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Guns 101: What We Know And What We Don't


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Tom Gjelten in Washington. Neal Conan is away. The shootings in Oak Creek and Aurora have reignited the gun debate in America, lots of speculation about what link there is or isn't between guns and violence. But beyond the talking points, the heated discussions, there are actual statistics: Who owns guns and why; who gets injured or killed by guns; where public opinion on the issue lies.

We'll speak with experts and researchers about the data - not the politics, the data - about guns in America. Then you can draw your own conclusions. And we want to hear from you. Those of you who own guns and those who don't, what questions do you have about guns in America? The number is 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. Or join the conversation on our website, npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, a former Facebook employee on why she left. But first Guns 101: The Facts. Lydia Saad is a senior editor with the Gallup poll. She conducts research on self-reported gun ownership in America, and she joins us from member station WNPR in New Haven. Also joining us is Mark Rosenberg, he's the president and CEO of the Task Force for Global Health. Before that, he was director of the Centers for Disease Control's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, and he joins us now from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. Both of you, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

LYDIA SAAD: Glad to be here.


GJELTEN: Good. Lydia, let's start with you. So what is the latest that you have seen as far as trends in gun ownership in America?

SAAD: Gallup asks this question at least once a year and typically in October. So our latest result is from October 2011. I say that to point out that it predates the latest incidents. But at that time, we found 47 percent of Americans saying they have a gun in their home or elsewhere on their property, which was a recent high for over the last decade.

Then we follow it up and say: Does this gun belong to you personally, or to someone else in the household? And we wind up with about a third of Americans say they personally own a gun, 34 percent.

GJELTEN: And the trend?

SAAD: Well, in terms of the overall household ownership, since the early '90s, self-reported ownership has dropped. It was about 50, 54 percent in the early '90s. Then it dropped precipitously between about '93 and '96, and that was at the same time as we had the Timothy McVeigh massacre - and dropped from about 54 percent down to 40 percent of Americans admitting that they have a gun in their home.

And since then, it's bounced around between 40 and 45 percent, but then in 2011, it ticked up to 47 percent, the highest it's been in over a decade.

GJELTEN: And as you say, these are people admitting they own guns. Is that the only way that you have to measure gun ownership is self-reporting?

SAAD: Yeah, that's it. We ask Americans whether there's a gun in their home or elsewhere on their property, and it's up to them to say yes or no. So year after year, we ask this question, and most of the time the number is pretty stable. But certainly there's different forces working on people when they answer that question. Do they want to admit that they have a gun and give up some privacy; do they want to admit they don't have a gun and perhaps wager some security? How do they feel about the cultural bias against owning guns or in favor of owning guns?

So those forces, to the extent they operate on respondents, typically we assume they would operate the same - excuse me - every time we ask it. But we have seen that when there are major gun events in the news that responses do change. So clearly Americans are sensitive to the cultural environment when they're answering this.

GJELTEN: You know, that's an interesting phenomenon because it raises the question of whether more people buy guns after something like this or if people are less sort of self-conscious about acknowledging that they have a gun. Maybe they just are more likely to report owning a gun after an incident like this. Do you - of course there's no way to know, is there?

SAAD: Not easily.

GJELTEN: Mark Rosenberg, at the - your work, particularly when you were at CDC, now the Centers for Disease Control's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, gun violence is something that you followed there. Is that correct?

ROSENBERG: Absolutely it is. It's a major, major problem for Americans. If you look at the leading causes of death in the United States from age one to 44, injuries are the leading cause of death, bar none. They far exceed any other cause of death. And there are basically two types of injuries that lead the list: motor vehicle injuries and firearm injuries.

GJELTEN: And firearm injuries are right up there with motor vehicle injuries?

ROSENBERG: They are right up there. The latest year for which we have data available, 2009, there were 34,500 motor vehicle deaths, and there were 31,400 firearm deaths. But what we know is that motor vehicle deaths have come down so that they have come down to 32,000. And we also know that firearm deaths may be rising. So there may actually be, this year to come, more firearm deaths than motor vehicle deaths.

But I think the point about the comparison, other than showing that it's a very, very important problem, and it affects many people, is that these are preventable deaths. In the area of motor vehicle injuries, we have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on research: how to make safer roads, how to make safer cars, and how to make safer drivers. And as a result, since 1974, we've saved more than 300,000 lives.

