Guns, Politics, and Freedom
September 8, 1999

Tally both sides of the balance sheet on guns

By F. Paul Valone


The following column was published by The Charlotte Observer on September 8, 1999, in the Raleigh News & Observer on October 6, 1999 under the title “Guns in America: credit the value of deterrence,” and on September 17 in The Asheville Tribune under the title “The balance sheet on guns.”


Imagine a Standard & Poor’s analyst wrote a report on Microsoft by tallying only the company’s debts and ignoring its earnings and then, based on the sham, pronounced the company insolvent.


Laughable?  Certainly.  But that’s the rigged accounting used by Duke University researcher Philip Cook and his colleagues in a paper titled, “The Medical Costs of Gunshot Injuries in the United States.”  Widely touted by the media for concluding, “Gun shot injury costs represent a substantial burden to the medical care system.  Nearly half this cost is borne by US taxpayers”, the paper conveniently appears just as Handgun Control, Inc. solicits litigation against gun makers.


Having filed one such lawsuit, Miami Mayor Alex Penelas slavers over Cook’s conclusion, insisting it “validate[s] what we in government have known all along.”  (Those in government, you see, are wiser than you and I).


While Cook makes a credible tally of gun injury costs ($2.3 billion in 1994), his utter lack of a researcher’s most important trait—objectivity—renders him blind to the possibility that defensive gun uses might actually save lives and money.


Nor does Cook seem to care.  In 1996, he dismissed peer-reviewed surveys of defensive gun use by saying: “[E]ven if we could develop a reliable estimate of this frequency, it would be of only marginal relevance to the ongoing debate over [gun control].”


By contrast, Sterling Burnett of the  National Center for Policy Analysis totals both sides of the balance sheet on guns.  He first examines wildly variable estimates of the price of gun violence ranging from $1.4 billion to $440 billion per year.  (Some studies cook the books by “guestimating” values for intangibles like victims’ future productivity).


But the NCPA review also cites fifteen surveys estimating between 764,000 and 3.6 million cases annually in which citizens use guns for self defense.  Because merely displaying a firearm often deters crime, criminals are shot in less than 3 percent of cases.


A widely cited self-defense survey by criminologist Gary Kleck, for example, estimates 2.5 million defensive gun uses per year.  Even Cook confirmed that estimate….before refusing to accept his own results.


Given the cost of crimes prevented by defensive gun uses, the NCPA report concludes that even under assumptions most favorable to gun control advocates, the net benefit of guns in society ranges up to $3.5 billion.


Cook equally ignores the benefits of crimes deterred.  When researchers James Wright and Peter Rossi surveyed convicted felons, for example, they found 39% avoided committing crimes when they feared victims might be armed.


And when economist John Lott studied concealed handgun laws, he found they deter rape, murder and aggravated assault.  He concluded universal adoption of such laws could prevent 1,570 murders, 4,177 rapes, and 60,000 aggravated assaults each year. 


If you doubt criminals avoid armed victims, I’ll cheerfully provide you a sign for your front door proclaiming, “Proud To Be Gun-Free!”


Finally, let’s consider the “good riddance factor.”  Hardly the Brady Bunch, gunshot victims are often criminals.  In a study of Charlotte shootings, 64% of victims had been convicted of a crime.  In another study, 71% of drive-by shooting victims were members of street gangs.  Homicide victims with arrest records average 9.5 prior offenses per “victim.”


Take Tracy Hopper.  Killed three weeks ago in a Charlotte bar, he’d achieved two prior convictions and a standing indictment for murder.  Dead at the tender age of 20, Hopper typifies what gun control advocates mislabel “children killed by guns.” 


Then we have Adrian Rodricka Cathey who, last fall, had the misfortune to pick the wrong victim.  When he broke into a woman’s apartment and attacked her with a knife, she shot him dead.  Arrested for five violent felonies (including three sexual assaults), DNA evidence later proved Cathey’s busy career included four recent rapes.


Can we attach a price to prevention of rape?  Or perhaps to Cathey’s future victims?  Cook does: By his bookkeeping, shooting predators like Cathey represents a “burden to the medical care system.”


A Tennessee Law Review paper described this sort of research by saying, “the anti-gun health advocacy literature is a ‘sagecraft’ literature in which partisan academic ‘sages’ prostitute scholarship, systematically inventing, misinterpreting, selecting, or otherwise manipulating data to validate preordained political conclusions.”


Biased researchers like Philip Cook carefully ignore what should be a central question of the gun debate: Not whether we can dredge up 100 or 1,000 cases in which firearms are misused, but whether gun ownership, on balance, is a detriment or a benefit.  Their refusal to acknowledge the question might suggest they already know the answer.