In It For The Money: Brawling About Guns

"In America, 'debate' is just another word for 'brawl'. No one learns a new point of view when they are jumped in an alley or hop into the monkey knife fighting pit; you show up with what you've got, and pound on each other until someone flees or collapses."

Editor’s note: Nelson’s “In it for the Money” opinion column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month.

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

What’s most struck me since I started talking about guns earlier this year is the degree to which just factually stating U.S. gun injury and fatality numbers constitutes an “argument” for “gun control.” [1]

I don’t particularly feel like I’ve argued for gun control. In fact, I’ve tried to be pretty clear that I don’t think this should be an “argument” or “debate” to begin with – and that most of what people suggest when they talk about “gun control” is either unworkable or unconstitutional.

But regardless of my druthers, there is a “gun control debate” in America.

Since simply stating the fact that 30,000 people will be killed by gun-fired lead this year – almost all of them in moments of hate, sorrow, or anguish – means I’m “arguing for gun control,” then let’s take a few minutes to give full credit to the argument against. Let’s look at those numbers.

Durable Goods

I’m going to level with you: There’s nothing the government can do today that’s going to reduce gun mayhem tomorrow.

For a really quick, really elucidating read, I direct you to this paper produced for the Obama Administration by the National Institute of Justice: “Summary of Select Firearm Violence Prevention Strategies.” This comes to us by way of the NRA, who unearthed it, highlighted the portions that caught their interest, and republished it (much to the consternation of the Executive Branch).

Here’s the short version. We have about 310 million guns spread from sea to shining sea. If not a single gun is ever sold in America again, then there will still be about 310 million guns spread from sea to shining sea. If not a single gun is ever sold again and you initiate a huge, expensive, disproportionately successful gun buyback program, there will still be about 250 million guns spread from sea to shining sea – minus those that are cheapest, crappiest, most broken, and least likely to be used to hurt someone.

Guns and their accessories are “durable goods” in the most fundamental sense: Even cheap, crappy guns – guns that can be bought for $50 in any pawn shop and are largely regarded as pieces of crap by anyone who actually cares about guns – will function just fine for decades. I inherited my grandmother’s Uncle Will’s Colt Lightning when she died; it was built around 1899, wasn’t maintained for decades, and could still shoot me as dead today as it could when Will received it as a gift from his boss.

Our guns are here, and they’ll keep being here for decades and decades and decades.

The Damn Constitution

If your inclination is to say: “To hell with it, then; let’s confiscate ‘em all!” Well, I’m afraid that’s just not on the table – and not because the damn politicians are too afraid of the NRA boogeyman. It’s not on the table because it would violate our Constitution just as fundamentally as razing every church, synagogue, and mosque.

As an Ann Arbor resident, most people I interact with daily aren’t gun owners, and many “don’t like guns.” Usually they say that without having ever handled one – which is to say they don’t like the idea of guns. (I don’t bring this up in the spirit of invalidating their position, only in accurately categorizing it). They tend to think gun sale and ownership should be much more strictly regulated, and usually carp that “The Second Amendment specifically says ‘well-regulated militia’! Where’s your Well-Regulated Militia?!” [2]

Listen, guys, I’m saying this because I love you: Over the last half-decade or so the SCotUS has gotten really clear in interpreting the Second Amendment as guaranteeing an individual right to privately own firearms. If you’re about to freak out about the Well-Regulated Militia opening clause of the amendment, please be aware that in 2007 the Court’s majority opinion was that, in light of historical documents from the same period, the intent of that clause is to say “Because it’s important a nation be able to muster well-regulated militias quickly, we want to be sure that citizens in general are able to keep operable weapons handy.”

This contrasts with the very popular lay interpretation – which tends to take the oddly worded amendment to suggest that the right that “shall not be infringed” is for the people to keep and bear arms while participating in a well-regulated militia. And when you think about it, that basically boils down to “As a government, we are not going to infringe on the right of citizens fighting on our behalf to have and use guns.” That’s sort of an “Oh, well, duh!” legal statute, isn’t it?

