for ANYTHING bigger then an SMALL DOG!!!


    Before YOU wrote about ANYTHING you should KNOW something about what you write!!!

  14. Steve Ahlquist Says:

    Isn’t funny how many skeptics and rationalists value facts until inconvenient ones contradict their beliefs? The data on guns is in and the fact is that less guns leads to less gun violence. This should certainly be obvious. restricting access to guns will save lives, spare people the misery and costs of emergency room visits, and generally contribute to the general welfare. Encouraging more guns will do the opposite.

    Shermer bravely followed the facts and got rid of his gun. The NRA has successfully lobbied to make sure that money to study the effects of guns on society will not be funded by the government, reducing the amount of information we have. Why? Because good science is likely to show that access to guns kills people.

  15. Rob S Says:

    @ GDC – I can tell by your eloquent use of capital letters and exclamation marks that your argument is sound and rational. (see @Bad Boy Scientist’s quote from Swift).

  16. Marilyn Blanck Says:

    Sorry, Michael. Deeply emotional issues are not dealt with successfully by a bombardment with facts. (Whether or not the facts are accurate or outdated is beside the point.) That argument does not penetrate to the level required to encourage attitudinal change. No, everyone does not own guns for emotional reasons, but many people do – the same ones who constantly bring up “rights” and their interpretation of the second amendment. They vote, and will unseat any politicians who disagree with them. The problem is: how to change a powerful emotional mindset. Work on this issue from that angle and you might break some new ground and come up with creative ideas.

  17. Todd Saalman Says:

    Jim Delton likes to sling about unsubstantiated assertions and references a mouthpiece of the gun lobby, so why should we pay attention? While not the best of his work, here Michael Shermer at least provides a source for his statistics not known to be a gun control advocate.

    Let’s do a fact check to see what the Dept. of Justice in New Zealand says about, as Delton puts it, the ‘far higher crime rates’ in NZ than in the U.S.

    With the caveat that ‘there are significant differences in the criminal systems and offence definitions in the two jurisdictions’, the DOJ in NZ published this:

    “In 2000, America had more than double the rate of forcible rape per capita than New Zealand, more than three times the rate of murder and non-negligent manslaughter and robbery than New Zealand per capita, and over four times the rate of aggravated assault per capita than New Zealand. The rate of total violent crime for America in 2000 was 506.1 per 100,000 population; almost four times the rate of 132.6 for New Zealand.”

    A quote brought to you by the Google search: ‘violent crime rate in new zealand’

    May I suggest that perhaps Mr. Delton should visit his optometrist in the near future.

  18. Chuck Says:

    It is sad that pointing out how he feels about a subject is seen as political. I being a conservative do not agree with a lot that David says, but the gun issue makes the US look like a country of thugs. My wife being a nurse has seen the result of guns spreading in this country and the JofTAC only presents facts not beliefs. Most doctors own guns, but if the responders ever had to spend a weekend in a an inner city hospital, you would see the damage we do to ourselves. I do not want to feel that I have to be armed to walk out my front door, but what I have read in the comments section written by “normal” people scares me.

  19. Scott Ferguson Says:

    GDC – “A hollow-point bullet is an expanding bullet that has a pit or hollowed out shape in its tip, often intended to cause the bullet to expand upon entering a target in order to decrease penetration and disrupt more tissue as it travels through the target.”

    You must not have been hitting your targets. Also, ease off the caps. Nobody likes reading that.

  20. Eoin Says:

    “data show that in states that prohibit gun ownership by men who have received a domestic violence restraining order, gun-caused homicides of intimate female partners were reduced by 25 percent.”

    Out of interest, did the overall rate of such homicides (not just the gun-caused one) also drop? Or was there a 25 percent increase in murders by other means?

  21. Rick Says:

    Gun ownership is a symptom, not the disease.

    America is a nation of frightened people. They are told over and over how others will hurt them, take their stuff and ruin their lives.

    Men are 10 million times more likely to love a woman than kill her, but we never hear that.

    Americans are hunkered down, living in fear, holding their gun and waiting for the boogeymen.

    Shermer is in a position to stop adding to strategy of using the floodlighting of the negative to sell a point. He can do more to solve the gun problem by giving data on how great the human race is. You have 2 bombers but thiousands giving help and aid at the marathon. You don’t need guns, you just need to see the truth. You are a million times more likely to be helped by someone than hurt by them.

    You can get hit by lightning, but you don’t fear the sky every day and carry a lightning rod.

    Fear causes the reaction you see over gun ownership. Changing the laws about guns is like putting a band-aid on a tumor.

    Gun ownership is a symptom, not the disease. Treat the disease.

