After analyzing the numbers, the Branas team announced, “individuals in possession of a gun were 4.46 times more likely to be shot in an assault than those not in possession. Among gun assaults where the victim had at least some chance to resist,” the likelihood “increased to 5.45.”
In conclusion: “On average, guns did not protect those who possessed them from being shot in an assault. Although successful defensive gun uses are possible and do occur each year, the probability of success may be low for civilian gun users in urban areas. Such users should rethink their possession of guns or, at least, understand that regular possession necessitates careful safety countermeasures. Suggestions to the contrary, especially for urban residents who may see gun possession as a surefire defense against a dangerous environment, should be discussed and thoughtfully reconsidered.”
A few flaws in the study are clear.
First, the study said a victim was “possessing” a gun even if the gun was “in a nearby vehicle, or in another place.” It obviously tells you nothing about the risk or utility of the victim’s gun if someone gets shot in a park while his rifle is a quarter-mile away in a pickup truck.
Second, if the study failed to measure gun ownership accurately, then its conclusions are invalid. The authors acknowledge that if just 5 percent of the shooting victims who did not say they had a gun actually did have a gun, then the study would show no statistically significant risk from gun possession.
The study would also lose significance if it underestimated gun ownership by the controls—the people who were interviewed by phone and who might not be willing to tell a stranger they own a gun. Strangely, Branas and his co-authors neglected to disclose what amount of non-reporting by the controls would undermine the study. A skeptical reader may wonder if under-reporting by even a small percent of the controls would undermine the findings.
Third, 83 percent of the shootings occurred outdoors. Presumably, a significant number of the rest occurred outside the home, in public places such as bars. In Pennsylvania, carrying in such circumstances almost always requires a Right-to-Carry permit. A person carrying a gun without the required permit would, by definition, be breaking the law.
The study excluded persons under the age of 21, who in Pennsylvania cannot obtain Right-to-Carry permits. The study also made no effort to determine if any of the gun carriers were illegal aliens, to whom permits cannot be issued.
So the study actually provides no information about whether its purported risks are applicable to the law-abiding population, because it provides no information about how many—if any—of the gun carriers had lawful Right-to-Carry permits.
Additionally, according to the study, 53 percent of the shooting victims had prior arrest records. The researchers tried to find controls who also had arrest records, yet the study did not report what the arrests were for or make distinctions among types of arrests.
Obviously, a “control” who had one arrest record for drug possession 10 years ago is no fair match for a “case” who had an arrest record for armed robbery last year, and three prior arrests for assault. The latter person is much more likely to spend time with, and provoke violent confrontations with, other dangerous people.
In fact, illegal gun carriers with prior criminal records are more likely to be involved in violent confrontations than other people. It is possible that they carry illegally possessed guns because they are even more inclined to consort with violent people and get into fights. But that proves nothing about whether gun carrying by the law-abiding who have Right-to-Carry permits is dangerous.
Moreover, the study’s assumption that the “case” people who were shot were comparable (except in their rate of gun possession) to the “control” people who were not remains unproven.
The Philadelphia Inquirer interviewed J. Michael Oakes, a professor of Epidemiology and Community Health at the University of Minnesota. “There are some sketchy things going on here,” he said.
“The foundation of the case control study is the sense that those who are the cases are exactly the same as those who are in the control group,” Oakes explained. The Inquirer summarized Oakes’ observation that, “Branas is assuming the people who were shot were no more likely to have guns than a group of controls of the same gender and racial mix.”
“It’s a big stretch,” Oakes said.
University of Chicago Economist Jens Ludwig is one of the most experienced, and most intellectually rigorous, academic supporters of restrictive gun policies. Yet he, too, was skeptical of the conclusion.
“They can’t tease out whether guns are contributing to assault or assault risk is contributing to gun ownership,” Ludwig said.
In other words, people who are especially at risk of being attacked might be more likely than other people to carry guns, rather than the other way around.
Florida State University criminology professor Gary Kleck put it succinctly:
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