Anyway, it’s entirely possible that you don’t like the SCotUS 2007 finding. In your defense, it was only a 5-4 majority. It’s fine not to like it, and it’s our duty as citizens to be vocal about the things we don’t like. But until something changes – and that “something” is probably a new amendment to the Constitution – it remains the lay of the legal land, regardless of what we like.

I’ve met my fair share of Americans who don’t like the Jesus-less-ness of our public institutions. Hell, I’ve met Americans who in my presence and to my face have mused about the “unhealthiness” of raising children in a household where the mother and father are of different faiths (as is the case in mine). Nonetheless, they all ultimately dismiss their low-cognitive-dissonance dream-world with a sigh, allowing that the First Amendment is here to stay and they’ll just have to accept that.

Our likes and dislikes have no impact on what is currently constitutional, and keeping a loaded gun with no working safety stored in a shoebox precariously balanced over your baby’s crib currently is perfectly constitutional [3].

But we’re not really talking about militias anymore – we all know that. The U.S. has the most advanced army in the world; we hardly need private citizens with Saturday Night Specials staving off a French-Canadian invasion force. According to the SCotUS, today self-defense is the primary reason to make sure private citizens can arm themselves.

But does that make sense? How often do private citizens use firearms to defend themselves?

Defensive Gun Use

Let’s begin with a basic question:

How many times are guns used annually to prevent crimes?

In the literature this is called “defensive gun use” or “DGU.” It’s a slightly squishy term. DGU can be used to refer to any situation where having a gun – from actually discharging it to simply pulling up your shirt to show the grip sticking out of your waistband – prevents the commission of a crime.

  • Most Accurate Answer: I dunno. A bunch?
  • Most Popular Answers: Up to 2.5 million (that one comes from the NRA and other gun boosters); or as low as “a few thousand, if even” (that one comes from scoffers).

Let’s start with the highest number with an actual basis in research: 2 million DGU incidents per year. This comes from Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck, who has extrapolated an annual DGU-rate of around 2 million, based on survey responses.

According to the CDC there were 1,787,007 non-fatal assaults in 2010 (that includes all means: fire, dogs, guns, piercing, suffocation, submersion – everything) and 16,065 homicides [4]. So, that’s 1,803,072 Bad Things People Might Do to You in 2010, the sorta things where even reasonable hippies like myself would probably say, “I respect your right to use a gun in your own defense in that situation.” Avid footnote-readers will realize that this 1,803,072 Bad Things includes the justifiable homicides; feel free to debate the appropriateness of that position in the comments.

Kleck would have us believe that the murder and assault rate would more than double without a well-armed citizenry DGU-ing up the wazoo. I’m sorry, but that tests credulity, doesn’t it?

And indeed it does, specifically for Harvard public health researcher David Hemenway. I was first clued into this by my college chum Michael Hoffman – who has some cred when it comes to issues of guns, patriotism, and the law – so I’ll let him take the floor:

The research was done largely by David Hemenway, who reviewed the pool of information that is also used to support the much-larger estimates provided by guys like Gary Kleck. (There’s only one pool of information for everyone to swim in, sadly, because research funding was cut off for such a long time [owing to NRA pressure in Washington – DEN].) Hemenway took the information in that pool, and eliminated a few survey outliers, such as people who said that they had more than 20 DGUs per year, but couldn’t provide details on any of them. He also tried to determine how many of the DGUs reported were illegal, or probably illegal, actions by giving case files to judges to review. Most of the DGUs were found to be probably illegal by the judges: stuff like “The drug deal went bad, and I pulled a gun to get out,” or “My wife took offense to my abusive behavior, and she took a swing, so I had to shoot her out of fear for my life.” Mostly stuff where there was already a criminal activity, but there were plenty of unjustified acts that were actually offensive gun uses.