But in the area of firearm injury deaths, we spend almost nothing. The government spends almost nothing on research to prevent these deaths. But in public health, it would be exactly the same approach to both problems that we would take if there were no impediments to the science.

We would ask four simple questions. What's the problem? Who's injured? Who's shot? How old? Where, when does it happen? The second question we ask is what are the risk factors, why does it happen? The third question is what works to prevent it, and the fourth is how do you do it, how do you implement it? And the basic problem in the area of firearm injuries is we don't know what works to prevent it because we haven't been able to do that research.

GJELTEN: When you say impediments to science, I mean, what are you talking about? Why are there impediments to research in this area?

ROSENBERG: There are impediments because this is a very politically charged issue, and there are very, very powerful lobby groups that strike fear into the heart and blind the very best minds of our politicians. They are afraid of the gun lobby, and they're afraid to really vote with their head and to support the kind of research we need to be able to save lives from these firearm injuries.

I think if you got most rational people together and said do you think we should try to save lives from firearm injuries the way we save lives from motor vehicle injuries, they would say yes. And they would say but we want to make sure that we can protect the rights of legitimate gun owners.

This is not an either-or. You can do the science, and you can protect the rights of legitimate gun owners. It's not either one or the other.

GJELTEN: And we should clarify here, Mark Rosenberg, you're talking about science. You're talking about data. You're talking about research. You are not talking about gun control, about what policies, what laws should be enacted. You are really trying here, it seems, to focus on observable empirical data.

ROSENBERG: Absolutely. We - it's very hard to know what works to prevent firearm injuries. They're very complicated studies. You can't do a study like you can with a drug, and you sign people up: You 50 people take this drug, you 50 people take a placebo, and then at the end of six weeks or a year, we look at the results. That's not how it works with firearm injuries.

You have to study large populations. There are many factors at play. You need comparable populations, and you need to be able to collect data and observe the outcomes of different interventions. And that really requires large-scale funding, and that funding had been coming from the U.S. government, but it was stopped.

It was - the effort was led by a congressman from Arkansas named Jay Dickey in 1996, who was successful in cutting off all the research funding at CDC for firearm injury research. Now, we're not talking about making laws for gun control. We're not talking about advocating for gun control. We're talking about doing scientific experiments, collecting scientific evidence to find out what works and what doesn't work.

And unfortunately, most Americans have no idea about what would work and what wouldn't. I think most people buy guns for protection, for sport and for protection, and it's not clear that having a gun in your home protects you.

GJELTEN: And actually Kathleen(ph), who's on the line from Glendale, Arizona, has a question for one or both of you. Kathleen, thanks for calling TALK OF THE NATION.

KATHLEEN: Hi, thank you for taking my call. I'm always very interested in this subject because personally I'm not a big gun advocate. However, I live in Arizona, and Arizona is a very conservative state, and a lot of people here are gun owners, and we always have these gun shows and things like that.

But I'm always kind of asking: What is the need for something like an assault rifle? I understand the idea of protection. I understand the idea of a sport. But I don't understand the idea of assault rifles. Assault rifle is something that you use in war. We're not at war.

GJELTEN: All right, let's actually get back to Lydia Saad at Gallup. Lydia, when you do these surveys on gun ownership, do you ask people what kind of guns they own?

SAAD: We haven't asked that, but we have asked why they own guns, and the last time actually we asked it was a few years ago, in 2005. And at that time, we found two-thirds of gun owners say they buy them for protection, but then slim majorities, around 53, 54 percent, saying they use them for hunting and/or for target shooting.

Now, I'm not a gun expert, but, you know, the types of guns you would own for protection, a typical person would own for protection, would be probably more along a pistol line. The type of guns people use for hunting, you know, might be more likely to fall into the class of guns that are also called assault rifles. I don't know.

GJELTEN: I've got more questions for you that we're going to get to after the break. We're getting the facts on guns from Lydia Saad and Mark Rosenberg. What questions do you have about guns in the U.S.? Call us, 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. We're going to have more in a minute. I'm Tom Gjelten. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


GJELTEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Tom Gjelten. Today, we're talking about guns. Recent massacres in Aurora and Oak Creek are dominating the news. Overall, gun violence is down, but FBI crime data show mass shootings have ticked slightly upward. Each time something like this happens, the talk starts. It seems everyone's got an opinion about guns, with lots of ideas about how incidents like these can be prevented.

