Guns in the right hands make all good people safer—including people who don’t own guns. The higher the number of responsible people who have guns ready to be used for selfdefense, the safer the public is. The tremendous degree to which widespread gun ownership makes American homes safer from home invaders is one of the great unreported stories of the American gun-control debate.
The United States suffers from a very high rate of violent crime, compared to most other industrial democracies. Despite recent improvement, the American crime rate is high for crimes that often involve guns (such as murder), and for crimes that rarely involve guns (such as rape, in which only seven percent of criminals use guns).
Yet, happily, American homes are comparatively safe from burglary. They are especially safe from “home invasion” or “hot” burglaries—that is, burglaries in which the victim is present during the burglary. As an introductory criminology textbook explains, “Burglars do not want contact with occupants; they depend on stealth for success.” The textbook is correct; only 13 percent of residential burglaries in the United States are attempted against occupied homes. But this happy fact of life, so taken for granted in the United States, is not a universal.
In Canada, for example, a Toronto study found that 48 percent of burglaries were against occupied homes, and 21 percent involved a confrontation with the victim. In Edmonton, about half of all burglaries are “hot.” A 1982 British survey found 59 percent of attempted burglaries involved an occupied home.
Why should American criminals, who have proven that they engage in murder, rape, and robbery at a higher rate than their counterparts in other nations, display such a curious reluctance to perpetrate burglaries against occupied residences? Could part of the answer be that they are afraid of getting shot?
In a survey of felony convicts in state prisons, 73 percent of the convicts who had committed a burglary or violent crime agreed “one reason burglars avoid houses when people are at home is that they fear being shot.” Another study found that over 90 percent of burglars said that they would not even attempt a burglary in a house that they thought might be occupied.
Most scholarly studies rely on burglars who are currently incarcerated. One important study broke this mold: Burglars on the Job by Richard T. Wright and Scott Decker. This was a 1994 survey in St. Louis of 105 currently active burglars. The authors observed, “One of the most serious risks faced by residential burglars is the possibility of being injured or killed by occupants of a target. Many of the offenders we spoke to reported that this was far and away their greatest fear.”
The fear of armed victims is not limited to the home. Unlike most other nations, America allows its citizens to be armed for protection not only in their home but in their place of business. A 1996 study of 310 armed robbers, by Athena Research in Seattle, reported that many robbers are afraid of armed victims more than anything else. The fear of armed victims is why armed robbers often avoid “mom and pop” stores where the victim may be armed. Instead, robbers concentrate on chain stores, where corporate policy frequently forbids employees to be armed.
Real-world experiments yield results consistent with burglars’ reports of their desire to avoid confrontations with armed victims. In the 1960’s, gun control advocates in New York City handed out window decals, so that homeowners could proclaim that their home did not contain a gun. The decals quickly became a magnet for burglars, and the decal program was abandoned. The converse of the New York City “victimize this house” program are the real-world experiments in which cities have forcefully reminded potential burglars of the dangers of armed victims.
In Orlando in 1967, the police responded to a rape epidemic by initiating a highly publicized program training women in firearms use. While rape increased in the nation and in Florida over the next year, the rape rate fell 88 percent in Orlando, and burglary dropped 22 percent. The same year, rising rates of store robberies prompted a similar (but smaller-scale) program in Kansas City, Missouri, to train store owners in gun use. The next year, while the robbery rate in Missouri and the United States continued to rise significantly, the rate fell in the Kansas City metro area. The trend of increasing burglary in the area also came to an abrupt end, contrary to state and national patterns.
In 1982, the town of Kennesaw, Georgia, horrified the national media by passing an ordinance requiring every home to have a gun. (Exceptions were made for conscientious objectors, people with criminal records, and various other categories.) In the seven months before the ordinance, there had been 45 residential burglaries. In the seven months after the ordinance, there were only five—an 89 percent decline. Over the next five years, the residential burglary rate in Kennesaw was 85 percent below the rate before the enactment of the ordinance.
The ordinance may not have actually changed gun ownership patterns much in Kennesaw; the mayor estimated that even before the ordinance, about five of every six Kennesaw homes contained a gun. But the publicity surrounding the Kennesaw law may have served as a very powerful warning to persons contemplating a residential burglary in the town: any homeowner confronted during a burglary would almost certainly be armed.
Not just in Kennesaw, but throughout the United States, the armed victim is a serious danger to burglars. One of 31 burglars has been shot during a burglary. Thus, American burglary patterns are heavily influenced by the perpetrators’ fears of confronting an armed victim. Most burglars report that they avoid late-night burglaries because “That’s the way to get shot.”
Opponents of gun ownership for home defense insist that—despite what burglars say again and again—the fear of armed victims has little to do with burglary patterns. Instead, burglars are claimed to be non-confrontational by nature, wanting to avoid seeing any victim, armed or not. But this assertion fails to explains why burglars in Great Britain or Canada are so much less shy than their American cousins. Besides, burglars are not non-confrontational by nature. A multi-state study of felony prisoners found that 62 percent of burglars had also perpetrated robberies. (A burglary is an entry into a building to commit a felony, and does not necessarily involve a confrontation; a robbery is the taking of property from a victim through force or the threat of force.)
