Actual odds of violence?
April 26, 2012 11:05 AM   Subscribe

Statistical risk of being in situation where a firearm would be helpful and useful (assuming a command of the weapon) in defense?

The advocacy for the right to carry guns outside the home - in your car, in your car parked at work, in bars (Tennessee, believe it or not) - seems to rest on an assertion having to do with the likelihood (high, apparently) of encountering the sort of random violence where a firearm might be useful. "I never know when I might have to protect myself."

Statistically speaking, though, what are the odds of encountering that sort of random violence as compared to the odds of other dangerous situations for which we could (though we probably don't) similarly prepare ourselves?
posted by John Borrowman to Society & Culture (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think I'd start working this by working on crime starts to figure out the likelihood of crimes in which a firearm might be useful, given favorable circumstances, versus those it isn't, i.e. being present at, or the victim of, an armed robbery, vs. being burgled while on vacation. (On which note I'd bet that someone has already researched the home-burglary statistic vis-a-vis the value proposition of a home security system.)

Following that, I'd look for some kind of statistic as to how often the victims are disarmed or disabled at the start of the above crimes.

Your main problem is that such odds are going to vary all over because of the way crime density varies.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:28 AM on April 26, 2012

I imagine some insurance company has tables for this somewhere. I also imagine the number is significantly lower than the risk of accidental discharge. But whatever.
posted by Jon_Evil at 11:44 AM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

An individual's risk of being the victim of a violent crime depends on so many individualized factors that it is impossible to generalize in any useful way. Furthermore, the question of whether a firearm would be a useful defensive asset in any given situation is such a hugely disputed and debatable topic that there is no way to get a decent assessment for the purpose of statistical analysis, even if you could usefully compartmentalize the rest of the statistics by geography and other factors.
posted by The World Famous at 11:47 AM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Well, you may or may not take it as a relevant data point that more than 90 percent of all NYPD officers never fire their weapons in the line of duty. (Also, LAPD.) Put another way: "A study several years ago found that the average New York City police officer would have to serve 694 years before ever shooting and killing a criminal suspect."
posted by dhartung at 11:58 AM on April 26, 2012 [7 favorites]

First of all, the advocacy rests on a constitutional argument and the part of defense is just a practical supporting point to bring against utilitarians who want to restrict civilian gun use. It's a good question, though.

Here's someone saying 60-70% occur outside the home in Russia.

Here's an Australian government org saying 90% of robberies outside the home and 40% of murders outside the home.

Here are some statistics suggesting about half of attacks on women in the US occur outside the home.

There's an 80-90% statistic of violent crime outside the home supposedly according to the Department of Justice, but I couldn't find a cite from the kind of source you're looking for.

Overall, about 3% of Americans will have a crime committed against them, and .5% will be violent.

Now we just have to figure out:
a) in which of these situations a gun would have made a difference.
b) whether carrying a gun outside the home affects personal defense rates inside the home,
c) whether gun carriers are in others' homes when crimes occur in a way that makes a difference,
d) whether gun carriers prevent more or fewer crimes than just what would happen to them. In other words, do gun carriers protect others more because of their ability.
e) whether gun carriers kill themselves with negligent discharge etc. This is really the only one I could find anything on. This suggests the rate is .3 per 100,000 or about .000003%, or about 800 deaths. So, we'd want to see more than 800 saves/prevents to make up for that (vs. 1.2MM violent crimes total/400k-1MM outside the home according to the disastercenter link.) Note this assumes no variance in discharge rates based on training, age, number of children in home, legality/illegality of gun, etc.

A, B, C and D would likely require a sneaky way to isolate the variables. I don't know if it could be done with public data.
posted by michaelh at 11:59 AM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Too many variables and too much ambiguity not to mention much potentially unreliable testimony (see Zimmerman) all make the question unanswerable, in my opinion.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 12:07 PM on April 26, 2012

I started to dig a little before I realized that the answer was either going to be "how do you want to spin this?" or a long conversation on narrowing down your qualifications a little bit. The FBI's Uniform Crime Reports - Violent Crime - Murder - 2010 pages defines:
Justifiable homicide—Certain willful killings must be reported as justifiable or excusable. In the UCR Program, justifiable homicide is defined as and limited to:
  • The killing of a felon by a peace officer in the line of duty.
  • The killing of a felon, during the commission of a felony, by a private citizen.
So you're talking about felonies in which the victim is present. Seems like starting with The FBI's violent crime statistics (2010), and then filtering that for the things that you can't control might be a good start.