Anyway, Hemenway nickel-and-dimed the original numbers, pointed out how small the sample sizes were, extrapolated from smaller gun-ownership percentages today, and got a number that was around 80k, I think, rather than the 50k I said [Hemenway's low-end estimate is actually 55,000-80,000 –DEN]. There are a number of big problems with the research, though, and one of the big one is the vagueness of the word “use.” Does it count when I fire my gun? Yeah. When I point it? Maybe. When I tell you I’ve got a gun? Maybe. Who knows? The notion of brandishing in DGU is really vague, and Hemenway doesn’t have any use for it, so his numbers are supposed to contain just those moments when somebody points or fires a weapon.

For me, the salient point is that many of these DGUs are not defensive, and many are criminal or in support of criminal activity. Very few of the DGUs reported were the category the NRA wants us to conjure up: the mugger who is sent packing by a good guy with a gun, the family man who takes down the murderer breaking down his door, etc. [5]

Most recently I’ve seen Hemenway’s estimate bumped to 100,000, which means that the salaried journalist’s “fair-and-balanced” (i.e., “pick-a-random-number-in-the-middle”) estimate as something like a quarter-million DGUs per year.

Interestingly, this spring the Violence Policy Center released a paper (noted here) on DGU, and found a rate of about 68,000 per year – based on recent numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics’s generally well-respected National Crime Victimization Survey. This is virtually unchanged from NCVS findings from twenty years ago, which Kleck has cited – although he thought they were way too low then. At the very least, we can be fairly sure that the NCBS findings constitute DGU incidents that most rational citizens would agree were legal and justified.

At any rate, when the DGU merry-go-round finally stops, it looks like our lowest responsible low-ball figure (based, admittedly, on sub-par data) is 68,000 DGU incidents per year. And it looks like only .03 percent of these actually result in a death (those few hundred ever-popular “justifiable homicides” mentioned in [4]). Frankly, that sorta seems like a bargain for averting a whole lotta mayhem.

But how do we slice it? Do you argue:

  • There are 68,000 annual DGUs, compared to 2010′s 11,067 gun homicides. So: “A gun is six times more likely to be used to save an innocent than to murder one!”

But that assumes that every DGU prevented a murder. So we maybe need to step it back and say:

  • Those 68,000 DGUs stopped a combined 64,805 gun-related murders and assaults in 2010. So: “Guns are used to harm folks as often as they’re used to protect them.”

That starts to seem sorta coin-tossy, doesn’t it? Besides, guns don’t just hurt folks on purpose. To be as complete as possible, it only seems fair to say:

  • 68,000 annual DGUs were accompanied by 104,914 gun injuries (fatal or non) in 2010: So: “A gun is 50 percent more likely to injure someone than defend him or her.”

Good Ole Violence, Always Here To Solve Our Problems

So, if you believe there should be a “debate” about guns – instead of a conversation – then here’s the other side of that debate: You can’t “control” guns because: (1) we have a ton of them; (2) their ownership is enshrined in our secular Ten Commandments; and (3) we seem to need them to help us reign in our violent tendencies.

Except …

Except for the fact that during these last two decades DGU appears to have been stable while violent crime in the U.S. plummeted something like 70% (!) and individual gun-ownership appears to have stayed stable (ignore the breathless headline; look at the graph, which is essentially flat) or declined. It leaves one to wonder if DGU is really that societally vital. And if it isn’t, then why are we so committed to enshrining a right to personal gun ownership in our Constitution?

Again, I own guns – and not just dangerous antiques like Uncle Will’s Colt. I’ve been as bummed as anyone about the ongoing ammo shortage, and was thrilled to find boxes of .22LR out in K-Zoo so I could go shooting with my dad again.

But I look at the numbers, and look into myself, and still say “This is not as vital to our civil society as our freedom to speak, to practice our faith (or doubt), to publicly gather and petition for redress, to be secure in our homes and papers, etc.” Maybe more to the point, I can have a deep and genuine affection for guns, and still believe that maybe it’s time that we get past our core American notion – one effectively enshrined in the Second Amendment – that violence is a valid and respectable solution to our problems.

