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The tradeoffs of gun ownership

Scientific studies on the tradeoffs of gun ownership are reviewed

On the 20 of July, 2012, James Holmes bought a ticket to see the new Batman movie in Aurora, Colorado. About 20 minutes after the show started, Holmes left the theater and returned dressed in full tactical gear, carrying several guns and lots of ammunition. He launched two canisters that emitted smoke or gas, and then began firing into the crowd, killing 12 and wounding 58 others. Holmes identified himself to the police as "The Joker." When tragic incidents such as these occur, the topic of gun ownership often comes up. This article explores the tradeoffs associated with gun ownership. 

Why Do People Own Guns?

The United States is the most heavily armed society in the world with 90 guns for every 100 citizens; Americans own 270 million of the world's 875 million known guns.[1] Gun sales are increasing each year[2], even though the economy is bad and violent crime rates are declining.  Indeed, gun sales increased by 43% in Colorado following the shooting.[3] Likewise, gun sales increased following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newton, Connecticut.[4] (The simplest explanation for the decrease in violent crimes since the 1990s is the U.S. population is getting older and older, and older people rarely rape, rob, assault, and murder others. In addition, the U.S. incarceration rate has increased since the 1990s.)

Most gun owners say they use the guns to protect themselves from criminals, for hunting, and for target practice. Some gun owners arm themselves because they don’t trust the government to protect them from outside threats, or because they are afraid the government will try to take their guns away.[5] They view the gun as an icon for democracy and personal empowerment. For example, some moviegoers claimed they could have “taken out” Holmes if only they had a gun, although additional people firing guns in a dark theater probably would have increased rather than decreased casualties and injuries.

Some youth own guns to intimidate others and gain respect, and these youth also have very high rates of antisocial behavior.[6] Especially in youth gangs, guns are used to project and protect a tough image.[7] Juvenile offenders aren’t the only ones who use guns to intimidate others. A U.S. survey found that guns in the home are more likely to be used by men to intimidate women than against strangers. Indeed, other weapons (e.g., baseball bats, knives) were more commonly used than guns in self-defense against strangers.[8]

Homicides and Gun Assaults

Gun ownership is one of the strongest predictor of homicide in U.S. homes, even after controlling for other potential confounding factors (e.g., drug use, previous criminal record, history of violence).[9] It is often said: “gun’s don’t kill people, people kill people.” When people do kill people, however, they are much more likely to use a gun than any other weapon.[10] Analysis of crime records found that people who had been shot with a gun were 4.5 times more likely than average to be carrying a gun themselves at the time.[11] Thus, guns did not protect those who possessed them from being shot. The increased availability of guns in a community is also related to the number of police officers killed by guns.[12] One additional problem with guns is they can lead to rapid violent escalation of conflicts.[13]

Similar findings have been reported in 20 other countries.[14] For example, after a 1996 firearm massacre in Tasmania in which 35 people died, the Australian government passed laws to remove semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns from civilians. An analysis showed that in the 18 years before the gun law reforms there had been 13 mass shootings, but none in the subsequent decade.[15]

Shootings are becoming increasingly common in the workplace, where disgruntled employees shoot their bosses, fellow employees, or even customers. But businesses that allow firearms in the work place are about five times more likely to experience a homicide than businesses that do not.[16]


Among people who successfully commit suicide, most used a gun, followed by ingested poisons, hangings, and inhaled poisons.[17] For example, one study found that 86% of suicides were committed with guns in homes with guns, whereas only 6% were committed with guns in homes without guns.[18] People often use guns to commit suicide because they are faster, less painful, and more reliable than other means. (People seeking to survive an attempted suicide in order to get attention will typically avoid guns.) When gun control laws are passed, suicides due to firearms decrease, with most studies showing no increase in suicide by other means.[19][20],


One unintended cost of gun ownership is the increased risk of lethal and nonlethal accidents. In 2007, there were 15,000 to 19,000 accidental shootings, with more than 600 of these being fatal.[21] American children under age 15 are nine times more likely to die of a gun accident than children in other advanced wealthy countries.[22] Accidents can even occur with BB guns[23] and cap guns.[24] Accidental firearm deaths often occur in more rural areas among poorer families.[25]


In summary, the main benefits of gun ownership are feeling safe, free, independent, and powerful. However, if you own a gun it is 22 times more likely to be used to kill you (suicide) or someone you love (accident, homicide in a heated argument) than a stranger in self-defense.[26] The costs of living in a society of gun owners also means a substantially higher rate of homicides, suicides, and accidents.


