Victims might lose shootouts against better armed, more ruthless opponents

Victims might lose shootouts against better armed, more ruthless opponents

Victims might lose shootouts against better armed, more ruthless opponents
Victims might lose shootouts against better armed, more ruthless opponents

In gun battles with armed offenders, victims probably lose more often than they win, skeptics

believe. In some confrontations, attackers may wrest the gun away and shoot victims with their own weapons—this even happens to well-trained, physically fit police officers. In many other con- frontations, gun possessors don’t even get the chance to draw their weapon, or they hesitate to shoot their armed adversary. However, hard data is not available to back up these claims.

In sum, in the ongoing “domestic arms race” between “good guys” and “bad guys,” critics are convinced that encouraging more people to reach for their guns is a recipe for disaster that will further endanger everyone. On balance, the risks that arise from gun availability substantially outweigh the benefits (see Wright, Rossi, and Daly, 1983; Kates, 1986; Green, 1987; Witkin, 1994; and Butterfield, 1999).

Gun Laws Directly Affecting Victims

Gun laws (like drug laws and capital punishment statutes) are matters for state legislatures to deter- mine, so they vary considerably across the country. Gun laws represent the clearest example of how legislation has been crafted by special interests: lob- byists representing the firearms industry and gun enthusiasts who engage in political battles with lob- byists representing gun control organizations and their supporters. State and local (county and munic- ipal) gun laws address a number of contentious issues that directly affect victims and people worried that they could become victims. The most divisive issues concern the right to keep (own) a firearm in one’s home; the way firearms are stored in the home (loaded, unlocked, and handy vs. unloaded and locked away); the right to bear arms outside the home (carry around a concealed handgun); and under what circumstances it is legal to use (dis- charge) firearms in self-defense (“castle doctrine” and “stand your ground” provisions). Other highly controversial issues that have implications for vic- tims and crime-conscious people arming for self- protection center on whether military-style assault weapons ought to be banned again, whether longer waiting periods (“cooling off” periods) should be imposed, whether guns or even bullets ought to


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be registered with local law enforcement agencies, whether armor-piercing Teflon-tipped “cop killer” bullets should be sold to the public, whether the number of guns purchased per month should be restricted, whether the “gun show loophole” for purchasing firearms from unlicensed sources should be closed, and whether the prohibition on third- party lawsuits against gunmakers and licensed fire- arms dealers alleging gross negligence should be lifted.

Most states do not require residents to obtain a license in order to keep a firearm at home for pro- tection. Some states allow residents to openly carry guns in public. However, advocates of armed self- defense have focused most of their energies in recent decades on expanding the number of states that give permission to citizens to carry concealed handguns around in their everyday travels (Luo, 2011b).

Gun proponents hail the spread of “right- to-carry” permit systems (“shall carry” or “shall issue” legislation) that authorize citizens to take concealed handguns along in everyday life. Every state except Illinois (and the District of Columbia) has adopted a law that allows non–law enforcement personnel (the general public) to carry concealed handguns under certain clearly spelled out circum- stances. In three states (Alaska, Arizona, and Vermont), residents who are eligible to buy a hand- gun under federal law do not need any further per- mission to carry it around in a concealed manner. In the 39 “shall issue” states, permits are easily obtain- able without special permission from the police, provided that the applicant meets the minimum age requirements, is “of good character,” and doesn’t have a record of arrests and convictions for felonies or drug abuse or a documented history of mental illness. In seven other states, discretionary “may issue” laws require citizens to prove that they have a compelling need to be armed, and local police chiefs, sheriffs, and judges decide who gets the limited number of permits. A complex patch- work of county and municipal regulations governs the permit process. Specifically where gun owners are allowed to carry their concealed weapons is a subject of dispute and therefore varies from place to

place. Advocates of armed self-defense seek to secure the right to take their concealed handguns with them to work, college campuses, restaurants, houses of worship, and local, state, and national parks. The most intense controversies have to do with demands to carry guns into schools, govern- ment buildings, and places where alcohol is served. Another contentious issue is whether people who have permits from their home state can take along their concealed handguns when they travel to other states (called the national right to carry reciprocity) (see LaPierre, 2008; Cox, 2011; and Luo, 2011a; 2011b).

Proponents of arming for self-protection work to pass “defense of habitation” and “stand your ground” state laws that authorize people to use deadly force—without first trying to back away from a showdown (“duty to retreat”)—against intruders who threaten them. “Stand your ground” laws are based upon a “castle doctrine”: People’s homes are their castles, where they have a right to defend their lives and property against robbers and burglars (NRA, 2008; Perrusquia, 2008; and Thornburgh, 2008). Some “stand your ground” laws go beyond the castle doctrine, which centers on home invasions, and apply to confrontations in other locations. For example, in Texas, the castle doctrine presumes that the apparent target who feels threatened is acting reasonably if he or she unleashes deadly force against someone who, ille- gally and with force but without provocation, is entering an occupied home, car, or workplace. The target of what appears to be an imminent attack no longer has a “duty to retreat” if he or she has a right to be there and is no longer liable to a civil lawsuit by the person who is shot, even if it turns out to be a mistake or tragic misunderstand- ing. Thirty states have adopted some variation of the castle doctrine (Thompson, 2008; Thornburgh, 2008; and NRA, 2012).