We characterize “debate” as a rational process of sorting competing ideas, but it isn’t. In America, “debate” is just another word for “brawl.” No one learns a new point of view when they are jumped in an alley or hop into the monkey knife fighting pit; you show up with what you’ve got, and pound on each other until someone flees or collapses.

If you are about to take exception to this characterization, then riddle me this: If you are “rational” and “pro-gun control,” then why the hell aren’t you already familiar with the SCotUS 2007 opinions? Isn’t an understanding of the current state of the Second Amendment sorta-kinda vital to “debating” about the Second Amendment?

And if you “rationally support gun rights” – likely because of personal safety issues – then why aren’t you already concerned that guns appear to protect people once for every two times they hurt someone? Would you take meds your physician prescribed while noting nonchalantly, “Oh, FYI, if these pills do anything at all, there’s a 64% chance they’ll hurt or kill you, and an unknown – but very high – likelihood they’ll do nothing. But they might also save your life. Maybe. We haven’t really done the research on that. Make sure to drink plenty of fluids!”

If you’re about to defend our prettified process of verbal violence as an even halfway-decent way to arrive at good public policy, then explain why our “rational debate” revolves around assault rifles (hardly ever used to hurt folks), mass shootings (which get tons of reporting, but kill fewer than three dozen people per year), and small children accidentally killing themselves and each other with poorly secured firearms (something that happens about 60 times per year).

These are all terrible, terrible things – but they are statistical blips. We obsess about 100 gun deaths per year – the sensational and heartbreaking ones that will draw the most ad revenue, to be perfectly frank. And we’ll almost completely ignore the hard-to-report and often ugly majority of the gun deaths: Our 19,000 annual suicides.


Despite being the major way that people are killed by guns – and one of the most popular ways that Americans use violence to solve all of their problems – suicide has had no place in the national “debate.” Once you’re in the debating ring slashing away at your opponent, you just aren’t receptive to the possibility that you’re fighting over matchsticks while the city burns.

Suicide-by-firearm has exceeded homicide-by-firearm annually since 1981; it dwarfed homicide by 1999, and has steadily grown since. Gun suicide is thirty-some times more common than fatal gun accidents. It’s mostly accomplished with handguns. It’s a solution mostly pursued by adult white men – and thus has the distinction of being the only problem in America that plagues white men, and yet isn’t considered super-duper-overwhelmingly important.

What’s lost in our “debate” – what makes debate itself seem so absurd in this situation – isn’t just the fact that we’re safer from violent crime every year. It’s the fact that even throughout the period when violence – and especially gun violence – was soaring, the guy most likely to use a gun against me has always been me.


[1] Gott in Himmel, this piece constitutes the last you’ll hear from me about guns (although recent news tends to auger against a compassionate and caring Gott being in Himmel, or anywhere else). If you find yourself curious about my continuing reading and thinking about guns and their control, you can track that via my Pinboard account or by following me on Twitter.

[2] Disclosure: I’ve carped this same line on more than one occasion – although I’d like to think I did so wryly, in equal parts sarcasm and earnestness. Nonetheless, I’ve heard it over and over again from my friends and family on the left, from Obama-voting gun owners, from PhDs and college profs, from all sorts of smart folks. It is appalling how uninformed we are about the state of legal thought on this.

[3] Sadly, laws requiring the use of trigger locks or storing weapons disassembled – policies I strongly favor – were deemed unconstitutional; if you go to the above link and search for the phrase “operative clause,” you’ll get to the meat of this issue quickly. Props to Ann Arbor Chronicle reader Ricebrnr for giving us the heads up and this material in the comments on my “Running Gun Numbers” column.

