How Your Tax Dollars Demonize Your Guns
Friday, January 22, 2010
The federal government has resumed the
Clinton-era ideological offensive against gun ownership. The
opening salvo was fired recently by the federal National Institutes
of Health, with a new study purporting to show that gun ownership
increases the risk of being shot by 4.5 times.
by Dave Kopel
To really understand what's going on here, however, let's go
back a few years.
The gun prohibition movement recognizes, correctly, that its
objectives will be very difficult to achieve politically as long as
so many Americans own firearms. Accordingly, scaring Americans away
from gun ownership is an essential component of their long-term
strategy. Put simply, fewer gun owners equals fewer gun-rights
Obviously, this fear-of-guns strategy won't work on NRA members
and others who are already familiar and comfortable with firearms,
but it could work on people who might be considering buying guns.
And it also can be effective in convincing a spouse to veto his or
her partner's contemplated gun purchase.
Because of the great successes in controlling communicable
diseases in recent decades, government entities that were set up
for the purpose of disease control have looked to expand their
operations into other fields--to assure their continued long-term
So back in the 1980s, the federal Centers for Disease Control
(CDC) decided guns were a "public health" issue and began funding
more and more research on guns and gun control. Some of what was
produced was valuable social science, but a great deal was "junk"
science, patently designed to create prohibitionist talking
Those involved were not shy about discussing their gun-ban
Dr. Mark Rosenberg, who was then director of the National Center
for Injury Prevention and Control at the CDC, explained his aim was
to make the public see firearms as "dirty, deadly--and banned."
(Quoted in William Raspberry, "Sick People With Guns," The
Washington Post, Oct. 19, 1994.) A newspaper article on two other
leading anti-gun propagandists, Dr. Katherine Christoffel and Dr.
Robert Tanz of the Children's Hospital in Chicago, explained their
"plan to do to handguns what their profession has done to
cigarettes ... turn gun ownership from a personal-choice issue to a
repulsive, anti-social health hazard." (Harold Henderson, "Policy:
Guns 'n Poses," Chicago Reader, Dec. 16, 1994.) Many of the
propaganda articles were widely disseminated by a credulous media
eager to tout supposedly scientific proof that guns were bad. The
most popular of these articles was built around a one-sentence
factoid that asserted the dangers of guns far outweighed the
Finally, in 1996, Congress cut off gun control funding for the
CDC--mainly because the NRA demonstrated to legislators the CDC was
buying political misinformation rather than science.
Now, 14 years later, your tax dollars are once against being
used to fund a campaign against your rights through the federal
National Institutes of Health (NIH).
In mid-September, the University of Pennsylvania released a
study paid for by the NIH with $639,586 of your tax dollars. The
study's "conclusion" claimed people who possessed guns are 4.5
times more likely to be shot than people who do not possess
As usual, media all over the country publicized this latest
"good" news. Gun-ban groups jumped on the bandwagon.
Brady Campaign President Paul Helmke announced: "The study's
findings show once again the risks of gun ownership and how having
more guns correlates with more gun violence. This research severely
undermines the argument by gun pushers that carrying a gun
automatically makes a person safer. In urban areas, gun possessors,
far from being protected by their guns, are at an increased risk of
harm. Restrictions on carrying guns clearly make sense as a smart
public safety strategy."
The lead author of the study was Dr. Charles C. Branas of the
Firearm and Injury Center at the University of Pennsylvania School
of Medicine in Philadelphia. He was assisted by four Penn
colleagues, including Douglas J. Wiebe of the Firearm and Injury
The researchers interviewed shooting victims in Philadelphia
within a few days of being shot and tried to find the ones who
possessed guns at the time of their shootings. About three-quarters
cooperated. Although the study included people who were killed, it
does not explain how data was gathered about them. Perhaps it came
from police reports or interviews of people who knew the
The researchers then used random telephone calls to try to find
a "control"--a similar person who had not been shot. They attempted
to find persons who lived in neighborhoods with similar economic
and racial characteristics, who had similar income levels and so
This is called the "case-control method." The shooting victim is
the "case" and the other person is the "control." Case-control has
been used successfully in genuine medical research, most famously
in the studies showing that smokers were much more likely to get
Case-control is also widely used in anti-gun research, although
with considerably less validity, partly because finding "controls"
who really match the subjects is much more difficult.
After analyzing the numbers, the Branas team announced,
"individuals in possession of a gun were 4.46 times more likely to
be shot in an assault than those not in possession. Among gun
assaults where the victim had at least some chance to resist," the
likelihood "increased to 5.45."
In conclusion: "On average, guns did not protect those who
possessed them from being shot in an assault. Although successful
defensive gun uses are possible and do occur each year, the
probability of success may be low for civilian gun users in urban
areas. Such users should rethink their possession of guns or, at
least, understand that regular possession necessitates careful
safety countermeasures. Suggestions to the contrary, especially for
urban residents who may see gun possession as a surefire defense
against a dangerous environment, should be discussed and
A few flaws in the study are clear.
First, the study said a victim was "possessing" a gun even if
the gun was "in a nearby vehicle, or in another place." It
obviously tells you nothing about the risk or utility of the
victim's gun if someone gets shot in a park while his rifle is a
quarter-mile away in a pickup truck.
Second, if the study failed to measure gun ownership accurately,
then its conclusions are invalid. The authors acknowledge that if
just 5 percent of the shooting victims who did not say they had a
gun actually did have a gun, then the study would show no
statistically significant risk from gun possession.
|... the University of Pennsylvania released a study paid
for by the NIH with $639,586 of your tax dollars. The study's
"conclusion" claimed people who possessed guns are 4.5 times more
likely to be shot than people who do not possess them.
