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The health risk of having a gun in the home

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REUTERS/Joshua Lott
The health risks of owning a gun are so established and scientifically non-controvertible that the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement in 2000 recommending that pediatricians urge parents to remove all guns from their homes.

Having a gun in your home significantly increases your risk of death — and that of your spouse and children.

And it doesn’t matter how the guns are stored or what type or how many guns you own.

If you have a gun, everybody in your home is more likely than your non-gun-owning neighbors and their families to die in a gun-related accident, suicide or homicide.

Furthermore, there is no credible evidence that having a gun in your house reduces your risk of being a victim of a crime. Nor does it reduce your risk of being injured during a home break-in.

The health risks of owning a gun are so established and scientifically non-controvertible that the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement in 2000 recommending that pediatricians urge parents to remove all guns from their homes.

Notice that the recommendation doesn’t call for parents to simply lock up their guns. It stresses that the weapons need to be taken out of the house.

Study after study has been conducted on the health risks associated with guns in the home. One of the latest was a meta-review published in 2011 by David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. He examined all the scientific literature to date on the health risks and benefits of gun ownership.

What he found was sobering, to say the least.

Accidental deaths

To begin with, having a gun in the home is a risk factor for serious accidental injury and death. As Hemenway points out, death certificate data indicate that 680 Americans were killed accidentally with guns each year between 2003 and 2007. Half those victims were under the age of 25.

Children aged 5 to 14 in the United States are 11 times more likely to die from an accidental gunshot wound than children in other developed countries.

Nonfatal gun injuries occur at the average rate of 20 a day in the United States — and that doesn’t include pellet-gun injuries (which average 45 day) or injuries that don’t involve a bullet wound (like powder burns and recoil injuries).

“One study of nonfatal accidental shootings found that the majority were self- inflicted, most involved handguns, and more than one third of the injuries required hospitalization,” writes Hemenway. “Injuries often occurred during fairly routine gun handling — cleaning a gun, loading and unloading, target shooting, and so on.”

Suicides

An average of 46 Americans committed suicide with guns each day between 2003 and 2007. In fact, more Americans killed themselves with guns during those years than with all other methods combined.

Gun owners and their families are not more suicidal than non-gun-owners, research shows. No are they more likely to have a history of depression or other mental health problems.

But they — and their families — are at significantly increased risk of successfully taking their lives with a gun. The reason: Guns are more lethal than other methods.

One study found, reports Hemenway, that “in states with more guns, there were more suicides (because there were more firearm suicides), even after controlling for the percentage of the state’s population with serious mental illness, alcohol dependence or abuse, illicit substance dependence or abuse, and the percentage unemployed, living below the poverty level, and in urban areas.”

But “there was no association between gun prevalence and a state’s nonfirearm suicide rate,” he adds.

Homicides

Two-thirds of all murders between 2003 and 2007 involved guns. The average number of Americans shot and killed daily during those years was 33. Of those, one was a child (0 to 14 years), five were teenagers (15 to 19 years) and seven were young adults (20 to 24 years), on average.

Children in the U.S. get murdered with guns at a rate that is 13 times higher than that of other developed nations. For our young people aged 15 to 24, the rate is 43 times higher.

“The presence of a gun makes quarrels, disputes, assaults, and robberies more deadly. Many murders are committed in a moment of rage,” writes Hemenway.

“For example, a large percentage of homicides — and especially homicides in the home — occur during altercations over matters such as love, money, and domestic problems, involving acquaintances, neighbors, lovers, and family members; often the assailant or victim has been drinking. Only a small minority of homicides appear to be the carefully planned acts of individuals with a single-minded intention to kill. Most gun killings are indistinguishable from nonfatal gun shootings; it is just a question of the caliber of the gun, whether a vital organ is hit, and how much time passes before medical treatment arrives.”

Benefits?

The possible health benefits of gun ownership are twofold: deterring crime and stopping crimes in progress. But there are no credible studies, says Hemenway, that higher levels of gun ownership actually do these things.

“The main reason people give for having a handgun in the home is protection, typically against stranger violence,” he writes. “However, it is important to recognize that the home is a relatively safe place, especially from strangers. For example, fewer than 30% of burglaries in the United States (2003-2007) occur when someone is at home. In the 7% of burglaries when violence does occur, the burglar is more likely to be an intimate (current or former) and also more likely to be a relative or known acquaintance than a stranger. Although people typically spend most of their time at home, only 5% of all the crimes of violence perpetrated by strangers occur at home.”

