What about Accidents during Defensive Gun Uses?
Gun control proponents often claim that the average citizen is not sufficiently trained to use a gun defensively—that the risk is very high that a homeowner will, say, shoot his teenager who stayed out beyond his curfew and is sneaking into the home late in the evening. Or the homeowner will accidentally shoot himself. Gun accidents do occur, but they are among the most overstated of risks. There were 535 accidental firearms deaths in 2006—everyone unfortunate, but in a nation of almost 300 million people, that is not a particularly startling rate.
Yet in spite of the widespread concern about accidents involving defensive gun uses by “untrained civilians,” there are far fewer of these incidents making the newspapers than supposed. The authors did not actively look for gun accident stories. As a result, no claim is advanced here that these results are typical, although if defensive gun uses resulted in a high rate of gun accidents, one would expect searches to find such news stories as well. Only five accidental shootings appear in the database. One story describes a Shreveport, Louisiana, man who fought off a car- jacking “by two black males wearing all black clothing and black bandanas over their faces.” The carjackers drew a revolver on him, and then demanded his car. Although he did thwart the carjacking attempt, the defender also accidentally shot himself in the leg.
Not every defensive gun use ends well—the data set identifies 36 incidents in which a defender was killed. One example comes from Texas in August 2007. Anthony Hemingway Sr., 43, died in an exchange of gunfire with a man who kicked in the door of his apartment in Killeen. It is hard to imagine that the victim in this case would have ended up better off if he had not fought back. In addition, the intruder was now identifiable by his gunshot wound. Along with those 36 incidents where the defender was killed, there are 210 defensive gun use stories where the defender was shot, but not killed (at least at the time of the news story). These incidents, like those where the defender died, often involve circumstances where the defender’s situation, while bad, was likely improved by being armed. On February 20, 2010, the Houston Chronicle reported an incident in which two home invaders in Harris County ended up in a gun battle with the homeowner. One of the invaders, an adult, died; the other, a juvenile, was wounded, as was the homeowner.
Another story involves an armed robbery that might have ended differently had the victim complied with the criminal’s demands—but who knows? In April 2004 Connecticut resident Joseph Gigliotti engaged in a gun battle with three robbers. As a result, Gigliotti ended up in the hospital with a gunshot wound—but so did his assailants.
Although not technically fitting under the “accident” category, cases of mistaken identity are also invoked as a justification to restrict lawful gun ownership. But what happens when the police have a case of mistaken identity? In December 2007 a Minneapolis SWAT team, on a tip from an informant, kicked in the door and invaded the home of an Asian immigrant. The man was watching TV with his wife, but also had six children in the house. The homeowner, suspecting a criminal intrusion, grabbed a gun and exchanged gunfire with the SWAT team. Miraculously, no one was injured; SWAT team gunfire missed the man entirely, while the homeowner’s shots at two officers were repelled by body armor. Police later apologized for the incident, explaining that there was a “communications breakdown” and they had acted on bad information.
Carjackings are very dramatic, and un-surprisingly, when the victims turn the tables on the bad guys, it makes great press. The authors recorded 65 defensive gun uses in carjacking situations. In March 2010 New Orleans resident Joshua McElveen, 24, pointed a handgun at a man in a pickup truck and demanded that the driver turn over the truck. The driver drew his own handgun and fired, fatally wounding McElveen.
On November 17, 2006, Quavale Finnell, 14, stole a car from Bennie Hall, Jr., 61 and then attempted to run Hall over. Hall had obtained a concealed weapon permit after his grandson had been a shooting victim in the same block. Hall shot and killed Finnell. No charges were filed.
WJXT Channel 4 (Jacksonville, Florida) reported what happened on September 30, 2009, when two men tried to steal a truck from a group of people outside a home: Keith Loftin was outside the home with some friends shortly after 2 a.m. when two men asked for a ride in Loftin’s truck. Loftin said one of the men pulled a gun on them and forced Loftin into his truck. Loftin told officers that his friend, Barry Smith, ran into the house and returned with a gun and Loftin pulled his own gun from inside the truck. Police said both Loftin and Smith fired at one of the men, striking him multiple times.
Legal but Foolish
One of the recurring concerns expressed in state after state about the likely consequences of “shall issue” concealed handgun licensing was a fear about an increase in pointless murders and manslaughters, as ordinary people engage in parking lot disputes or road rage incidents that would quickly escalate to deadly force. There have been some defensive gun use incidents of this nature, where the person using the gun was legally in the right—but where the incident did not need to happen. Such incidents have occurred, but so rarely that the authors did not find it necessary to create a category for “What were you thinking?”
The shooting death of Aaron P. Davis, 39, by Glenn Eichstedt, 52, in Aurora, Colorado, on November 13, 2004, is one of these rare examples. It is, however, an incident that should make all gun owners think very soberly about the serious implications of carrying a gun. The grand jury report that cleared Eichstedt of any criminal charges describes in great detail the sequence of events that led up to the shooting. Mr. and Mrs. Davis parked their SUV, and Mrs. Davis went into a restaurant to retrieve a to-go order. Eichstedt parked next to the Davis’ SUV, and Eichstedt’s passenger went into the restaurant to make a dinner reservation. When Eichstedt opened his car door, Davis accused him of causing damage to his SUV with his car door. Davis and Eichstedt then became increasingly argumentative about whether any damage had taken place or not—and soon the argument had become so heated that it could be overheard on the 911 tapes after phone calls were placed by witnesses. Mrs. Davis came back to the car and attempted to separate the two. Davis and Eichstedt, while not legally drunk, had both been drinking earlier. Some witnesses indicated that violence started with Davis pushing Eichstedt, and Eichstedt punching Davis. Others claim that the first physical contact was when Davis attacked Eichstedt with a metal bar. The metal bar was solid, eight inches long, and 1 ½ inches in diameter. Davis hit Eich- stedt in the head, by some accounts, several times, and hard enough to draw blood—at which point Eichstedt, who had a concealed handgun license, fired one shot. Davis subsequently died; Mrs. Davis, who had attempted to intervene to stop the fight, suffered a life-threatening injury, but eventually recovered.
At the point where Davis hit Eichstedt with the metal bar, Eichstedt was legally in the right shooting Davis. The risk of great bodily injury or death was very real, and Eichstedt’s actions almost certainly prevented his own death. But well before this, Eichstedt should have withdrawn from the confrontation, offering to have their two insurance companies settle the matter. Thankfully, as noted, such incidents are not terribly common. This is by far the most sobering and disturbing defensive gun use in almost eight years of gathering such news stories.
Self-defense is one of our most basic rights. Strict gun control regulations interfere with that right because ordinary citizens abide by the regulations while criminals acquire guns from underground markets. That leaves honest, law-abiding people at a distinct disadvantage because it is not possible for the police to be at every scene where they are desperately needed. Many people support gun control regulations because they are convinced that the average citizen is either incapable of using a gun in self-defense or will use the gun in a fit of anger over some petty matter. Those assumptions are false. The evidence on this point has grown so strong that even President Obama has had to chide gun safety advocates to accept the proposition that “almost all gun owners in America are highly responsible.”
And, as the scores of incidents described in this study show, gun owners stop a lot of criminal mayhem—attempted murders, rapes, assaults, robberies—every year. Moreover, it is important to note that when a gun owner kills an attacker or is able to hold a rapist or a burglar until the police arrive, it is very likely that more than one crime has been prevented because if the culprit had not been stopped, he could have targeted other citizens as well. Policymakers interested in harm reduction should thus refrain from treating ordinary gun owners as hoodlums or loose cannons and adopt policies that respect the ownership and carrying of arms by responsible individuals.