Forced to choose, would you rather have a sign in your front yard announcing you are a proud gun owner, or one that your home is a gun-free zone? For gun advocates, the choice is obvious: As widely-discredited researcher John Lott frequently opines, “Criminals see victims in gun-free zones as sitting ducks. Even the most ardent gun control advocate would not put ‘Gun-Free Zone’ signs on their home. Let’s finally stop putting them elsewhere.”
I was born and raised on a horse farm in Jones, Oklahoma, a small town with a population of 2,000 just east of Oklahoma City. Jones is gun country. Growing up, I would often hear automatic gunfire coming from the banks of the North Canadian River. It wasn’t a surprise: Everybody in the community owned guns, my family included. We had a shotgun for skunks, a hunting rifle for stray dogs, and a German Shepherd to intercept any uninvited guests with two legs.
The slogan “when seconds count, the police are minutes away” was especially true for us. A rapid response from the Jones Police Department’s two officers would have been a miracle. Yet neither of the guns we owned were for self-defense. They were locked up with safety in mind, not speed. We also didn’t broadcast the fact that we had firearms on the property. To think doing so would dissuade a criminal from entering our property would have been absurd. Why? Because in many parts of the United States, rather than a deterrent, firearms are a prime target for burglars.
My grandmother experienced this when she lived in Phoenix, Arizona, another mecca of gun ownership. She prided herself on self-reliance, and one day decided she needed a handgun for personal protection. Not long after, while she was away, burglars broke into her house. The brand-new Smith & Wesson .38 special was the only thing they stole.
Back in Oklahoma, my family has gun-owning friends who live in an upscale neighborhood that has experienced a rash of vehicle break-ins. The neighborhood’s rules forbid its residents from parking on the street, and mandate that personal garages are kept out of sight, around the side or in the back of the house. A lot of residents also install an iron gate to prevent unwanted access to those garages, and then leave their vehicles unlocked. It’s the houses with iron gates that the burglars targeted; after finding guns in the first cars and trucks they broke into, they continued their raids, ultimately hitting between six and nine vehicles and stealing as many guns.
As my family and friends’ experiences — and the hard numbers — show, the rationale that owning a firearm protects a person from crime is not supported by the facts. For starters, the type of crime most vividly feared by those who keep guns at the ready in their residences is relatively rare. While estimates for the number of home invasions occurring in the United States vary, ranging from 1.6 to 3.7 million annually, the figures for the most meaningful category — burglaries resulting in homicides — are very low, with the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) indicating that there are fewer than 100 of them in a given year. Instances in which someone fends off a robber are also rare. (Across all categories, there were a total of 1,600 defense gun uses recorded in 2014.) In comparison, according to the BJS, more than 200,000 firearms are stolen from household burglaries and property crimes each year.
Here a gun proponent might argue that the presence of a gun must deter the theft of other kinds of property. But again, the existing data debunks that belief. In fact, a 2002 study by Philip Cook and Jens Ludwig found that higher levels of gun ownership in an area actually led to more burglary. The study even controlled for and ruled out the possibility that elevated firearm ownership might come as a response to burglary, which would have undercut any correlation between gun prevalence and theft rates. The authors’ conclusion: More guns equals more things to steal. “A gun-rich community provides more lucrative burglary opportunities than one where guns are more sparse,” Cook and Ludwig wrote. “The new empirical results reported here provide no support for a net deterrent effect from widespread gun ownership.”
Even if criminals were attracted to gun-free zones (they aren’t) and having a gun provided an advantage over other means of self-defense (it doesn’t), the evidence still overwhelmingly demonstrates that a firearm in the home — especially a handgun — dramatically increases the risk of homicide, suicide, or fatal accident. On average, a gun is far more likely to harm you or someone you love than protect you. And if you want to scare away criminals, the best sign is probably the one reading “Beware of Dog.”