In fact, adds Hemenway, research shows that most self-defense use of guns is not socially desirable. He describes one study in which “criminal court judges from across the United States read the 35 descriptions of the reported self-defense firearm uses from 2 national surveys and found that, even if description of the event was accurate, in most of the cases, the self-defense gun use was probably illegal. Many were arguments that escalated into gun use.”

Real risks

“There are real and imaginary situations when it might be beneficial to have a gun in the home,” Hemenway concludes. “For example, in the Australian film Mad Max, where survivors of the apocalypse seem to have been predominantly psychopathic male bikers, having a loaded gun would seem to be very helpful for survival, and public health experts would probably advise people in that world to obtain guns.”

“However, for most contemporary Americans, the scientific studies suggest that the health risk of a gun in the home is greater than the benefit,” he adds.  “There are no credible studies that indicate otherwise.”

Hemenway’s review appeared in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine and can be read in full online.

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Comments (32)

Thanks for this article, and

Thanks for this article, and the link to the Hemenway piece. Although I agree with it, I will point out one sloppy bit of editing in his piece:

-someone, presumably an editor, put a large-font quote in red on the first page, that reads "For example, your gun may be stolen and used to commit crimes, your child may shoot a friend accidentally, or you may scare a burglar away from your neighbor’s house." This prominent display implies that the quoted sentence is a major conclusion of the article.

In fact, it is lifted from this passage, which actually says the opposite- this article specifically doesn't address that situation. IT reads: "For example, your gun may be stolen and used to commit crimes, your child may shoot a friend accidentally, or you may scare a burglar away from your neighbor’s house. This article does not focus on such issues."

Doesn't take away from the main findings, but it's unfortunate, because it can be used as an example of sloppiness that people might use to question the validity of the remainder of the work.

I look forward

…to the NRA policy response to this.

Meanwhile, it ought to be on the desk of every member of the Minnesota Congressional delegation, House and Senate both. I've often wondered how the number of people killed in domestic disputes and drunken rages, stacked up against the "home invasion" sort of attack by a stranger that's typically used (read any recent issue of Guns and Ammo magazine) as a rationale for having a handgun, usually of sizable caliber, in one's home.

NRA response

will probably be the usual statement that the science is flawed, without actually pointing out the flaw or proposing a corrected interpretation of the data.

thanks

First, anyone who cites John Lott's "study" needs to google "Mary Rosh".

This echoes findings in a 3 city study from about 10 years ago. It was published in the Journal of Trauma, and indicated that for every time a handgun was used to protect the home, there were (IIRC) a dozen suicides, almost 20 heat of anger family member killings, and 20 accidental deaths.

Really, guns are causing completed suicides?

An excerpt from the linked meta-review abstract: "The evidence is overwhelming for the fact that a gun in the home is a risk factor for completed suicide and that gun accidents are most likely to occur in homes with guns. There is compelling evidence that a gun in the home is a risk factor for intimidation and for killing women in their homes. On the benefit side, there are fewer studies."

1) SUICIDES. In this article from Friday's Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2012/12/14/the-japan-l... we may read the story of Japan having nearly zero gun deaths. The obvious question to me is, "How do they complete so many suicides?" According the the World Health Organization, suicides per 100,000 people per year: Japan = 33.5 male & 14.6 female; USA 19.2 male and 5.0 female, very similar to gun-controlled Canada: 17.3/5.4.
2) "... gun accidents are most likely to occur in homes with guns." Really, like highway deaths are more likely to involve people on the highways?
3)"On the benefit side, there are fewer studies." There is a benefit side? This column doesn't mention a benefit side.

Lott "co-author Mary Rosh"

No cite to John Lott's "studies" is complete without googling Mary Rosh.

Suicides are hard to do.

I speak from personal experience.

My wife tried to overdose, tried slitting her wrists, brain injury, suffocation. Those didn't work. My mother tried overdosing and alcohol poisoning. Didn't work. My friend's brother tried hanging in the shower. Didn't work. I could literally go on and on. Most of my friends and family are suicidal.

So here's the thing. Guns are much easier to get right. Especially if you know what to do. If you're too heavy you have a hard time finding something that will support your weight long enough, if you are too fat, its harder to overdose before a stomach gets pumped.

You put a gun in your mouth, aim for the back of the head, you're pretty much guaranteed success. If you aim it too far forward you could very well still bleed out before someone can help you.

This is why Guns are more than any other suicide statistic in the U.S. because they are designed to kill. You don't have to come up with elaborate plots. You don't have to know much more than mouth, aim back, pull the trigger.

