The Silver Lining About Guns

On May 14, the morning of the Million Mom March against guns in Washington, the Washington Post carried a hair-raising story by Richard Morin and Claudia Deane that said a Post/ABC News poll found fully 23 percent of Americans have, at one time or another, had a gun pointed at them. Here are the mind-numbing details:

To estimate experiences with guns and gun violence, the Post and ABC News asked a random sample of 1,068 adults 18 or older this month if, “not counting military service,” they had ever personally “been threatened with a gun or shot at.” Then respondents were asked whether they had been fired on or just threatened. The margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 3 percentage points.Nine percent of those interviewed reported that they had been shot at. The total includes everyone from crime victims to those involved in hunting accidents. An additional 14 percent reported that someone had threatened them with a gun but did not pull the trigger.

For one quarter of the U.S. population to have been threatened with a gun, and one tenth to have been shot at, is clearly unacceptable. From a policy point of view, it suggests that fairly drastic national gun control legislation–Chatterbox would support an outright ban on handguns for anyone outside law enforcement–would be well justified. But let’s not look at this from a policy point of view. Let’s look at this from a coping-with-your-fear point of view. Chatterbox has never had a gun pointed at him, and he is deeply frightened by the possibility that it would ever happen to him. Oddly, though, this Post piece gives him some comfort on this score. What these statistics tell Chatterbox is that having a gun pointed at you is not quite as dangerous as he previously believed.

The current population of the U.S.  is about 275 million. That means about 63 million people in the U.S. have had a gun pointed at them at one time or another, of whom about 25 million people have been shot at. This is very high; guns cause more injury-related U.S. deaths than anything except automobiles. But how many deaths is that, exactly? Well, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control, it’s about 32,000 deaths annually. Now, let’s assume everyone in the Post/ABC News poll has lived the maximum number of years you can live–say, 120. That means that 3.8 million people have perished from gunshot wounds during their lifetimes. (Obviously the mortality rate from guns varies from year to year; but 3.8 million should still wildly overstate the number of actual gun deaths, since we’re assuming that everyone in the U.S. is 120 years old.) Now compare that way-too-high number with the 63 million people who have had a gun pointed at them at some point in their lives and didn’t die (if they had, they wouldn’t be around to be counted), plus the 3.8 million who did die (once again, Chatterbox wants to emphasize that the 3.8 million figure is preposterously inflated). It’s about six percent. Therefore, the absolute crudest, most exaggerated proportion of people who get guns pointed at them and survive the ordeal is a very reassuring 94 percent.

Important caveat: Getting killed isn’t the only unpleasant thing that can happen to you when someone points a gun your way. You can also be injured, often horribly. More than twice as many people get injured each year by guns as get killed by them. Unfortunately, because the Post/ABC poll doesn’t reveal how many of the pollees got injured, Chatterbox can’t calculate the odds of not getting injured when someone points a gun at you.