  22. Fannysboy Says:

    @GDC, I have to agree .357 Magnum CARTILAGE would doubtless be useless in a gun. (Repair a knee maybe?). Your evident inability to master the difference between metaphor (the reference to “shred the body”)and real opinion, not to mention your abysmal lack of either proof-reading skills or actual command of the English language,(CARTILAGE?) makes me doubt that you should own any firearm. Oh,and BTW, if hollow-points are not more destructive than ‘full metal jackets’ why would anybody pay a premium for them.
    @Beverly, sorry, couldn’t resist, but I doubt baseball bats are use much for domestic violence in countries like Pakistan and India (high rates of violence against women); cricket bats maybe.

  23. Dave Rice Says:

    With regard to Jim Delton’s quotation of statistics garnered from the Gun Control ‘Fact’ Sheet which quotes the UK, Australia and New Zealand as having far higher rates of violence, a few reality injections wouldn’t go amiss here.

    First of all, and it shouldn’t be necessary to point this out, the Gun Control ‘Fact Sheet hardly comes from an independently verifiable and unbiased source. Secondly, in all three countries there exist national offices of statistics which record all incidences of violent crime reported to the police, from domestic violence through to other violence from pub brawls to violence peripheral to other criminal behaviour. Violent crime statistics in the US are gathered on a state-by-state basis with virtually no two states recording the same types of incident in the same manner. Now, it may be that there are more ‘punch-ups’ in the UK, Oz and NZ than in the US but it’s fair to argue that in those countries, nobody wronged in a pub brawl is going to go to the car and fetch a handgun, simply because there are none in circulation. Possession of a handgun in the UK will get you a minimum five-year stretch in the choky. So, there might be an argument for guns reducing pub brawls in the US (you might get shot) but it isn’t an argument that persuades anybody that guns reduce gun deaths.

    The so-called ‘fact sheet’ also quotes specious statistics such as that relating to deaths on football fields, a figure specifying a particular period: “…that period…” Well, we can all mine statistics to suit our argument but they only have power to persuade the unpersuaded when the stats are in themselves sensible, impartial, relevant and persuasive. People will get hurt on football fields whatever happens to guns in the US. These are simply daft arguments.

    There is some logic to the argument that the proliferation of guns in the US is as much of a deterrent to gun crime as it is a lubricant. However, there are millions of guns in circulation in the UK, all of which are sporting weapons and equally as deadly as any other type of gun. The issue is cultural. In the UK you have to prove yourself to be a person fit to own a gun while to all intents and purposes, in the US you don’t. The US has a culture of gun ownership being associated with the exercise of one’s rights which, I would submit, is closely associated with one’s outlook. In short, the US has a gun culture and the other countries don’t. Once America gets culturally sensible about the who and why of gun ownership then it won’t much matter how many guns are in circulation because all of the gun owners will, by definition and qualification, all have their heads screwed on in a sensible manner.

  24. Patrick Ethen Says:

    Michael – I’m a subscriber of yours and respect your work. However, I am a bit confused by the broad conclusions made here. Would it be possible for you to use references & post a follow up article addressing a well done presentation that is using the same logic to say the opposite? I’ve looked at the followup to that as well where the numbers were fine tuned a bit to be even more accurate.

  25. Michael Z. Williamson Says:

    That’s interesting 15 year old information from Trauma and Acute Care Surgery on firearms usage.

    Hey, I saw some awesome advice on heart surgery in Guns and Ammo. And I hear Glenn Beck knows all about feminism.

    I wonder if Mr Shermer can offer an opinion on DEWATs vs pre-May Samples, K=baffles vs M-baffles, or push feed vs controlled feed, being that he’s an expert on firearms and all.

  26. Michael Z. Williamson Says: it’s also a myth that the UK’s murder rate is low, based on a misinterpretation of methodology.

    The above being an analysis by an actual scientist.

    Though I suppose it’s better to be beaten or strangled to death than shot.

  27. Veritas Says:

    Loks like all male comments. Figures.

    People who are violently addicted to guns are using them as a substitute for their (not very successful) sexuality.

  28. Paul Says:

    Over 60% of the stated deaths were from suicide. Do you think people would not commit suicide if they did not have guns?
    The statistics probably include police shootings, and gang on gang violence. Shall we take the guns away from law enforcement? Will criminals start obeying the law if you pass more gun laws?
    The fact is, there are already lots of gun laws on the books that are not enforced. Why, because the penalty is so harsh that they are waived in order to get a confession.
    Enforce whats on the books before you worry about new laws. Englands gun violence is going down because they stepped up enforcement.