The study would also lose significance if it underestimated gun
ownership by the controls--the people who were interviewed by phone
and who might not be willing to tell a stranger they own a gun.
Strangely, Branas and his co-authors neglected to disclose what
amount of non-reporting by the controls would undermine the study.
A skeptical reader may wonder if under-reporting by even a small
percent of the controls would undermine the findings.
Third, 83 percent of the shootings occurred outdoors.
Presumably, a significant number of the rest occurred outside the
home, in public places such as bars. In Pennsylvania, carrying in
such circumstances almost always requires a Right-to-Carry permit.
A person carrying a gun without the required permit would, by
definition, be breaking the law.
The study excluded persons under the age of 21, who in
Pennsylvania cannot obtain Right-to-Carry permits. The study also
made no effort to determine if any of the gun carriers were illegal
aliens, to whom permits cannot be issued.
So the study actually provides no information about whether its
purported risks are applicable to the law-abiding population,
because it provides no information about how many--if any--of the
gun carriers had lawful Right-to-Carry permits. Additionally,
according to the study, 53 percent of the shooting victims had
prior arrest records. The researchers tried to find controls who
also had arrest records, yet the study did not report what the
arrests were for or make distinctions among types of arrests.
Obviously, a "control" who had one arrest record for drug
possession 10 years ago is no fair match for a "case" who had an
arrest record for armed robbery last year, and three prior arrests
for assault. The latter person is much more likely to spend time
with, and provoke violent confrontations with, other dangerous
In fact, illegal gun carriers with prior criminal records are
more likely to be involved in violent confrontations than other
people. It is possible that they carry illegally possessed guns
because they are even more inclined to consort with violent people
and get into fights. But that proves nothing about whether gun
carrying by the law-abiding who have Right-to-Carry permits is
Moreover, the study's assumption that the "case" people who were
shot were comparable (except in their rate of gun possession) to
the "control" people who were not remains unproven.
The Philadelphia Inquirer interviewed J. Michael Oakes, a
professor of Epidemiology and Community Health at the University of
Minnesota. "There are some sketchy things going on here," he
"The foundation of the case control study is the sense that
those who are the cases are exactly the same as those who are in
the control group," Oakes explained. The Inquirer summarized Oakes'
observation that, "Branas is assuming the people who were shot were
no more likely to have guns than a group of controls of the same
gender and racial mix."
"It's a big stretch," Oakes said.
University of Chicago Economist Jens Ludwig is one of the most
experienced, and most intellectually rigorous, academic supporters
of restrictive gun policies. Yet he, too, was skeptical of the
"They can't tease out whether guns are contributing to assault
or assault risk is contributing to gun ownership," Ludwig said.
In other words, people who are especially at risk of being
attacked might be more likely than other people to carry guns,
rather than the other way around.
Florida State University criminology professor Gary Kleck put it
succinctly: "It is precisely as if medical researchers found that
insulin use is more common among persons who suffer from diabetes
than among those who are not diabetic (something that is most
assuredly true), and concluded that insulin use raises one's risk
of diabetes." Or as Jacob Sullum quipped on Reason.com, it's like
discovering that people who are wearing parachutes are much more
likely to suffer injuries from falling than people who don't wear
parachutes--the risk comes from jumping out of a plane, not from
wearing a parachute.
The Philadelphia Inquirer should be commended for interviewing
three outside experts about the story. Unfortunately, most of the
coverage in the rest of America's so-called "mainstream" media
simply reported the study's shaky conclusion as if it were a proven
After its release, Kleck wrote a short essay about the Penn
study blasting it as "the very epitome of junk science in the
guns-and-violence field--poor quality research designed to arrive
at an ideologically predetermined conclusion." Kleck noted the
authors had announced guns do not have protective value, yet the
authors had not even studied whether a single victim even used a
The Penn article, Kleck wrote, "is merely a reflection of the
fact that the same factors that place people at greater risk of
becoming assault victims also motivate many people to acquire, and
in some cases carry away from home, guns for self-protection . . .
For example, being a drug dealer or member of a street gang puts
one at much higher risk of being shot, but also makes it far more
likely one will acquire a gun for protection."
Research on people who actually use guns for protection shows
the opposite of what Branas and his colleagues claim. Kleck and
Jongyeon Tark examined data from the National Crime Victimization
Survey, an annual study by the Census Bureau and the Department of
Justice that asks individuals if they were crime victims in the
last year and, if so, collects information about the
Of those who used guns defensively, the Kleck and Tark study
found only 2 percent were injured after they used guns. ("Resisting
Crime: The Effects of Victim Action on the Outcomes of Crimes."
Criminology, vol. 42, 2005.) These findings were consistent with
previous studies of actual defensive gun use, which found such use
does not increase the victim's risk of harm: Gary Kleck, "Crime
Control Through the Private Use of Armed Force," Social Problems,
1988; Gary Kleck & Miriam A. Delone, "Victim Resistance and
Offender Weapon Effects in Robbery," Journal of Quantitative
Criminology, 1993; Lawrence Southwick, "Self-Defense With Guns",
Journal of Criminal Justice, 2000.
But the Philadelphia story was not marketed for people who are
familiar with social science studies of defensive gun use. It is
simply a propaganda tool for people who unquestioningly believe
newspaper accounts of what scientists say--and who never notice
that their local paper prominently promotes anti-gun studies but
never reports the release of studies about the safety benefits of
Unfortunately, one thing is clear: Much more of the same type of
disinformation--funded by your hard-earned tax dollars--is likely
to come our way in coming months and years.