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Is America Safer When Good Guys Have Guns?

Homicde data + crime victimization survey results = surprise.

It seems like awfully biblical stuff. In the beginning, Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judah and his brethren; and later on gun violence begat gun violence — but actually reduced non-lethal violence, so saith sociologist and criminologist Richard B. Felson of Pennsylvania State University and colleagues at the University of Iowa and at Indiana University.

Well, maybe they didn’t say the part about Abraham and his folk.

But they did statistically analyze homicide data and International Crime Victimization Survey results. When they did, they noticed that living in a country with a high rate of gun violence like America’s actually puts one at reduced risk of unarmed assault and of assaults with weapons that aren’t lethal. In other words, spending all your time where random people everywhere are armed is good — for something. Americans in cities where lots of people are shooting each other are less likely than, say, Italians to get their purses roughly and rudely snatched from them.

Why? For starters, in Rome a criminal might assume that his victim won't be carrying a gun. He may also assume that if he runs fast he’ll get away, or at worst be tackled by a bystander. Whereas in America he might imagine that guys packing heat are "everywhere." Worse, they may all want to be heroes.

And it’s true that, in Italy as a whole, petty street crime is fairly common, whereas getting your head blown off isn’t.

Unfortunately, of course, as Felson points out, with guns everywhere, Americans are far more likely than people in countries with low rates of gun violence to get their heads blown off. Perhaps, as he suggests, having guns everywhere escalates petty crimes into murders through what Felson calls the “adversary effect.”

Which is to say that criminals arm themselves in a manner equal to that of their imagined adversary. As a rule, unarmed criminals avoid violence with adversaries who are physically stronger or who have powerful allies. But when they can’t avoid violence with heavily armed adversaries, some take steps to arm up.

Now, keeping Felson’s proposed adversary effect in mind and getting back to his look at homicide statistics, it could be that when a formerly unarmed criminal arms up, what might have been intended as a simple assault becomes much more consequential.

So … to those who would say that America is safer when good guys carry guns, I would say “Safer from what?” From non-lethal assaults? Yeah, looks like it. But we're at higher risk of losing our lives.

By day Rebecca Coffey is a science journalist, contributing to Scientific American, Discover, and Vermont Public Radio. By night she is a novelist and humorist. HYSTERICAL: Anna Freud's Story (2014, She Writes Press) got rave reviews from Booklist and LAMDA Literary, and was recommended in the June 2014 issue of Oprah’s magazine.