Steve, if you read it

Steve, if you read it carefully, the benefits it refers to are the ones often cited by pro-gun advocates: gun ownership makes your home safer from break-in, it lessens your chance of assault, etc. The author searched the medical literature for studies supporting those claims, and found none. To be fair, that doesn't mean that benefits don't exist, but the point is that there are measurable harms, and no documented benefits.

I have read extensively on the topic

This reference, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/More_Guns,_Less_Crime , provides of list of references for studies both in support of and against the research reported in Professor John Lott's book "More Guns, Less Crime".

From the linked reference, "A conference organized by the Center for Law, Economics, and Public Policy at Yale Law School and held at American Enterprise Institute was published in a special issue of the Journal of Law and Economics of The Journal of Law and Economics. Academics of all interests in the debate were invited to participate and provide refereed empirical research."

P.S.: I am interested in hearing your support for the assertion that guns are the cause of completed suicides in the U.S.A.

Completion

Steve, you're asking the wrong question. The assertion is that people who use a gun for suicide often complete it, not that people who attempt suicide most often use a gun. Those are two entirely different items.

And in Japan ...

... the completed suicide rate is approximately twice that of the USA, but rarely is a gun used. Take away the gun in Japan, and the suicide rate does not change. It seems reasonable that if you took away the gun in the USA, people would take up suicide methods popular in Japan.

Common suicide methods include jumping in front of trains, leaping off bridges and buildings, hanging, and drug overdoses. One of the newer innovations is the use household products to produce hydrogen sulfide gas. This suicide method puts others at risks, including hospital personnel. People intent on killing themselves will be successful; the data from Japan supports that assertion.

Some issues with this

First point, yes of course you are more at risk of a gun accident if you have a gun in the home. This statement makes as much sense as saying if you own a bike, there is a greater risk of getting in a bike accident.

Secondly I feel that in Minnesota especially, the majority of gun owners are hunters with guns for that purpose, not personal protection type guns. Sure some of them own handguns and maybe assault type guns but they know how to use them and store them properly. I am one of those people.

In almost all cases where there are mass murders the shooters are mentally ill. You can get rid of guns from law abiding citizens, but you will not get rid of the mentally ill or illegal guns. Time to look at that side of the argument.

Lastly while I am an NRA member and have been for some time, changes are needed. I will be expecting some changes in the NRA's stance assault type weapons. If not, I will be cancelling my membership.

bikes...and flour

Bob...Your comment gave me quite a chuckle...OF COURSE you're more likely to have bike accident if you own a bike...just like you're more likely to spill a sack of flour all over your kitchen if you're a frequent baker...but bike accidents and flour spills are unlikely to KILL you...I respect your right to argue your point but PLEASE come up with a more logical analogy...(doubt you will though because there isn't one...people with guns end up killing more people because guns are overwhelmingly the most efficient way to kill people...they replaced the sling shot and the bow and arrow a LONG time ago)

Bikes and Rifles

Jennifer, your comment gave me quite a chuckle. Are bike accidents unlikely to kill you? 24-year-old Jessica Hanson was riding her bicycle on Wednesday night in Minneapolis; she was struck and killed. That is the most recent local bicycle death of which I am aware. Of course this is anecdotal data, so let's examine the numbers.

According to the NHTSA, there were 677 bicycle deaths and 38,000 reported injuries in 2011. In July 2011, I was struck by a motorcycle while commuting on my bicycle. The incident was unreported.

According to the FBI, there were 323 deaths by all rifles in 2011, including so-called assault rifles.

Of course those that succumbed to bicycle accidents and rifle shots may have died of other causes had all rifles and bicycles not been present. I find it helpful to make these comparisons, to provide a frame of reference.

Some people can't assess risk accurately

I once reported on a small city in Arkansas where there had been a spate of teen suicides. I talked to the mother of a boy who had killed himself with one of the family guns. The mother also told me that her brother had died in a gun accident -- he had been making red-eye gravy when a loaded gun he had in the kitchen fell off the counter and discharged.

So, two family members had died by gunshot. I gingerly asked her if she was getting rid of her guns, expecting an answer in the affirmative.

"Oh, no!" she exclaimed, looking at me like I was crazy. "I wouldn't feel safe if I didn't have a gun in the house!"

I didn't say anything. What I WANTED to say was: "So, let me get this straight. Your brother and your son were killed by guns in the house. But you need a gun in the house because if you didn't have one, a stranger might kill your son and your brother?"

People need to read these

People need to read these studies more carefully- the finding is not that houses with guns are more likely to have gun accidents; that would indeed be a blinding flash of the obvious.