The St. Louis study of currently active burglars observed: “Most offenders in our sample . . . showed little concern for the well-being of their victims. In fact, several of them said they were prepared to use violence against anyone who got in their way during the commission of an offense.” As one St. Louis burglar told Wright and Decker: “When [the victims] come in there, they better have some boxin’ gloves on cause . . . I’m gon hurt you, I ain’t lyin’.”
When burglars do encounter victims who cannot protect themselves, the results can be terrifying. In 30 percent of the cases in which a burglar does confront a victim, the victim is assaulted or threatened. In ten percent of these cases, the assaults turn into rapes. Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck, in Point Blank: Guns and Violence in America, explains the implications of these statistics:
Suppose that the percentage of “hot” burglaries rose from current American levels (around 12 or 13%) to the Canadian level (around 45%). Knowing how often a hot burglary turns into an assault, we can predict that an increase in hot burglaries to Canadian levels would result in 545,713 more assaults every year. This by itself would raise the American violent crime rate 9.4%.
While the gun prohibition lobby portrays gun owners as atavistic and selfish, gun ownership for home protection is considerably more beneficial to the entire community than many other anti-burglary measures.
Burglars (or convenience-store robbers) do not know which of their potential victims may be armed. Until a confrontation with a homeowner, the potential burglar generally has no idea whether any given homeowner has a gun. Thus, burglars must (and most do) take care to avoid entering any home where a victim might be present. Because about half of all American homes contain a gun, burglars tend to avoid all occupied American homes. People who don’t own guns—even people who belong to gun-prohibition organizations—enjoy free-rider safety benefits from America’s armed homes.
In contrast to guns, burglar alarms appear to have no net community benefit. Burglar alarms have been shown to reduce burglaries for homes in which they are installed; but the presence of many burglar alarms in a neighborhood does not appear to decrease or increase the burglary rate for unalarmed homes.
False alarms—which account for 94 to 98 of all burglar alarm activations—impose very large public safety costs through misappropriation of limited police resources. False-alarm signals travel over 911 lines, and may crowd out genuine emergencies. Guns, of course, lie inert until someone decides to use them; they do not go off because a cat jumped into a beam of light.
Gun prohibitionists make all sorts of claims about the risks of “a gun in the home,” and these claims have some validity if the gun happens to be in the home of a violent felon, or an alcoholic, or a person with suicidal tendencies. But in responsible hands, guns are no danger at all, since the gun will only shoot in the direction in which it is pointed, and will not fire unless the trigger is pulled.
In any case, whatever risks a gun in the home may present are borne almost entirely by the people in that home. The non-gunowners in the community get the benefit of safety from home-invasion burglars, while assuming no risks at all. (The only significant external danger of a gun in the home is if the gun is stolen by a criminal, a risk that also applies to any other device that could be stolen and used by a criminal, such as a car or a crowbar, or any valuables which could be sold and the profits used to buy crime tools.) And, of course, guns stay quiet and unobtrusive until needed. They do not bark all night and wake up the neighborhood, like dogs often do. Nor do guns rush into the street to attack and sometimes kill innocent people, as some guard dogs do. Guns in the right hands do nothing at all, until they are needed. Firearms, which are typically stored deep inside a home, do not make a neighborhood look ugly. But window bars give a neighborhood the appearance of a prison, and some window bars can trap the occupants of a home during a fire.
Most people consider it rational for householders to have burglary insurance. Yet insurance premiums must (for the insurance company to stay in business) be set at a level at which the cost of the premiums exceeds the probable payout by the insurance company over the long run. Insurance is, by definition, a losing bet. If it is reasonable for people to reduce the risks of burglary by buying insurance, it is far more reasonable for people to reduce the risks of burglary by purchasing a gun for home protection. Over a ten-year period, the cost of insurance premiums far exceeds the cost of a good gun. Moreover, the gun, unlike the insurance premium, can actually prevent a victim from being injured.
Unfortunately, the antigun lobby is morally opposed to gun ownership for defensive purposes. As Sarah Brady explains, “To me, the only reason for guns in civilian hands is for sporting purposes.” This view is antithetical to legislation enacted in Colorado and other states which makes explicit the common- law right to use deadly force against violent home invaders. Thus, the antigun lobbies push for laws like Canada’s, which effectively abolishes home defense. In Canada, “safe storage” laws require that guns be stored unloaded or locked up, thus making them difficult to deploy in a sudden emergency. The antigun lobbies and their numerous media allies are also running a propaganda campaign against guns in the home—a campaign which tries to convince ordinary Americans that they are just as prone to criminal violence as are convicted felons and substance abusers. But as long as tens of millions of Americans continue to exercise their constitutional right to own a gun to protect their homes and families, then all Americans will continue to enjoy lower risks of assault and greater safety in their homes, thanks to the widespread community benefits of guns in the right hands.