[4] That’s also an “all means” number; 68.6 percent of those homicides were firearm related, and likely included the 278 private-citizen justifiable homicides registered by the FBI in 2010; 232 of those were firearm related (170 handguns, 26 shotguns, and 8 rifles – which would include assault rifles, although no one can say if it did – and 28 “firearm, type not stated”). It would not include the 385 firearm related law enforcement justifiable homicides, which themselves includes the 344 “legal intervention” deaths we talked about from the CDC gun numbers we ran back in March).

[5] A salient taste of Hemenway’s research, drawn from his 2000 “Gun Use in the United States: Results from Two National Surveys” (co-authored with D. Azrael and M. Miller, and published in the peer-reviewed medical journal Injury Prevention):

Results—Even after excluding many reported firearm victimizations, far more survey respondents report having been threatened or intimidated with a gun than having used a gun to protect themselves. A majority of the reported self defense gun uses were rated as probably illegal by a majority of judges. This was so even under the assumption that the respondent had a permit to own and carry the gun, and that the respondent had described the event honestly.

Conclusions—Guns are used to threaten and intimidate far more often than they are used in self defense. Most self reported self defense gun uses may well be illegal and against the interests of society.

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  1. By Ricebrnr
    June 21, 2013 at 9:45 am | permalink


    Thank you for the props and thank you for this follow up which I have anxiously been awaiting.

    As someone who rationally supports gun-rights allow me to debate a few points.

    1) Your medical analogy regarding efficacy is stretched. How many people with terminal illnesses volunteer to take drugs with chances just as you’ve stated OR WORSE for the chance the slim chance that it will prolong their lives? Even at great cost personally and financially? Did you know that a variant of the HIV virus is being used to cure Leukemia? Why Angelina Jolie just had a couple radical surgeries because there was a chance that her life will be prolonged. “But it might save your life” is a very crucial comment. The difference is gun owners get to choose and prepare BEFORE their lives are at risk.
    2)Also I reject how you parsed your statistics or more to the point I reject which statistics you started your premise with. How about we start with the presumed gun numbers. 310 million guns per the above. Number of gun owners? Didn’t see that but some estimates are 44-192 million ( How about the stats for # of guns vs. # of guns used in crimes? Or # of legal gun owners vs. # of those that commit crimes. Please let us know how those numbers compare to say # of prescribed meds vs. # of illegal use of meds or # of prescription users vs. # of prescription abusers and/or suicides. Then let us discuss efficacy.
    3) Speaking of suicides, shouldn’t we be discussing the efficacy of keeping the Golden Gate Bridge as well then? On average someone jumps from it every other week! (
    4) Right forcing gun owners to keep their weapons disassembled is unconstitutional because it’s not “handy” then. Because criminals (not lnown for their generosity or patience) rarely allow you the time to place a 911 call let alone reassemble your device for brandishing.

  2. By suswhit
    June 22, 2013 at 9:09 am | permalink

    Hi, It’s me! [waving both hands in mock greeting]

    1. If you are using a gun to “protect” “people” you better have a supernatural power to discern good people from bad people. See “George Zimmerman.”

    2. We’ve already reached 50 and it’s only June. [link]

    3. Can’t fix stupid. [link]

    4. People are still going to commit suicide. Let them do it in a way that isn’t so f*&#@g messy.

    5. If Shaun of the Dead is correct, zombies move really slowly and are dumb as, well see #3, so it’s unlikely that we will need a well-armed militia to defeat them.

    It’s not impossible. Something is better than nothing. Embrace change. [link]

  3. By ricebrnr
    June 22, 2013 at 1:06 pm | permalink

    Wow what an informed comment. The only one worhty of retort is it doesn’t take superpowers to know if someone is pounding your head against the pavement or in a full MMA mount and doing great bodily harm to you or a loved one.

    Gun owners carry to protect themselves and their loved ones. Anyone else would have to be at great consideration. For example see the Gabby Giffords shooting which also happens to be one of the very few “mass” shootings to occur not in a gun free zone where an armed bystander could assist.

    Generally concealed carriers protect society at large not by direct action but but more like a vaccine. We get it to protect ourselves first and foremost. You get some benefits via herd immunity if you choose not to.