What they do find is that the risk of gun violence of ANY sort is higher if you have a gun in the house; as in you get no protection from gun-wielding outsiders trying to so you harm. It's pretty simple science, and the evidence (from the peer-reviewed literature, not Wikipedia), is compelling, direct, and consistent. I how the NRA changes its stance on assay rifles, Bob, but if you mean what you say I'd draft your cancellation note.

Unable to respond regarding suicide?

"you get no protection from gun-wielding outsiders trying to so [sic] you harm." Really? No one has ever defended their home with a gun? I don't believe that you actually believe that statement.

I quoted wikipedia because it had a nice collection of peer-reviewed study references on both sides of the issue.

Still unable to respond regarding claims in this article regarding suicide? I didn't think so.

Steve-- the point of an

Steve-- the point of an article like the Hemenway paper is to look systematically at the reported evidence, both the harms and benefits, and report them in a transparent way-- including describing the methods, sources, etc, so that someone who disagrees can go do the same thing and ensure that no studies are ignored, misinterpreted, etc. This is a pretty standard methodology, and he did it well. He is not (nor am I-- and you probably know that) saying that never in the history of the US has someone defended their home with a gun. He is saying that no evidence exists that this happens often enough to make up for the harms that are well documented (accidental shootings of family/friends, accidents during cleaning/maintaining the gun, etc). This is what public health people do-- they analyze data to report overall effects, so we don't have to rely on the thousands of anecdotes and selectively choose one to fit our biases. No one would ever choose cancer treatment that way ("so the evidence says 90% cure with drug A, 30% with drug B. But my buddy survived with drug B, so I'll take that one"), so why should we analyze the harms/benefits of guns in such a sloppy way?

As to the claims of the articles regarding suicide-- I wasn't aware you were waiting on me, and I'm not sure why you would-- I never really addressed them. But, since you are-- the findings are pretty straightforward. In the US, having guns in the house increases your risk for suicide, compared to a house with no guns, and that excess risk is explained by an increase in gun-related suicide, but not by any increase in other forms (pills, gas, hanging, etc). Again, it's pretty basic science, done transparently, ready for anyone with the necessary funding support (say, from the NRA) to replicate and see if there are flaws in the data, pro-gun studies that were ignored, etc.

Comparing suicide rates Japan and the US is a bit of a stretch, since many things go into suicide-- including cultural norms. The comparison being made in this article was not between countries, but rather within the US-- both are interesting and relevant questions, but to dismiss the work because someone answered one and didn't address the other is sort of silly. Should we dismiss the next study of cancer rates among northern MN miners, because it didn't include data on miners from China?

Study by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center (C. Barber)

The study is based on based on US Vital Statistics data accessed from:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) Available from URL: www.cdc.gov/ncipc/wisqars

"The suicide rate for teens began declining sharply in the mid-90s. During the 10 years 1994-2003
Suicides dropped an average of 3.8% annually, or 33% when comparing 1994 with 2003." This occurred during a period of brisk gun sales and increasing gun ownership. It is also noteworthy that suffocations increased in the 2000s."

It is not noteworthy that people without access to a gun did not use a gun to commit suicide. People with a gun in their home were not more likely to commit suicide, though people that committed suicide, who had access to a gun, were more likely to choose a gun to commit suicide. Those determined to take their own life found a way, regardless of their geographic location.

Generally, when you are

Generally, when you are quoting a study, it is nice to provide a direct link-- you linked to the CDC page that was the source of the data, but as to where you are quoting from I have no idea. But, I think you're misrepresenting her data. I goggled the text you quoted, and the top hit was a power-point presentation available on line, by Catherine Barber, titled "Trends in Rates and Methods of Suicide, United States, 1985-2004"

It is at this very long URL:
http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CDcQ...

You may want to pay particular attention to slides 28 and 29. The text there reads:

Slide 28: Reduced gun availability?
As a potential explanation for why, in part, youth suicide declined, reduced access to guns at home “fits” the data pretty well because the data indicate:
A decline in deaths but no decline in attempts
A decline that began in the 90s and stalled in the 2000s
A method-specific decline with non-firearm methods staying flat or increasing

Slide 29: Why does gun availability matter?
Some suicide attempts are impulsive
Some occur during a crisis
If a gun is not available, nearly every other method substituted is less lethal
90% of those who survive a nonfatal attempt do not go on to die by suicide (Owens, British J Psych, 2002; review of 90 studies of repetition of self-harm)
All US case control studies have indicated the presence of a gun is a risk factor for suicide

You may want to look through that. It is directly contradictory to the points you make.

