The last time there was a discussion on Greg Laden’s blog regarding the necessity of firearms, the topic turned to home invasion, which is the classic protect-the-women-and-children fantasy scenario for gun nuts (which are a distinct subset of gun owners). I pulled some statistics to find out what kind of protection guns afforded. Since the subject of relative safety continues to come up, I’m reposting and expanding the information here for handy reference.
In 2006, approximately 447,000 robberies were reported to the FBI. Of these, 14.3% occurred in the home and 42.2% involved a firearm, for about 27,000 home robberies involving a firearm annually. I’m assuming, in the absence of better data, that firearm involvement is evenly distributed between home and non-home robberies, although a higher level of injury encountered in workplace robberies suggests that this may be overstating the involvement of firearms in home robberies.
This translates to an annual, per capita, U.S. rate of firearm-related, home robberies of about 0.0001. Given a risk of injury in all robberies of about 35% (pdf) (with the same caveats about workplace robberies given above), that gives us approximately 9,000 firearm-related home-robbery injuries annually, or an annual per capita risk of 0.00003. Given that the FBI reports only 1,000 deaths during any robberies in all of 2006, the total annual per capita risk of death during robbery during home invasion, using the same assumptions, would be 0.0000002. In other words, tiny.
There are other elements of real crime patterns that don’t match the heroic family-saving home-invasion scenario. Random violence is rare compared to our expectations, with only 60% of the robberies in 2006 (pdf) being committed by strangers and with almost no difference in the rate at which victims require medical treatment between stranger and nonstranger interactions (12% versus 10%).
Also, heroics aren’t guaranteed to succeed. In less than 30% of all 2006 robberies in which another party tried to intervene did the action have a positive effect on the situation. In about 16%, it had a negative effect. This is definitely a net benefit, but it isn’t a certain one, and the statistics on resistance with all weapons accounts for less than 2% of the situations evaluated.
In contrast, the CDC reported 2006 firearm-related deaths at about 31,000 (pdf), roughly the same as the total number of home robberies–not injuries, just death. Approximately 60% of these were accident (1,000) or suicide (17,000). Yes, some of those suicides would have tried another method, but firearm suicides are about three times as likely to succeed as the next most successful method, bringing specifically firearm-related non-homicide deaths in around 13,000.
Homicide deaths from all methods were about 19,000. Gun homicides accounted for 13,000 of these. Given that 12% of homicide victims in that year were known to have been killed by family, that gives us another 1,000 or so people killed by guns kept by them or someone close to them, for a total of 14,000. For death, not injury.
I’ll take the risk of injury during robbery.