  4. By suswhit
    June 24, 2013 at 7:41 am | permalink

    Re: 3. My comments were not intended for you while yours are intended to insult me. I guess that’s a good example of the discourse on gun control. If you don’t like the message insult the messenger. In the spirit of the current debate let me note that “if someone is pounding your head against the pavement” it seems your gun didn’t deter them.

    I simply disagree that random people of varying degrees of intelligence, mental stability and moral fortitude (not to mention eye sight and aim) carrying guns does more good than harm.

  5. By Ricebrnr
    June 24, 2013 at 9:08 am | permalink

    Hmmm, well directed at me or not, as a gun owner and carrier I responded to your comment in kind. I suppose if you find it insulting well perhaps you need to look at how you present your arguments in “discourse” first. Besides, I directed my comment at your comment. Being misinformed or ignorant is only an insult if you are NOT open to discourse.

    In any case, again your argument fails on it’s face.

    In Zimmerman’s case, he certainly DID DETER Mr. Martin from continuing the assault. An assault (a broken nose and lacerations to the back of the head) consistent with the narrative that was presented. Whatever the circumstances leading up to the assault, that FACT is not in dispute.

    Also I suppose that gun owners are much less fearful than you imagine. Gun-ownership and concealed carry are at an all time high. Crime (even “gun” crime) is allegedly at an all time low (all based on DOJ and CDC stats). While the correlation between the 2 is debatable, what is not is that “carrying guns does more harm than good.” That is simply untrue.

    So I simply disagree that the acts of criminals are an argument to limit the majority of law-abiding citizens, especially concealed carry licensees (who have to pass backgrounds checks for the “privilege”).

    If that were the case, I’m waiting for calls to limit the buying and selling of cooking implements such as knives and pressure cookers.

  6. By suswhit
    June 24, 2013 at 10:17 am | permalink


    Discourage (someone) from doing something, typically by instilling doubt or fear of the consequences.
    Prevent the occurrence of.

    I’m pretty sure that killing a kid who went to the store for Skittles did not deter anything. He’s not deterred, he’s dead. Since Zimmerman initiated the interaction it’s hard to argue that he was the victim. Zimmerman harassed Martin (prob in part because his gun emboldened him) and then when Martin (maybe) tried to defend himself he was shot by this vigilante. This does not make society a better place. But, I’d guess you disagree.

  7. By Ricebrnr
    June 24, 2013 at 1:12 pm | permalink

    Additional material for reasoned discourse: [link]

    I would specifically call out 2 & 7 to bolster the arguments I presented.

    2. Most indices of crime and gun violence are getting better, not worse. “Overall crime rates have declined in the past decade, and violent crimes, including homicides specifically, have declined in the past 5 years,” the report notes. “Between 2005 and 2010, the percentage of firearm-related violent victimizations remained generally stable.” Meanwhile, “firearm-related death rates for youth ages 15 to 19 declined from 1994 to 2009.” Accidents are down, too: “Unintentional firearm-related deaths have steadily declined during the past century. The number of unintentional deaths due to firearm-related incidents accounted for less than 1 percent of all unintentional fatalities in 2010.”

    7. Guns are used for self-defense often and effectively. “Almost all national survey estimates indicate that defensive gun uses by victims are at least as common as offensive uses by criminals, with estimates of annual uses ranging from about 500,000 to more than 3 million per year … in the context of about 300,000 violent crimes involving firearms in 2008,” says the report. The three million figure is probably high, “based on an extrapolation from a small number of responses taken from more than 19 national surveys.” But a much lower estimate of 108,000 also seems fishy, “because respondents were not asked specifically about defensive gun use.” Furthermore, “Studies that directly assessed the effect of actual defensive uses of guns (i.e., incidents in which a gun was ‘used’ by the crime victim in the sense of attacking or threatening an offender) have found consistently lower injury rates among gun-using crime victims compared with victims who used other self-protective strategies.”