  29. THomas Says:

    I’m disappointed by the faulty logic. The fact that guns are used in crimes does not mean they are the cause of those crimes. Nor does it mean that removing the guns would reduce the rate of crime. By the same logic, since a large portion of gun crimes are committed by black males, dark skin color is also a cause of crime — an absurd statement.

  30. brad tittle Says:

    Common Sense for crisis situations:

    1. Get Help.
    2. Attend to the crisis

    In general this means. 1. Call 911. 2. Assess the situation and start mitigating the problem.

    1 thing to do to maximize the chance that you satisfactorily handle these two steps…

    TRAINING. Start classifying those statistics by the quality of training the people involved in those crises has and we will likely see something useful.

    Statistics are dangerous even in the hands of experts. >92% of smokers never get lung cancer even though they are 23x to 40x more likely to get lung cancer. Motorcycles are the most dangerous form of transportation, but 99.9999% of motorcycle trips are completely successfully.

    Life is not safe. The best way to make all of us safer is not to restrict but to train. Put a gun range into every school and make it part of the curriculum. Teach every man woman and child how to safely handle a wide range of weapons.

  31. NJC2 Says:

    Lumping suicides into total gun deaths is a bit dishonest. Suicide is not a violent crime. The same CDC source shows that in 2010 guns were used to commit 11,078 murders. In the UK and Australia, both of which have essentially banned guns, suicides committed with guns decreased, but the suicide rate remained unchanged. Yes the US has higher gun homicides than both the US and Aus., but we also have a lower violent crime rate.

    The 2008 US Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) reported 5.3 million violent crimes (simple/aggravated assaults, robberies, sexual assaults, rapes, and murders), with 430,000 (8%) committed by an offender armed with a gun. The NCVS also reported that guns were used for self defense 116,000 times.

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

    A 1993 nationwide survey of 4,977 households found that over the previous five years, at least 3.5% of households had members who had used a gun “for self-protection or for the protection of property at home, work, or elsewhere.” Applied to the U.S. population, this amounts to 1,029,615 such incidents per year. This figure excludes all “military service, police work, or work as a security guard.”

    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.

    And do you honestly think that gun owners fantasize “blowing away home-invading bad guys or street toughs [sic] holding up liquor stores?” I can’t speak for all gun owners, but for me (and everyone I know that owns one) I never want to be in a situation where I have to use my gun against another person. I fantasize shooting someone as much as I fantasize about dying to cash in my life insurance.

  32. Ullrich Fischer Says:

    Once again, Shermer has demonstrated the key values of skeptical thinking. He looked at the evidence and adjusted his views on private gun ownership accordingly. Unfortunately the idiots fulminating about “straw men constructed from statistics” illustrate the problem with all hot button political issues in the context of a religiously sabotaged US educational system. Critical thinking abilities are in desperately short supply in the good ole USA. Statistics are not straw men. They constitute incontrovertible evidence that widespread private gun ownership leads to higher rates of gun violence.

  33. Tim Says:

    For anyone doubting the efficacy of guns used correctly, I suggest reading ‘More Guns, Less Crime’ by John R. Lott.

  34. PJ Rusin Says:

    I’m shocked at Sherman’s silly editorial on guns. One more nonsensical presentation of the “facts” like this and I’m dumping my subscription to Skeptic magazine. I can’t be bothered to refute a single word because when people want to remain deluded, they remain deluded. The facts are out there. Study them, and if you come to the same conclusions as Sherman, then there’s little hope for your critical thinking skills.

  35. Bad Boy Scientist Says:

    Thank you all for proving my point! You made me look like a freakin’ genius (lol)

    The fact that both sides of this debate are proffering different ‘facts and stats’ – and each side is questioning the validity of the others’ data – illustrates the weakness of ‘settling arguments with data’. I am sad that Dr Mike’s effort failed to make a dent in the debate because I agree 100% with the need to base decisions on evidence – also I *emotionally* agree we must reduce the ability of evil / crazy folk to do mass shootings like Sandy Hook & Aurora.

    But I am weary of the gun debate – I find the discussion of the art of data interpretation far more interesting (and less emotionally charged). There is an aspect of empiricism that we often take for granted: data interpretation is difficult. As I mentioned even scientist who are collaborating can have different interpretation of the ‘results’. Knowing how to take a whole slew of individual facts and turn it into understanding is an art. It often involves intuition & guesswork – and always depends on a deep understanding of the field in question.

    There is a (non-gun) example I like to give my classes to illustrate the importance of data interpretation:

    During WWII the Army Air Corps studied aircraft damage to determine where to best armor the planes (since it wasn’t the tank corps they couldn’t just armor everything!). So they studied the bullet-hole density on planes returning from missions. They found that the wings and aft fuselage had the highest bullet hole densities. The engine & cockpit areas – as well as the elevator/tail area had the lowest density of bullet holes.