By "things that you can't control" I mean that you need to
  • find some way to filter for the socioeconomic status and life decisions of the person asking the questions (ie: acquaintances account for a lot of violent crime, you can buy a gun, or you can get a better class of friends) (note: I don't mean to be flippant on that, I understand that bad relationships can come from all sorts of backgrounds and be very hard to leave). This is going to drop your number of murders and assaults dramatically.
  • Depending on how you want to define justification for use of a weapon, you may or may not want to drop most of robbery. Is killing them rather than giving them the money and letting them leave and letting the police catch them later "helpful and useful"?
If we don't want much nuance, from that last FBI UCR document, "There were an estimated 403.6 violent crimes per 100,000 inhabitants in 2010." We'll drop robbery, at 29.5%, and we're down to 284.5 per hundred thou. Here we're starting to get into some nuance, but the US DOJ's Bureau of Justice Statistics Family Violence Statistics (PDF) suggests that between 1998 and 2002, stranger violence was less than 50%, so pulling random numbers out of our ass, I'd suggest that maybe somewhere on the order of .014%/year might be a starting place.
posted by straw at 12:13 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think the motivations often hidden behind the boogeyman of "being prepared" is more akin to those of doomsday preppers than anything which lends itself to hard, statistical analysis. Being armed and able to easily respond with deadly force to a life threatening situation may be comforting to some, but it is impossible to say what impact that comfort quantifiably has on anything.

If I am armed, will I make choices based upon me being armed which merely increases the likelihood of being in a life and death situation?

If I am armed, will I be able to use a weapon with any effectiveness given the situation? (Held up at gunpoint suddenly, asleep, too many bystanders, etc.)

I guess your total question as I understand it as: "What is the percentage chance of encountering a situation where a person will wish they had been armed, in comparison to the percentage chance of them being in life threatening situation where they wish they had done more to prepare (where a gun would not be useful)?" is very difficult to answer.

The reason for this difficulty, as I see it is that the answer has as many behavioral components which will vary significantly by individuals as it does more statistical components such as geography, economic status, age demographic, etc. with regards to both risk of violence and potentially life threatening non-violent events.
posted by Debaser626 at 12:20 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

[This very much needs to not become an argument for/against gun laws by proxy. Please do not do that.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 3:05 PM on April 26, 2012

If you're making the argument for gun control or not owning a gun for defensive purposes, a better tactic is to compare the utility against the risk, not just look at the utility- for example the increased suicide risk among hand gun owners (ease of access of method is a major aspect in a successfully executed suicide), or the fact that violent crime is usually in the hands of a friend or family member, the sort of people who you generally don't have your gun out in front of or have keys to the gun cabinet.

You can also address the emotional issue, feelings of not being safe and a desire for efficacy. For example a friend who is convinced violent criminals are in their bushes either needs help (because thugs are in their shrubs!) or may overall feel better relief of their distress if they meet the neighbours, work out a game plan for hypothetically dangerous situations with more options than "boom, headshot!"

And I think any more off topic to your answer and I'll be going chat filter, so I'll shut up now.
posted by Phalene at 3:46 PM on April 26, 2012

It would be way to highly situationally dependent to have any meaningful statistics. When I initially read your question I immediately thought of being hounded by a bear or mountain lion out in the woods and not of being attacked by another human. I think in the case of a bear or other animal attack a gun would be useful, but only if you are already holding the weapon when you spot the animal.

In an urban situation I think it would mostly depend on the agressor if a gun would be useful at all. Humans, even criminals, tend to be smarter than animals and I think a gun would be a deterrent if you were walking down the road with a rifle slung over your shoulder. I don't think it would be anywhere near as effective if you are driving down a street with a gun in your glovebox.
posted by koolkat at 3:12 AM on April 27, 2012

Yeah, I think this is an incredibly difficult question to answer for a couple of reasons.

First, underreporting of crime is a significant factor for a lot of reasons: both on the side of the police, and on the side of the person reporting.

Second, in many cases where possessing a firearm acted to prevent a crime, it is often not the actual /discharge/ of the firearm that prevents the crime, and so a police report may not be filed. There are much lower statistics on this.

Third, it depends on your definition of random violence. For example: the problem of sexual violence is an enormous one, and one massively underreported. Estimates of women who have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime range from 15% to 33%. This means that if you are a woman, your likelihood of being sexually assaulted would appear far higher than your likelihood of natural disaster, for instance.

If you accept that a firearm can be an effective deterrent (i.e. "Back off. I've got a gun." or a showing of the gun), then it would seem it is extremely statistically useful. The problem, though, is that you are never going to get people to agree on whether or not a gun is useful, particularly as all the anecdotal evidence is possessed by gun owners, a group which is perceived to have a bias and whose evidence is thus presumed to be unreliable.

Using police officer statistics is ineffective, though, because police officers have a lot more implied force than actual force. The fact that someone is a police officer generally presumes that they possess a gun.
posted by corb at 4:31 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

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