Seriously, "as a potential explanation for why"?

Sounds to me to be more squishy than conclusive. Perhaps, there are other potential explanations.

"Reduced access "fits"". Does it? During the period of interest (1985-2004) , 9 or 10 million guns were sold in the U.S. each year, but access was reduced. How is that possible? Dry that one out, and you could fertilize the whole lawn.

Sorry, have spent enough time

Sorry, have spent enough time on this.

First I point out that the researcher you quote to support your assertions does the opposite, now you raise questions regarding the validity of the study. Oddly enough, you had no issues with the author when you thought she was on your side. Dig all you want. Read the papers. It can only enlighten you.

Look at the data and data summaries; draw your own conclusions

I am aware of the conclusion reached by the study author, which is why it is important to challenge the conclusions, using the same data. If you can consider "as a potential explanation for why" to be a conclusion, you may be more concerned with a sound bite than with the truth. That sounds like PowerPoint-speak for either "we don't know what is going on here" or "what is indicated is not aligned with the preconceived conclusion, and would not support our agenda."

Over the ten year period of interest, about 100 million guns were purchased in the USA, while teen suicide declined 33%. The answer: Less access! That is all that is offered on the PowerPoint slide? How? How in the presence of 100 million additional guns, was less access achieved?

Grounding in peer reviewed science is invaluable. Thanks.

Thanks for a thoughtful treatment of such a timely topic. Such substantive and academically grounded analysis too easily is lost in the emotion of cable TV, or even sometimes in the back-and-forth of public radio call-in shows.

To have peer-reviewed science to which we can be collectively directed is so helpful as leaders begin to formulate appropriate policy responses. And yes, if folks take a different view, they're welcome to present counter-examples and links (other news sources don't allow that), and then we if we wish can judge their validity for ourselves.

Thanks again, MinnPost!

What is not mentioned in the article.

Mr. Hemenway has long been associated with the Violence Policy Center, a gun control organization.

Step 1: find her published

Step 1: find her published research. Here's a start: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/research/hicrc/publications/

Step 2: Read it

Step 3: Think about it

Step 4: (which you've skipped to) ask others to explain the conclusions

Terrific article

Thank you for providing this data and research, Susan. It's what we've been wanting from Nate Silver, and you're the first one I've seen put this out recently. I appreciate the reference to Mad Max. That is the image that has been in my mind whenever gun lobbyists insist the answer to gun violence is more and deadlier guns, a nightmare scenario.

excellent article

Beef up laws for unregistered/unlicensed gun possession and draft laws for increase in liability of gun owners when their gun is used in a crime. And yes this would not of deterred Sandy Hook, but it may have made his mother think twice before purchasing them.

http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2007/04/21/weekinreview/20070422_MARSH...

FBI and Police statistics

The figures she has doesn't even come close to FBI statistics. What a bunch of garbage. I am also finding the MinnPost edits comments to fit is political stance just like every other news source. I thought MinnPost was independent.

I may have found some credible evidence

"Furthermore, there is no credible evidence that having a gun in your house reduces your risk of being a victim of crime. Nor does it reduce your risk of being injured during a home break-in."

Does blindingly obvious common sense count as "credible evidence"? If so I respectfully disagree with those two conclusions.

Who needs a study to decide conclusively that having access to a modern defensive firearm reduces your risk of being a victim of many types of crime. True, being armed probably won't reduce your risk of being burglarized. Why would it? But it'll definitely reduce the risk of you being beaten unconscious by that burglar. Or raped. No one's claiming owning a gun reduces your risk of crime. The idea is to reduce the severity.

And having access to say, a short barrelled 12 gauge shotgun, absolutely, positively and without a doubt reduces your risk of being injured during a home break-in. How irrationally anti-gun do you have to be to suggest otherwise?

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This is an issue of control

The premise of this article suggests that people shouldn't have guns in the home because the chances of preventing a home invasion type event is less than the chances of accidental or intentional harm caused by a person living in the home. No. The issue is control. A person who keeps a firearm in the home is in control of how safely that firearm is kept; furthermore a person is no more or less violent with or without a firearm. However, in a home invasion type event, a person with a firearm has more control than one who doesn't.

You see the issue now? People who advocate more gun control want control to be in the hands of the Gov't. They don't want firearms so they're okay with Gov't removing them from other people. People who want firearms want to be in control of their own destiny. Whatever happens in the home is in their control - not in the control of someone else.