    So they increased the ‘hardness’ of the area around the engine, cockpit and tail/elevator – but not the wings and aft fuselage.


    Well, you see, the planes they studies were the ones that made it BACK to base… and in a dog fight the whole surface of the plane has about equal chance of being hit. So clearly bullet holes in the wings and after fuselage weren’t as serious as the engine, cockpit and tail/elevator section. Also it turns out planes can’t fly well with a dead engine or a dead pilot – nor with damaged elevators (they can limp back without ailerons or even a rudder but not without elevators).

    So the moral of the story is you have to think about the data to know what it is really telling you.

  36. Aaron R. Cohen Says:

    I am a relatively new subscriber to Skeptic, although I had come across many of the writings of Dawson,Hitchens et al.when I was studying atheism.
    I feel compelled to comment here as I am a 52 year old male who grew up in the swamps of North Florida, just outside Gainesville. Seeing a gun in the house was as common as seeing a housecat. It seems that Mr. Shermer’s argument fails to address two emotional hot button issues here:Initially, he fails to distinguish between gun violence between legal gun owners and illegal gun owners.
    While the roar and furor of the left seeks to ban all assault style weapons,the simple fact is that all rifles are responsible for a statistically miniscule amount of gun deaths.This includes hunting accidents, accidential discharges climbing fences etc.The simple fact of the matter is that a rifle or shotgun are long and cumbersome and extremely difficult to conceal. The United States already has some of the toughest gun control laws on the books. Unfortunately, responsible gun owners are going to obey the laws anyway. Criminals or those who would use guns to do law abiding citizens harm,could care less if the penalty for carrying an unregistered or stolen hand gun is 5 years or ten years.
    Lest you think I am some ignorant southern redneck, I am a private attorney who also serves as a Chapter 7 Bankruptcy Trustee I have a concealed weapons permit and am armed when I go out to inspect a new case assigned to me and the debtor /principal is trying to remove assets, and none to pleased to be caught or interrupted.
    I think the old adage states it best “It’s better to have a gun and never need one, then to need one and not have one.

  37. Bob Kauten Says:

    As some of the commenters were on the verge of saying, this is a religious argument. Facts have no place in religion.
    The state religion of the United States of America is Gun-Worshiping.
    Hence, the hysterical, panicked whining from the male commenters. Their manhood, their sexuality, and their god are threatened by any hint about gun control.
    Guys, if you’re not a man without a gun, you’re not a man with one, either.
    I used to own ’em and carry ’em, and I know the feeling of power that flows into the hand of an immature male. I grew up. Feel free to emulate.

  38. Tim Says:

    Bob, I live in a rural area of the High Desert in CA, often frequented by drug addicted and desperate criminals. A police response isn’t going to get to me quickly enough to do anything other than identify a crime scene.

    I have practiced martial arts for most of my life, I’m ex-miliary and I still consider a handgun a vital part of personal security. If your psyche is so weak that a handgun makes you puff up you shouldn’t be around them. You’re and example of why guns get misused.

  39. Gsil Zeigler Says:

    Michael,love you but really wonder what world you live in. Like Tim I live in a rural area 20 minutes away from 911 response and additionally am a 77 year old widow who lives alone. I’m well trained and known as “Annie Gail Oakley” at the local gun range and own and have at the ready several firearms. I have never fired at anyone but did once stop an attempted highjacking by displaying a gun. Seeing them go was like roaches at night when a light is flicked on. Gone! The idea of rural folks being told what should happen by urbanites and suburbanites with adequate police protection is the height of elitism. How about a law saying you can’t possess a gun if you live within a mile of a building higher than four stories? Works for me.

  40. Bad Boy Scientist Says:

    So I have a minute to discuss data interpretation …

    @David cites this line asks asks me to interpret it: “in 2010 in the US, 31,672 people were killed by guns, 73,505 were treated in hospital emergency rooms for nonfatal bullet wounds, and 337,960 nonfatal violent crimes were committed with guns”.

    The interpretation is easy: Not Enough Data to Draw any meaningful conclusion.

    We need other numbers for comparison and context. How big is the population this came from? How does the death rate by guns compare with the death rate by other violent means? How do the US death rates (by gun & other) compare with other nations’ death rates (by guns & other)? Thank you @David for providing a wonderful example of how deceptively hard it is to interpret data well.

    A more whimsical example could be: suppose 25% of all redheads drive pick up trucks – what does that tell you about redheads and pickup trucks?

    Not much. What is the going rate for non-redheads?

    BTW: the most interesting data point among those provided by Dr Mike is the one that came after @David’s excerpt:
    61% of gun deaths are suicides!