Between the heated opinions, though, it can be hard to figure out what's true and what's not. So today, we're engaged in a bit of gun fact-checking. We call it Guns 101. If you are a gun owner, or if you are not, what questions do you have about guns in America? Call us at 800-989-8255. Or send an email: talk@npr.org. Or you can ask us via Twitter @totn.

My guests are Lydia Saad, senior editor at Gallup, and Mark Rosenberg, president and CEO of the Task Force for Global Health.

Lydia, just before the break, you listed the reasons that people tell you that they own guns. Very quickly, summarize again the - I think it was like three main reasons people cite for owning guns.

SAAD: Right. About two-thirds of gun owners tell us they own one for protection, about half say for hunting and a slim majority for target shooting.

GJELTEN: So there's a lot of, obviously, overlap between those three categories.

SAAD: A lot of overlap, that's right. But clearly, the number one reason is protection.

GJELTEN: Yeah. And do they - and how much detail - you say you don't ask them what kind of guns they have.

SAAD: No. We have not asked that - at least not in recent memory, but probably something we need to look at again soon.

GJELTEN: And how does - what kind of demographic analysis do you do on these gun owners? Whether - age and gender lines, for example, maybe geography?

SAAD: Sure, yeah, all of those. In terms of personally owning a gun, as opposed to just having one in the household, gun ownership is more prevalent among men than women: 46 percent of men, 23 percent of women. It's more common among middle-aged adults, those 35 to 54. You get almost four in 10 in that category saying they personally own a gun. It drops to a quarter of younger Americans, as well as older Americans.

Regionally, we see some interesting differences with ownership most prevalent in the Midwest and South. Over a third of residents in those areas, 38 percent in the South, personally own a gun. And, in fact, in terms of household ownership, in the house, it's the norm in the South for there to be a gun in the home. Majorities say they have one.

In the East, it's the lowest - at 29 percent - for personally owning a gun, and about a third say there's one in the household.

GJELTEN: You know, given how many people say that they own guns for self-defense, is there any way of correlating - there must be - correlating gun ownership with crime rates? You know, do people in high-crime areas, are they more likely to own guns than people in low-crime areas? Or maybe not.

SAAD: It is. I think we would have to have gun ownership, however, at a smaller, regional level - you know, MSAs, metropolitan areas - to be able to do that more accurately. I think at the state level, it might be a little cruder, but it's - and we could - we don't even have it at the state level.

GJELTEN: Well, urban-rural, do you have urban-rural breakdown, for example?

SAAD: I don't have it in front of me right now, but we do have that, and I can - certainly anyone who wants to call Gallup or go to gallup.com, we can look that up.

ROSENBERG: Tom, can I mention a couple of scientific points here?

GJELTEN: Please, Mark. Please, Mark. Mark Rosenberg.

ROSENBERG: The first thing is that the rates of homicide fatalities, you asked about demographics. The rate of homicide fatalities from guns is eight to nine times as high for black males as it is for white males. So that part of our population really bears the brunt.

Mass killings - such as occurred in Aurora or outside of Milwaukee - are a very, very small proportion of all the gun deaths, but the rates are really not comparable in black and white populations. The second scientific fact here is that most gun deaths are suicides.

GJELTEN: Amazing. Suicides.

ROSENBERG: I think people have no idea about that. Sixty percent of the gun fatalities are suicides, and 40 percent, about, are homicides. And most people don't think about that, but it's really important when you think about protection. And the third scientific fact here is that a study that was done to look at whether having a firearm in your home actually does protect you, or whether it puts you at greater risk, showed that families and homes in which there was a gun, not only were they not protected against homicide, but the risk of gun homicide to people in those households was 2.7 times greater than the households without a gun.

And the risk of suicide in those households was 4.8 times greater in the households with firearms. So it looks like, in terms of this very important question of protection, that having a firearm in the home doesn't protect you, but it puts you at much greater risk. And I don't think people understand these facts.

GJELTEN: Mark, John Friedrich(ph), one of our listeners, has an email, and he's asking you, basically, I think, to break down your data a little more. He's wondering: What percentage of firearm injuries and death result from accidents, domestic violence versus acts of self-defense? You talked about homicide. You didn't - do you consider homicide to be strictly a criminal act, as opposed to when someone is killed, say, as a result of a self-defense action?