[1] U.S. most armed country with 90 guns per 100 people. Reuters News. Retrieved from


[3] Aurora shooting: Colorado gun sales up after cinema killings (2012, 25 July). BBC News. Retrieved from

[4] La Jeunesse (2012, 18 December) Gun sales surge after Connecticut massacre. Retrieved from

[5] Jiobu, R. M. & Curry, T. J. (2001). Lack of confidence in government and the ownership of firearms. Social Science Quarterly. 82(1), 77–88.

[6] Cunningham, P. B., Henggeler, S. W. Limber, S. P. Melton, G. B., & Nation, M. A. (2000). Pattern and correlates of gun ownership among nonmetropolitan and rural middle school students. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 29(3), 432–442.

[7] Stretesky, P. B., & Pogrebin, M. R., (2007). Gang-related gun violence: Socialization, identity, and self. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 36(1), 85–114.

[8] Azrael, D., & Hemenway, D. (2000). ‘In the safety of your own home’: Results from a national survey on gun use at home. Social Science & Medicine, 50(2), 285–291.

[9] Kellermann, A. L., Rivara, F. P., Rushforth, N. B., Banton, J. G., et al. (1993). Gun ownership as a risk factor for homicide in the home. The New England Journal of Medicine, 329(15), 1084–1091.

[10] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2011). Surveillance for Violent Deaths --- National Violent Death Reporting System, 16 States, 2008. Retrieved from

[11] Branas, C. C., Richmond, T. S., Culhane, D. P., Ten Have, T. R., & Wiebe, D. J. (2009). Investigating the link between gun possession and gun assault. American Journal of Public Health, 99(11), 2034–2040.

[12] Lester, D. (1987). The police as victims: The role of guns in the murder of police. Psychological Reports, 60(2), 366.

[13] Phillips, S., & Maume, M. O. (2007). Have gun will shoot? Weapon instrumentality, intent, and the violent escalation of conflict. Homicide Studies: An Interdisciplinary & International Journal, 11(4), 272–294.

[14] Killias, M., Van Kesteren, J., & Rindlisbacher, M. (2001). Guns, violent crime, and suicide in 21 countries. Canadian Journal of Criminology, 43(4), 429–448.

[15] Chapman, S., Alpers, P., Agho, K., & Jones, M. (2006). Australia’s 1996 gun law reforms: Faster falls in firearm deaths, firearm suicides, and a decade without mass shootings. Injury Prevention, 12(6), 365–372.

[16] Loomis, D., &, Marshall, S. W. (2005). Employer policies toward guns and the risk of homicide in the workplace. American Journal of Public Health, 95(5), 830–832.

[17] Olson,. L., et al. (1999). Guns, alcohol, and intimate partner violence: The epidemiology of female suicide in New Mexico. Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention, 20(3), 121–126.

[18] Suicide in the home in relation to gun ownership. The New England Journal of Medicine, 327(7), 467–472.

[19] Carrington, Peter J., & Moyer, Sharon (1994). Gun control and suicide in Ontario. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 151(4), 606–608.

[20] Lambert, M. T., & Silva, P. S. (1998). An update on the impact of gun control legislation on suicide. Psychiatric Quarterly, 69(2), 127–134.

[21] Frum, D. (2013). Are gun accidencts 'very rare'? Retrieved from

[22] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (1997). Rates of homicide, suicide, and firearm-related death in children — 26 industrial countries. Retrieved from

[23] Damore, D. T., Ramundo, M. L., Hanna, J. P., & Dayan, P. S. (2000). Parental attitudes toward BB and pellet guns. Clinical Pediatrics, 39(5), 281–284.

[24] Maze, D. A. E., & Holland, A. J. A. (2007). Cap gun burns in children. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, 43(7–8), 555–556.

[25] Ruddell, R., & Mays, G. L. (2004). Risky behavior, juveniles, guns, and unintentional firearms fatalities. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 2(4), 342–358.

[26] Kellermann, A. L. et al. (1998). Injuries and deaths due to firearms in the home. Journal of Trauma, Injury, Infection, and Critical Care, 45(2), 263-267.

Brad Bushman, Ph.D., is a Professor of Communication and Psychology at Ohio State University and a Professor of Communication Science at the VU University Amsterdam.


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