    Wow. Almost 2/3 of gun deaths are suicides! Am I alone in being surprised by that? Well, I heard about it long ago so I am no longer surprise – but it is a striking statistic. It is so striking, I think it should be a huge factor in the gun control debate. And yet, based on the comments here, it has escaped the attention of most people.

    Part of interpreting data is picking out the important bits from the less important bits… my hunch is the suicide % is really important.

  41. PJ Rusin Says:

    Ban knives, please!

  42. Matt Lonergan Says:

    Mr. Shermer,

    It seems to me you are quite ignorant about firearms and their owners. Therefore, I am willing to pay at my own expense for you to attend a 4 Day Defensive Handgun Course at Front Sight Firearms Training Institute to see for yourself.

    Are you going to choose ignorance or education?


    Matt Lonergan

  43. M Mikols Says:

    I believe both side are mistaken.. I think the real issue is mental health. If we removed all firearms from the planet those mentally unstable among us would just use something else. Knifes, bombs, cars, clubs, time will show that mental health is the real underlying cause of all abhorrent behavior. I would speculate that closed head injuries play more of a factor than we currently realize.

  44. Charlie Says:

    That suicide number is unbelievable.

  45. Stuart Anderson Says:

    As an Australian, born in New Zealand I dispute Jim Delton’s assertions about crime and violent crime in those countries.
    Both countries are far safer without widespread access to firearms. Reliable information on violent crime in Australia can be found here at the Australian Government’s Australian Institute of Criminology website

  46. David Dugle Says:

    I think the figures quoted by Dr. Shermer are basically correct. Many studies have shown that a gun in the house is many times more likely to harm a member of the household than any intruder.
    However, it is also true to say that the overwhelming majority of guns do no harm at all and just sit on a shelf, unused.
    Full disclosure – there is no gun on my shelf and I have gone 62 years without a home invasion by armed intruders. I doubt I will ever have a gun or an invasion.
    All that being said, one must recognize that a gun is designed to kill, and only that. As such, it deserves regulation with regard to its destructive power. A full reading of the 2nd Amendment clearly says the right to bear arms is for members of the militia, and a well-regulated one at that. Weapon regulation has always been with us in one form or another. We already do not allow gun ownership for many kinds of convicted criminals. It is really a privilege that can be rescinded, not an absolute right. Most all of us easily qualify for that privilege right now, but with it must come responsibility. After all, it is the power of quick death we are talking about here.
    Owners should at least be well trained, but licensing and liability insurance would seem to be a reasonable thing to ask of owners too, just as we do for driving a car. Why are “law abiding” gun owners so fearful of this?
    Perhaps a new investigation by Dr. Shermer should be directed into the claims that the government intends to confiscate all guns.

  47. William Van Susteren Says:

    I could not believe this article when I read it. I like this publication, but such an article is nothing more than a biased political statement. I’m thoroughly disappointed in Scientific American for this one.

  48. Gregg R. Thomas Says:

    I look at a weapon in a practical sense. I live in a world with other people, most are pleasant, some are violent.

    The odds of coming into conflict with a violent member of society is small, but still a very real possibility.

    If faced with this possible conflict, I would rather come out the victor not the victim. Which necessitates me having more power to effect the outcome of the event then my opponent.

    To this purpose I carry a gun.

    Carrying Chuck Norris proved to be too difficult.

  49. Alex Says:

    It’s a good article. Thank you, Michael. Oscar Pistorius example may not be associated with US statistics in chapter 4 because it happens overseas in Pretoria, Africa.

  50. Daniel Says:

    Shermer is often right, but he is not right about everything just because his an atheist.

  51. Stephen Says:

    I found this quite enlightening.

  52. JB Says:

    The wingnuts come out of the woodwork again. Ho hum.

  53. Another Point of view Says:

    I am not, or have I ever been a gun owner. I do not need to own a gun to understand that if the government knows who owns weapons and what kind of weapons they own, they know who to go after if they decide to keep control by force. We do have a voluntary military and most of their members value freedom, but they are trained to follow orders. They are not required to follow illegal orders, but they would be likely to if given reasons which sounded good at the time. The right to bear arms is a protection against government, not against other citizens. Our forefathers expected people to be able to hunt and therefore would not have even considered that when amending the constitution.
    Whether guns are safe or not should be up to the individual to decide and then be responsible for his decision, including any penalties such as jail and restitution if he misuses them.

  54. Sue B. Davis Says:

    Excellent article and what better source than Scientific American which I have read for years. However reading the comments posted after this article demonstrates so well that most people make up their minds on an issue and THEN look for data to support their opinion. If the data disagrees with their opinion, they reject it regardless of the source.