Overall, the states with the most strongest or most restrictive laws governing firearms (such as compulsory reporting of lost or stolen guns, requir- ing background checks on would-be buyers, imposing waiting periods of several days before pick-up, and prohibiting dangerous persons from

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purchasing guns) are largely in the northeast: New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, but also Hawaii, California, and Illinois. The states with the least restrictive laws are Alaska, Arizona, South Dakota, and Wyoming (Brady Center, 2013b).

As for trends in public opinion, voters’ support for gun control measures to limit firearms owner- ship and restrict legal handgun carrying is losing ground. In 1959, before crime became a highly politicized social problem, a majority of respon- dents (60 percent) told pollsters they would support a ban on handgun ownership. By 2014 a huge shift had taken place: Almost three-quarters (73 percent) of respondents opposed a ban on handguns. Less than half of all respondents (47 percent) said they favored stricter gun laws (down from 62 percent in 2000); respondents favoring less restrictive laws increased (to 14 percent from a low of 5 percent in 2000); and the proportion of the sample believ- ing existing state laws should be “kept as is” stood at 38 percent in 2014 (Swift, 2014).

Nevertheless, gun control advocates insist that restrictive state laws are more effective ways of con- trolling firearm violence than lenient ones. Genuine public safety can be better maintained by insisting that residents go about their daily routines unarmed and by relying upon the police for protection (see Goodnough, 2005; Editors, New York Times, 2007; and Alvarez, 2012).

For example, in New York City, murders declined from nearly 2,250 in 1990 to less than 330 in 2014. Yet this dramatic reduction in lethal violence came about without allowing the law- abiding populace to arm for self-protection. In New York State, individuals do not have a right to own a gun, even to defend their homes. State law regards a “premise license” as a privilege that can be denied by local law enforcement authorities to persons who lack “good moral character.” Homeowners with licenses can fire in self-defense only if they reasonably believe they are protecting the people within from burglary (home invasion) or arson; deadly force can’t be unleashed on mere trespassers or thieves. In New York City, law-abiding applicants for a permit to

carry a gun around are routinely turned down unless they can demonstrate that they are in extraordinary personal danger (only relatively few prominent persons and celebrities qualify). Having been a victim of violence and living or working in a high-crime neighborhood does not meet the stan- dard of establishing proper cause for a special hand- gun license (Wasserman, 2008).

Victimologists can conduct research to help resolve the heated debate over whether arming for self-defense makes people safer or puts them at greater risk of being wounded or shot to death. Anecdotal evidence, such as the real-life examples presented earlier, is not sufficient. Researchers need to assemble an accurate and comprehensive database about all kinds of shootings, whether accidental or intentional. The NCVS and the UCR contain infor- mation about offenders pulling out guns and shooting them but not about the circumstances under which victims felt compelled to reach for a gun. How many of these confrontations involving armed victims in which a firearm was visibly brandished but not dis- charged aborted a situation of impending danger and persuaded the wrongdoer to run away? How often does the presence of a deadly weapon in “the right hands” lead to the capture, wounding, or even justi- fiable killing (if absolutely necessary) of someone armed and dangerous; and how often is there a tragic ending or a terrible misunderstanding leading to the shooting of the wrong person? Such a database should include the demographic characteristics and criminal histories of the assailants and their intended targets, the settings and specific locations, the circum- stances that precipitated the gunfire, the kinds of weapons involved, and the outcomes. This kind of information currently is scattered in the files of police detectives, prosecutors, medical examiners’ and cor- oners’ offices, hospital emergency rooms, health department death certificate records, and forensic lab reports (see Barber et al., 2000). Unfortunately, funding for research into these matters has been undermined by the “gun lobby,” gun control advo- cates suspect (see Luo, 2011a).

Victimologists interested in contributing to the field of survivorology could study the reactions of persons who drew legally owned firearms to fight


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back and emerged from deadly confrontations unscathed, as well as those who pulled guns and still sustained serious injuries. Compared to a third group, unarmed victims who were shot, which group showed the greatest progress in recovering from these harrowing experiences? Did the presence or absence of a gun in the victims’ hands at the time of the crime make a difference in the rate and degree of their recovery, physically and emotionally?

Justifiable Homicides Carried Out by Victims and Law Enforcement Officers

One measure (of questionable reliability) of how frequently Americans resort to deadly force to pro- tect themselves is the annual body count of deaths resulting from justifiable homicides. Justifiable homicides take place when peace officers in the line of duty are compelled to shoot dangerous felons, or when private citizens during the commis- sion of a violent felony have to protect themselves by killing their attacker. These slayings are not

classified by the FBI as murders or manslaughters because they are legally excusable. Since 1988, the FBI’s UCR has been keeping track of two catego- ries of justifiable homicides: by victims acting in self-defense who had to kill criminals posing an imminent threat of severe bodily harm or death and by law enforcement officers shooting suspects considered to be armed and dangerous to them or to others in their path.

The yearly data assembled in Figure 13.1 shows a pattern in which officers each year slay more crim- inals than civilians do. Officers and victims combined put an end to the lives of more than 800 attackers in 1993, and again in 1994, as Figure 13.1 shows. Compared to the number of Americans who were murdered during those high-crime years, justifiable homicides accounted for about 4 percent of all vio- lent deaths nationwide. Most of these nonpunishable deaths of persons deemed to be dangerous felons resulted from gunfire (99 percent of those killed by officers, 83 percent of assailants slain by civilians, in 2013), the UCR revealed (FBI, 2014).

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