And how do - how do the - what's the breakup between domestic violence versus, let's say, home invasion or crimes or something like that?

ROSENBERG: It's a very good question. I think we break down the category of firearm deaths into three major categories. One of them is unintentional injuries. We don't call injuries accidents anymore, because accident implies that it just happened. It's unpredictable. And if it's unpredictable, it's unpreventable.

We think these firearm deaths are predictable, and they are preventable. So we fine people $5 whenever they use that A-word.


ROSENBERG: But there are unintentional injuries from firearms, but in the most recent year, 2009, there were only about 550 unintentional firearm deaths. On the other hand, there were 11,500 homicides, and homicides are where one person kills another person. The question of guilt or innocence, where intentionality is determined by a court or by the criminal justice system, but the homicides are when one person kills another.

It may be related to domestic violence. Most homicides occur between people who know each other. They're not stranger shootings. But the people usually know each other.

And the third category - so we talked about 550 unintentional injuries, 11,500 homicides, and suicides are 18,700. So suicides really dominate these firearm deaths.

GJELTEN: Well, Mark, a lot of listeners are writing emails and calling with questions of their own. For example, Otis Chandler(ph) wonders about the number of people who are shot and don't die, versus statistics on the number of people who die. He says he understands that fewer people are dying because of improved emergency medicine. Is that right?

ROSENBERG: That's very true. Fewer people died from unintentional firearm injuries, and even from intentional firearm injuries. We have some data on national estimates of non-fatal firearm injuries, and again, these are just in the number of cases that get reported. But the number who are reported with non-fatal injuries from firearms through hospital emergency departments in 2009 was about 58,000 people.

So there are many more people who are non-fatally injured, especially in the intentional area of interpersonal violence. Suicides, there's a much lower ratio of non-fatal to fatalities, because when people use a gun in suicide, they most often are accurate and complete the suicide. But in the area of homicidal injuries, there are many more non-fatal injuries than fatal ones.

GJELTEN: Mark, you know, we did fact-checking in the last hour, and I want you to fact-check something I said in the intro. I said, overall, gun violence is down, but FBI crime data show mass shootings have ticked slightly upward. Did you have any reaction to that? Is that, in fact, true? I'm - you know, we got that from somewhere, that overall gun violence actually is down in the United States.

ROSENBERG: Well, I think that there are changes in trends, Tom, that happen fairly quickly, and we have a delay in having accurate and timely data made available to us. This is one of the things that keeps us from being able to do the science we really want, is that we don't have accurate numbers in a timely way.

But mass shootings, where more than one person is killed, are a very small percentage of all of the shootings. So yes, it's very possible for the overall number of shootings to go down but the number of mass shootings to go up. As you can see from the - well, I'm not sure there's a cause and effect here, but frequently what happens in homicide, and shootings and even suicide, is this copycat phenomenon.

So if there's one mass shooting that gets a lot of attention, then it's not unlikely that others will follow. Still, the number that we have accounts for a very, very small percentage of all the fatalities.

GJELTEN: We're just getting swamped by emails and calls here, and I just want to get to a couple more emails. This one is for you, or I think I'm going to give it to you, Lydia, at the Gallup organization. This is from Mark Terryberry(ph), and he says - he notes that you, I think it was you, said that the data aren't easy to get because you can't set up a control group.

Aren't countries like Australia, Mexico and England our control groups? Can't we compare our crime rates to theirs? Do you have any comparative data that you can do between the United States and other countries, whether it's on gun ownership or on crime rates?

SAAD: Oh sure, no, I was talking about within the U.S., you know, to look at different communities, we would have to be able to have polling data at those levels. But certainly to look internationally, we have U.S. data, Gallup has a world poll where we do surveys in about 140 countries around the world annually.

And we don't ask the same questions every year, but we do occasionally measure gun ownership in as many of those countries as we're allowed to measure it, and that kind of analysis is done by Gallup. Again, I would refer people to gallup.com for that kind of data or to inquire about it. I'm not personally familiar with, yeah, any research that we might have done internationally on it, but yes, that kind of cross-national data is possible.