  55. David Says:

    Have any of you compared the figures between Toronto,Canada and Detroit or Vancouver,Canada and Seattle ?
    Two comparable cities with comparable “makeup” from two very different countries gun control wise.

  56. Aleksei Novikov Says:

    Dr. Shermer, I’ve watched your brilliant lectures on critical thinking, but now I am disappointed.

    I live in a country where we do have gun control. A lot of gun control. Gun control laws have successfully disarmed law-abiding citizens. Criminals still have all the guns they want.

    By the way, her is a USA gun fact:

    Guess what would happen to that woman and her kids is she had no gun because of a “gun control”? I’ll tell you what usually happens when a victim is unarmed. Rape and murder.

  57. Will Says:

    Most of these comments here are just angry and off-base. You may have different numbers or additional data but the data reported in Shermer’s article stands up by the sources cited. I’ve checked many of them. If you are just going to post your objections and walk away, don’t both since you lose the argument on the facts. If you have contradictory data, post it and note the source! If you can’t do this, your opinion is a house of cards and you should really think about it more and look into the facts.

    I’m a gun owner and skeptical of current gun legislation but I am fully aware of the facts. If you own a gun, the most likely person to be killed by it is you! The second most likely is a family member. 1 out of 5 police shootings is the police officer killing themselves. 2/3rds of gun deaths are suicides. The overwhelmingly likely weapon used in any death is a handgun. Handguns are very good at what they do and many people put them to use very regularly. I will argue the situation of gun control and gun violence with anyone but only a fool ignores the facts. The facts are ugly and mostly true.

  58. Will Says:

    There are number for crimes prevented by guns ranging from 118,000 to 2.5 million but I can’t verify any of the sources. Please post a verifiable source. I am really interested in finding the real number.

    In the mean time, I’ll just leave this here:
    Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Vol. 16, No. 3, Special Issue: The New Public Management in New Zealand and beyond. (Summer, 1997), pp. 463-469.

    “In this article, we discuss the candidacy of one of the more surprising numbers to surface in the course of America’s gun debate: that 2.5 million Americans use a gun defensively against a criminal attacker each year [Kleck and Gertz, 19951. News items,’ editorial writer^,^ even the Congressional Research Service [Bea, 19941 have mentioned the 2.5 million defensive gun uses (DGUs) as established fact. This number is considerably higher than our best estimate of the number of crimes committed each year with a firearm (1.3 million)[U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1996b1, and has been used as an argument against regulations that would restrict widespread
    firearms ownership.”

    Let’s have some real numbers…

  59. Jay Rosen Says:

    True science starts with observation…and the integrity of the observer. To look at murder statistics and ignore 99% of the murders, is not science.
    The debate over gun control is a debate about the Second Amendment and the power relationship between the government and the people. The Second Amendment addressed the question of whether the government should be allowed to have a monopoly in regard to the use of force and it prohibited the government from having a monopoly. The framers knew and expressed clearly that such a monopoly lead to abuses by the government. Since 1776, the citizens of every nation in the world [except for Switzerland] have been abused and victimized by the government. Please compare our murder rate for the past century to Germany, Japan, Russia and China to the US…but include all of the murders, including those committed by the governments. One will discover, that with a system of checks and balances, the US murder rate is astonishingly low.
    To quote Mr. Shermer, “According to the [CDC], 31,672 people died by guns in 2010 … a staggering number that is orders of magnitude higher than that of comparable Western democracies. What can we do about it?”
    It is not ‘orders of magnitude’ higher, even if government murder is ignored, instead it is orders of magnitude lower in the US if all murders are considered.
    ‘What can we do about it?’ We can start by telling the truth and having integrity.

  60. Will Says:

    Jay Rosen Says:
    “It is not ‘orders of magnitude’ higher, even if government murder is ignored, instead it is orders of magnitude lower in the US if all murders are considered.
    ‘What can we do about it?’ We can start by telling the truth and having integrity.”

    Speaking of having integrity, how about listing some actual numbers and your sources so you can argue facts instead of accusations. The properly cited data disagrees with you.

  61. tpayne Says:

    I’d like to thank those who had additional information to share and provided links to other data. Maybe data can help clarify the gun debate, but the data provided by Dr. Shermer was old, thin, and inadequate to support his thesis.
    Now, if your point is that guns are a top choice for suicide, and that society should legislate restrictions on ownership or use of guns to address suicide, then lets have that discussion.
    This whole issue is just another question of which is better, the wisdom of the masses vs. the wisdom of the central planners.

