People fear guns. And with so many horrific news stories about gun crimes, it is hard to expect them to feel otherwise. True, guns make it easier for bad things to happen, but they also make it easier for people to protect themselves.
Yet, with the seeming avalanche of bad news, it’s no wonder people find it hard to believe that, according to some estimates, there are 2 million defensive gun uses each year and guns are used defensively four times more frequently than they are to commit crimes.
The normal reaction is: If defensive uses were really happening, wouldn’t we hear about them on the news? There is a good reason for their confusion. In 2001 (the last year available), ABC, CBS and NBC ran 190,000 words’ worth of gun-crime stories on their morning and evening national news broadcasts. But they ran not a single story mentioning a private citizen using a gun to stop a crime. The only network I could find that ran any defensive gun-use stories was the Fox News Channel.
The print media were almost as lopsided: The New York Times ran 50,745 words on gun crimes, but only one short (163-word) story on a retired police officer who used his gun to stop a robbery. For USA Today, the tally was 5,660 words on gun crimes versus zero on defensive uses.
Part of the reason defensive gun use isn’t covered may be simple news judgment. If a news editor faces two stories, one with a dead body on the ground and another in which a woman brandished a gun and the attacker ran away, no shots fired, almost anyone would pick the first story as more newsworthy. It has been estimated that when people use guns defensively, 90 percent of the time they stop the criminals simply by brandishing the gun.
Few people know that citizens using guns help stop about a third of potential public-school shootings before uniformed police can arrive. They don’t know this because only about one percent of the media stories on these cases mention it.
Take the widely covered attack last year at the Appalachian School of Law in Virginia. The attack was stopped by two students who got guns from their cars. But only three news stories — out of 218 run in the week after the attack — mentioned that the students actually used their guns to halt the attack.
The unbalanced reporting is probably greatest in cases in which children die from accidental gunshots. Most people have seen the public-service ads with pictures or voices of children between the ages of four and eight, never over the age of eight, and the impression is that there is an epidemic of accidental deaths involving children.
The truth is that in 1999, 31 children younger than 10 died from an accidental gunshot and only six of these cases appear to have involved another child under 10 as the culprit. Nor was this year unusual. Any death is tragic, but with 90-some million Americans owning guns and about 40 million children younger than 10, it is hard to think of any other product in the home that represents such a low risk to children. Indeed, more children under five drowned in bathtubs or plastic water buckets.
Gun deaths are covered extensively as well as prominently, with individual cases getting up to 88 separate news stories. In contrast, when children use guns to save lives, the event might at most get one brief mention in a small local paper.
As a couple of reporters told me, journalists are uncomfortable printing such positive gun stories because they worry that it will encourage children to get access to guns. The whole process snowballs, however, because the exaggeration of the risks — along with lack of coverage of the benefits — cements the perceived risks more and more firmly in newspaper editors’ and reporters’ minds. This makes them ever more reluctant to publish such stories.
Lack of balance dominates not just the media but also government reports and polling. Studies by the Justice and Treasury Departments have long evaluated just the cost guns impose on society. Every year, Treasury puts out a report on the top 10 guns used in crime, and each report serves as the basis for dozens of news stories. But why not also provide a report — at least once — on the top 10 guns used defensively? Similarly, numerous government reports estimate the cost of injuries from guns, but none measures the number of injuries prevented when guns are used defensively.
But if we really want to save lives, we need to address the whole truth about guns — including the costs of not owning them. We never, for example, hear about the families who couldn’t defend themselves and were harmed because they didn’t have guns.
Discussing only the costs of guns and not their benefits poses the real threat to public safety as people make mistakes on how best to defend themselves and their families.