ROSENBERG: We also have data that comes from reported firearm injuries and fatalities in other countries, and one thing we do know is that the firearm mortality rates in the United States are - exceed by eight-fold that of our economic counterparts, eight times higher firearm injury mortality in the U.S. than in other countries that are economically comparable to us.

GJELTEN: OK, Mark Rosenbaug(ph) - I'm sorry, Mark, you know, we used to have somebody named Marc Rosenbaum who worked here, and I'm just mutilating your name every time. Don't - please don't be offended. Mark Rosenberg is former director of the Centers for Disease Control's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And I want to go now to Bruce(ph), who's on the line from Briston(ph), Tennessee. Good afternoon, Bruce, thanks for calling us.

BRUCE: Hi, thank you, it's Bristol, Tennessee.

GJELTEN: Bristol, Tennessee, OK.

BRUCE: Yes, my question is related to the folks that are owning handguns or rifles or whatever kind of guns, either legally and registered, or they just purchased them and own them. What percentage of those folks actually use their guns in some kind of self-protection incident and these types of mass shootings where people carry guns, and do they intervene, or do they not? What are the numbers?

GJELTEN: Do either of you have an answer to that?

SAAD: Gosh, I'm getting stumped today. That's another great question, and I'm not sure I have an exact, precise statistical answer for it.

ROSENBERG: I think it's very hard to measure how many - it's a very good question.

GJELTEN: You're measuring a negative. You're measuring how many people don't do something.

ROSENBERG: Well, but you're also trying to measure how many times people use their guns. If you assume that we want to measure the use of a gun by the number of people who get injured or shot, then it's a tiny, tiny percentage. The gun owners probably number in the hundreds of millions in this country, but in terms of injuries that are reported, fatal and not fatal, we're talking about less than 100,000.

However, many people also feel that they use their gun by showing it to ward off a threat against them or their household or someone in their home. And we can't measure those. So part of it is we don't have a great measure of how often guns are used for protection.

GJELTEN: Well, speaking of measurements, I want to bring Scott Keeter into the conversation now at the end. He's the director of survey research for the Pew Research Center, where he conducts research on public views on gun laws, and he joins us from his office here in Washington. Scott, welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION.

SCOTT KEETER: Hi, thank you, Neal.

GJELTEN: Well, it's Tom Gjelten, I'm filling in for Neal. I know Neal is here normally, but...

KEETER: My turn to mutilate a name.


GJELTEN: So Scott, you've got a survey that you've done recently on people's views on gun laws for Pew shortly after the Aurora shooting. What did that study find?

KEETER: Well, it found just what we found after the Tucson, Arizona, shootings and after the Virginia Tech shootings and that is that there was no appreciable movement of public attitudes about balancing gun control ownership versus the right to own guns, seemingly no impact of these incidents.

In our polling currently, the question that we ask, which do you think is more important, to control gun ownership or to protect the right to own guns, the public is virtually evenly divided, 47 percent say control gun ownership, 46 protect the right to own guns. It was very much that same kind of division when we asked it back in April of this year.

GJELTEN: And so that - has there been - beyond that, looking longer, has there been any shift in people's attitudes towards gun control?

KEETER: Yes indeed. We have documented a decline in support for gun control over a fairly long period of time, but the largest shift in attitudes occurred in 2008 and 2009. We conducted polls in the spring of '08 and in the spring of '09, and what we found there is that we essentially went from a balance that was about five to four or six to four in favor of gun control to one that's evenly divided, as it is today.

GJELTEN: OK, well, Scott, I'm afraid I'm going to have to cut short. We're going to continue this conversation in other shows. In fact, we did have one email from someone who wants to know, again, more questions about whether gun owners - how many gun owners don't kill anyone.

These are the kind of questions that we did not get good answers to today because the data aren't there, but we are going to have someone from the Department of Justice that collects data on how many crimes involve guns, what kind of guns, how illegal guns figure in - we're going to have a statistician from the Department of Justice join us sometime next week to fill in some of those data gaps, answer some of those questions we couldn't answer today.

At this point I'd like to thank our guests: Scott Keeter, the director of survey research for the Pew Research Center, he joined us by phone from his office in Washington, D.C.; also Mark Rosenberg, from the Task Force for Global Health, formerly the Centers for Disease Control's National Center for Injury Prevention; and Lydia Saad at the Gallup organization.

After a short break, we'll talk about Facebook. I'm Tom Gjelten. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.