  62. Will Says:

    Dr. Shermer cites data sources and refers to them in every paragraph. That is not thin support for an argument. Dr. Shermer’s data is much more clear and specific than the data cited in the comments. That’s much more adequate that any of the postings. Most of the data is from 2010 except for one set from 1998. If there is newer, different data then you should post it and stop wining about it.

    Again, if you have data, post it or you are just writing an advertisement, only you believe, for your house of cards. Keep in mind that the risk you take is that if you try to research the data and make a real case to me and others, it may have more of an effect on yourself than us.

  63. Will Says:

    As an example, let me properly post one problem with the conclusions in the article. In the last paragraph of the article, Dr Shermer quotes a statement concerning the effect of “strong regulation and oversight of licensed gun dealers” and a 64% less diversion of guns to criminals implying that this alone will have a substantial effect on the possession of guns by criminals. This quotation is taken out of context and does not reflect the data. In the same John Hopkins document, they state that “Data on guns recovered by police and traced by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) have indicated that about 85% of criminal possessors were not the retail purchaser (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms 2002).” Dr. Shermer link to Amazon does make it hard to verify, but you can actually see the paper at:

    As also cited in the same paper, a very good source for this data is the U.S. Department of Justice special report on firearm use by offenders:

    Here is a simple pie chart if you don’t want to dig through the data:

    On average, less than 20% of criminals get arms from sources affected by gun dealer laws. More enlightening is that gun shows account for less than 1 percent of guns in the hands of criminals according to the data so all this concern over gun shows passing out weapons to criminals is simply not valid and unsupported. In the end, efforts to make sure that guns only end up in the hands of the “right people” could only reduce the number of guns available to criminals by a maximum of 20% after the time require to clear out the ~270 million guns currently in circulation.

    The prior points in the article had some validity in that guns are very dangerous and prevention of suicides would have a bigger effect on guns deaths than any form of gun control, but the last point in the article in based on a cherry-picked quote and not supported by the evidence.

  64. Mike Davidson Bird Says:

    Suicides by gun in the US are approximately twice the homicide rate. In sheer numbers they are a greater challenge – suicide often being “a permanent solution to a temporary problem” as someone said. The gun-homicide rate per 1000 population is about 90 times greater in the USA than the UK. Commentators in the US ask, how about bad people with guns killing UK’s unarmed cops? Here is the Wikipedia answer: “Shooting fatalities of members of the police are extremely rare; there were three in England and Wales in the eleven-year period from 2000/01 to 2010/11.” The US average is about 60-70 a year, say 700 total in the same period.

    The response of gun-loving people to such data is denial; rage; bullying; shoot-the-messenger (“it’s all lies!”) and muddying-the-waters with irrelevant mini-analyses (“if you compare Uruguay with Luxembourg….” and other forms of obfuscation…

  65. George DeMoura Says:

    I grew up in a house with guns, several as a matter of fact, a couple of shotguns, a few hunting rifles, and my .22 target rifles, one a bolt-action Remington, the other a semi-automatic Winchester. Both of which I had been firing since I was eleven years old. Oh, and there was also a 9mm Glock pistol.
    Gun education was very important to my father. In much the same way as never cut toward yourself with a knife, keep your fingers out of the fan, don’t pull the German shepard’s tail next door or she will bite you. It was considered common sense to know that guns were dangerous when improperly handled or not properly respected. It was also a maxim of my father’s to, “never let a goddamn idiot even know there was a gun in the house.” We must have known a lot of goddamn idiots because my father rarely spoke of them,except to his brother and other gun owner friends of his. All of whom seemed to share his opinion of goddamned idiots.
    As for me I had a BB gun at nine, a .22 bolt action rifle at eleven and never considered it out of the ordinary to take one or the other of them when I went hiking in the woods. I shot at targets carved in trees and squirrels. The fact is that guns were mundane to me growing up. they were just simply there and if you just possessed a modicum of common sense there was nothing wrong with them being there.
    However,like my father I rarely spoke of them. And as the farm and woodland around the village I grew up in was bulldozed into the Suburban American Dream. I learned to not speak of them at all because within just a few short years I was surrounded by goddamn idiots.
    And to this day I am still surrounded by goddamn idiots. [I won’t go off on that tangent this comment is about gun control after all.]
    The simple truth of the matter is that 90% of the people who own guns should not. they are a danger to themselves and to everyone around them. Shooting a spouse thinking it was a burglar (questionable but possible), pulling a gun in rage or under the influence of whatever, men confusing their guns with their dicks, women confusing the gun in her nightstand for strength, children getting their hands on them and doing what the media shows them to do. These people should not own guns. These people are the goddamn idiots my father warned me about. These are the reasons that more stringent gun control is necessary.
    However I still believe in being able to legally obtain firearms. As I said I grew up around guns and people who knew and understood and respected them for what they are and what they can do. There are still people like that out there–I know some of them personally. I presently don’t own any guns, I have no plans to purchase any in the near future, but I might someday change my mind. And if I should I want to be able to go to a reputable, licensed dealer and purchase the firearm I want or feel I might need. I know I’m not going to shoot myself in the foot. I also am not going to buy an AK-47. I believe in gun control, not gun prohibition.
    Oh, and as to the idea that more stringent gun controls or prohibitions will keep guns out of the hands of criminals it ain’t gonna happen. If criminals want guns they are going to obtain them through illegal sources. Why? because they’re criminals. That’s what criminals do. Anything from a knock-off Saturday Night Special to a crate of AK-47’s. Just like breathing air. So don’t go there. Don’t even insinuate that there my be a shred of possibility of keeping weapons from people who intend to use them for harm. They’ll just cut a deal with the DEA and…oops.
    And if that nice reputable, licensed dealer for whatever reason cannot clear me for the legal purchase of a legal firearm…well, I know a guy, who says he knows a guy…

