Gun's safety: Drawing a gun can save your life

People are often surprised to learn that guns are used defensively by private citizens at least three times more frequently than guns are used to commit crimes. A question I hear repeatedly is, "If defensive gun use occurs so often, why haven't I heard of even one story?"

Anecdotal stories published in newspapers obviously can't prove how numerous these events are, but they can at least answer the question of whether these events occur. Here are a few examples of the 20 cases I found reported in newspapers as occurring during the first two weeks of May:

* Lawrenceville, Georgia - At 3am, a woman's former boyfriend kicked in her front door. She had obtained a protective order against him because of "a history of drug addiction, violent behavior, and threats." As he entered the apartment, she shot him four times. Police said that if he survived his injuries, the intruder would likely face charges of burglary and aggravated stalking.

* Albuquerque, New Mexico - Just after 5am, a homeowner called police saying that someone was trying to break into his home. Police reported that while waiting for help to arrive, the homeowner defended himself by shooting the intruder in the arm.

* Louisville, Kentucky - As a robber tried to hold up a Shelby Food Mart, he was shot by a store clerk. The judge who heard the case said that the clerk had acted responsibly when "viciously attacked by this animal."

* Raceland, Louisiana - A man and his girlfriend offered two men a ride. One of the hitchhikers drew a gun and told the girlfriend to stop the car. The man then drew his own gun, fatally shooting the armed hitchhiker.

* Toledo, Ohio - A store employee wounded one of two men who tried to rob a carryout. The employee had received his concealed handgun permit just three days earlier. His father said, "My son did what he had to do... Money can be replaced; lives can't."

These life and death stories represent a tiny fraction of defensive gun uses. A survey I conducted of 1,015 people during November 2002 indicates that about 2.3 million defensive gun uses occurred nationwide over the previous year. Larger surveys have found similar results.

Guns do make it easier to commit bad deeds; guns can fall into the hands of children. But they also make it easier for people to defend themselves when police aren't around. That is why it is so important that people receive an accurate, balanced accounting of how guns are used. Unfortunately, the media are doing a very poor job of that.

Though my survey indicates that simply brandishing a gun stops crimes 95 percent of the time, it is very rare to see a story of such an event. A dead gunshot victim on the ground is highly newsworthy, while a criminal fleeing after a woman points a gun is often not considered news at all. That's not hard to understand. After all, no shots were fired, no crime was committed, and no one is even sure what crime would have been committed had a weapon not been drawn.

Even though fewer than one out of 1,000 defensive gun uses result in the death of the attacker, news reporters' penchant for drama means that the bloodier cases are usually covered. Even in the rare cases in which guns are used to shoot someone, injuries are about six times more frequent than deaths. But you wouldn't know this from the stories the media choose to report.

Much more than a penchant for bad news and drama goes into the media's selective reporting. Why, for instance, does the torrential coverage of public shooting sprees fail to acknowledge when such attacks are aborted by citizens with guns?

January 16, 2002 - A shooting left three dead and three injured at Appalachian Law School in Grundy, Virginia. The event made international headlines and produced more calls for gun control. Yet one critical fact was missing from virtually all the news coverage: The attack was stopped by two students who had guns in their cars.

The fast responses of students Mikael Gross and Tracy Bridges undoubtedly saved many lives. When Peter Odighizuwa started shooting, Gross was outside returning from lunch; Bridges was in a classroom waiting for class to start.

Chaos erupted, but Gross and Bridges immediately ran to their cars and got their guns, then approached the shooter from different sides. Thus confronted, the attacker threw his gun down.

Isn't it remarkable that out of 218 unique news stories (from a LexisNexis search) in the week after the event, just four mentioned that the students who stopped the shooter had guns? Here is a typical description of the event from the Washington Post: "Three students pounced on the gunman and held him until help arrived." Newsday noted only that the attacker was "restrained by students."

Many stories mentioned the law-enforcement or military backgrounds of these student heroes, but virtually all of the media– including the Associated Press story that ran in the Daily Progress– failed to mention the students' guns.

A week and a half after the assault, I appeared on a Los Angeles radio program along with Bridges, one of the heroes. He related how he had carefully described to over 50 reporters what had happened, explaining how he had pointed his gun at the attacker and yelled at him to drop his gun.

Yet the media had consistently reported that the incident had ended by the students "tackling" the killer. Bridges said he had spent a considerable amount of time talking face-to-face with reporter Maria Glod of the Washington Post. He seemed stunned that this conversation did not result in a more accurate report.

I telephoned the Post, and Glod confirmed that she had talked to both Bridges and Gross, and that both had told her the same story. She said that failing to mention their guns was not "intentional." It had been due to space constraints.

I later spoke with Mike Getler, the Post ombudsman. Getler was quoted in the Kansas City Star as saying that the reporters simply did not know that bystanders had gotten their guns. After I informed him that the students had told Glod about using their guns, Getler said, "She should have included it." But he said that he had no power to do anything about the omission.

It was not until February 28 of this year, two years after the bloodbath and just after the preliminary hearing (where testimony verified again what had happened), that the Washington Post published one brief sentence containing the full story: "[The killer] was subdued without incident by armed students."

The Kansas City Star printed a particularly telling interview with Jack Stokes, media relations manager at the Associated Press, who dismissed accusations that news groups deliberately downplayed the role of the gun-brandishing students. Stokes said he was "shocked" upon learning that students carrying guns helped subdue the gunman: "I thought, my God, they're putting into jeopardy even more people by bringing out these guns."

Selective reporting of crimes such as the Appalachian Law School incident isn't just poor journalism; it could actually endanger people's lives.

By describing a situation involving defensive use of guns as an incident where students merely "overpowered" or "pounced" on a gunman, the media give potential victims the wrong impression about what works against violence. Research consistently shows that having a gun (usually just brandishing) is the safest way to respond to criminal assault.

When crimes are committed with guns, there is a somewhat natural inclination toward eliminating all guns. While understandable, this reaction actually endangers lives because it ignores how important guns are in protecting people. Unbalanced media coverage exaggerates this misapprehension, leaving most Americans with a glaringly incomplete picture of the dangers and benefits of firearms. This is how the media bias against guns hurts society and costs lives.


Lott, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of California at Los Angeles. He is the author of More Guns, Less Crime and The Bias Against Guns, published by the University of Chicago Press. This essay is excerpted from a speech at Hillsdale College.



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