  66. Roland H Says:

    Mr. Shermer unfortunately fell for some of the most glaring fallacies in the polarizing gun debate, strongly believing them for a long time before even writing this:

    31,672 people did not “die by guns” alone, people had something to do with it, and therefore society had something to do with it. Society’s have vastly different cultures, as well as many other important differences, such as demographics, and history.

    Put aside what the NRA says for a minute, because they are on one side of a extremely emotional, and politically polarized debate. Vilifying them and knee jerk opposing them doesn’t help one to stay unbiased.

    I feel as if I should almost have to scream this point to the top of my lungs, YOU DON’T NECESSARILY NEED TO SHOOT A ATTACKER OR ROBBER, to either deter them before they even get started, or scare them away once they do. This is the one where MR. Shermer really seriously fails big time. In fact the vast majority of the time attackers are scared off merely by the possession of a gun by the intended victim. Law abiding citizens are not out to bag a criminal, merely to be left alone.

    “A gun in the home”… ah I want to pull my hair out, crack dealers, and people with dangerous lifestyles have close family, they have friends and acquaintances too, they tend to shoot these people quite frequently.

    NEARLY A HUNDRED MILLION Americans have “a gun in the home”. These law abiding people, such as the ones with concealed carry permits, have extremely low rates of breaking the law. If you don’t have a checkered past or a dangerous lifestyle, don’t worry that you might suddenly, for no reason, go crazy. Just store your firearms safely, and follow all safety precautions.

    All studies are not created equal, firearms as relates to violence was not studied a lot for a long time. Some early studies were done by “researchers”, such as unqualified MD’s, who tended to have a biased approach.

    Someone such as Mr. Shermer, or Stephen pinker should do a detailed study in book form, of why the US has had a historically higher homicide rate. But please correct for these fallacies. This subject really fascinates me, as well it likely would interest many.

    I can think of a number of different reasons, such as the south having a distinct culture, Scots-Irish population, and the effects of slavery. The southern part of the US is really where the high crime and murder rates have prevailed for a long time.

  67. Chris Says:

    I am disappointed in you, an avowed “skeptic.” Tell me, how many crimes are prevented, and lives are saved, by the fact of gun ownership? Even a freshman statistics major would tell you that you cannot get a grip on the number simply by counting the times a gun was used or pulled in the course of a crime. One must also count the number of times that criminals decided against entering a home or place of business out of fear that the owner, like me, possessed weapons and stood ready to use them. Until we have a way of counting these avoided crimes, your analysis is BS.

  68. Mark Karadimos Says:

    Your article in Scientific American was hardly fair and hardly a reflection of scientific thinking. Therefore, I question the intent of the article itself as a means for swaying beliefs via literary persuasive strategies only, not scientific reasoning.

    See what I mean via my report…

  69. SB Kravetz Says:

    For everyone here who’s been complaining that there isn’t enough clear data, may I remind you that this is not a coincidence? The gun lobby has worked hard to prevent funding of research into gun violence. See this article discussing the history of efforts to constrict or eliminate research on the relationship between gun violence and guns.

  70. Roland H Says:

    The gun control believers have a mental block, even skeptics cannot come to accept that the scientific consensus finds no indication that gun control is effective. The evidence from a large number of studies was reviewed by the CDC to that effect.

    Murders have been halved in the last two decades while the number of guns has increased dramatically, and concealed carry has spread to most states. Liberals have this hate for the NRA, even if many registered Democrats agree with them in substance on guns, simply because their members tend to vote against liberals on so many other issues .

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how Akismet processes your comment data.