Professor John Donohue: Facts Do Not Support Claim That Guns Make Us Safer

John Donohue

Recent shootings on school campuses have fueled the conversation about gun control in America. In this Q&A, Stanford Law Professor John Donohue sheds light on the data. What does the empirical data tell us about gun control? Do more guns really make us safer? What can be done to improve public safety?

President Obama visited Roseburg, Ore. following the tragic shooting at Umpqua Community College, where 9 people were killed. Gun advocates greeted him with a rally of support for gun rights—the key message being: more guns make us safer. They were repeating the sentiments of Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president, who declared after the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” What does your research show us? Is that true?

There is no question that many gun owners passionately believe they will be safer because of their guns. Nancy Lanza, whose son Adam committed the horrible massacre in Newtown, and Laurel Mercer, the mother of the recent Umpqua Community College shooter, both collected large arsenals of guns that they thought would protect them from some perceived dangers. The lesson is that there is often very little connection between what people passionately believe about guns and the truth.

Guns are a bit like chest x-rays. If you really need them, they can be helpful to have around, and even save lives. If you don’t need them, and yet are constantly exposed to them, they represent a constant threat while conferring little or no benefit. Most Americans recognize that guns have both potential costs and benefits, and that for most people, having a gun creates more risks than benefit. On the other hand, if one happens to be in a particularly high-risk category, then having a gun for personal protection could make sense. One reason that gun ownership in the United States is declining is that more and more Americans recognize that for them guns are unlikely to be confer benefits that exceed their costs.

The LaPierre quote about stopping bad guys who have guns is inaccurate, misleading, and somewhat offensive. Who stopped Jared Loughner’s murderous rampage in Tucson in which Gabby Giffords was gravely injured? As Loughner was reaching for a new magazine to reload his gun, he was tackled and forced to the ground by already wounded Bill Badger (age 74 – retired Army Colonel) and Roger Salzgeber (age 61). Patricia Maisch (age 61 – small business owner) took the magazine he was attempting to reload. All three were unarmed. Indeed, in 21 of 160 active shooter situations reviewed in a recent FBI report unarmed citizens successfully stopped the bad guy, typically when he was trying to reload. This underscores once again the value of limiting the size of high capacity magazines (as the former federal assault weapon ban had).

Indeed, the FBI report indicates that the only case in which a citizen with a concealed carry permit holder (as opposed to a police officer or armed security guard) stopped an active shooting (at a bar in Nevada in 2008) also occurred when the shooter stopped to reload his high-capacity handgun.

The mass shootings take the headlines and hold our attention for a few days. What about the day-to-day? What are the gun violence statistics in the U.S. and how do we compare with other developed nations?

Mass shootings are only a small part of the total problem of overall homicidal violence in the United States, although they typically captivate the attention of the public to a much greater degree, in much the same way that the relatively infrequent airplane crashes get far more media attention than the far more numerous deaths resulting from automobile crashes. But whether one looks at mass shootings or just overall gun deaths, we outstrip every other advanced industrialized nation by a fairly wide margin. The NRA crowd sometimes tries to obscure this reality by pointing out that countries like Guatemala or Haiti or El Salvador or Yemen have higher murder rates than we do, but the only comparison that makes sense is against other affluent countries and in this domain we clearly have a much bigger problem of gun violence than France, Germany, England, Canada, Australia, Spain, Italy, etc. (Of course, we also have more non-gun murders than these countries so we need to do better in stopping all types of murders, of which most in this country are committed by guns.)

Is the crux of the problem really mental health? Or the availability of powerful firearms?

The problem of mass shootings in the United States stems largely from the fact that a gun-obsessed culture allows certain mentally ill individuals to marinate in a commonly expressed ideology that says guns are a useful way to deal with one’s perceived enemies. Combine that situation with easy access to powerful firearms and you guarantee the situation that we find ourselves in today: a mass shooting roughly once every three weeks in the United States. Certainly, we don’t have a higher prevalence of mentally ill individuals than our competitor nations, but we undoubtedly have a higher number who are constantly being flooded with glorified messages about the power of guns to thwart one’s enemies, coupled with ready – indeed at times omnipresent – access to powerful weapons.

At one point, Australia had that same unappealing brew operating and suffered from an even larger problem of mass shootings (on a per capita basis) than the US, but a massive effort to turn away from that gun culture after a particularly horrendous shooting in 1996 has drastically reduced the problem in Australia over the last twenty years. With only 20 percent of the murder rate of the US, half the robbery rate, and no active mass shootings in almost 20 years, Australia is a very potent example of what can be achieved if a country is willing to reduce the presence and availability of guns as well as the gun culture. No country can ever be immune to such tragedies, but President Obama is right that one can reduce their frequency through reasonable measures.

Having studied gun data for 25 years, what do you think are the most important gun control measures that lawmakers in Washington, D.C. could take to have a real impact on public safety?  We could rephrase this: In an ideal world, in which public safety trumped the so-called “right” to own and operate AK47s  …

Your question asks what gun control measures could be adopted in Washington to have a real impact on public safety. Of course, this is a part of a much larger question of what are the public policy initiatives – in Washington or at the state or local level – that could reduce the risk of crime more broadly or mass shootings in particular (with the first being far more numerous in terms of total deaths than the latter). Note if we could reduce overall gun deaths by 10 percent many more lives would be saved than if we reduced all mass shootings, but most people would not feel appreciably safer from the former development, even though they would in fact be appreciably safer. One clear path to achieving that goal at reasonable cost is simply to expand the police force, an approach that proved successful during the Clinton Administration in the 1990s, which presided over the largest drop in crime ever experienced over an eight year period in American history. An initiative of putting 100,000 extra police on the streets would almost certainly lead to considerable drops in crime. Note that the cost of hiring 100,000 police would be roughly the same as the amount that Americans spend on gun purchases every year.

In terms of gun control measures, the one that has the largest popular support – generally in the neighborhood of 90 percent of Americans – is universal background checks. But one sees that misguided family members aided in arming the deadly shooters in Newtown and Umpqua, so while universal background checks are a good idea, additional steps must be taken to make them fully effective. First, the system needs to be improved to make sure that every prohibited purchaser is promptly identified by the system. The horrendous Virginia Tech killing by a troubled student might have been prevented if his mental health records had been appropriately entered into the system. Second, Dylan Roof, who committed the Charleston Church shootings in June 2015, could have been stopped by a better background check system, which the FBI was unable to complete within three days (thereby allowing the gun sale to proceed). Clearly, gun sales should not go through until adequate and thorough investigation has indicated they are appropriate.

Third, unlike the clueless moms of the shooters in Newtown and Umpqua, many parents of similarly troubled young men understand that their children would be a threat to themselves or others and that information should quickly be added to the background check system. Similarly, schools, the military, and the police often gather information that identifies drug use and other factors that render an individual a prohibited purchaser, and it would be wise to have such information added to the background check system with various safeguards for accuracy.

We have already mentioned that the restriction on high-capacity magazines (which had been federal law from 1994-2004) is an obvious first step if one wants to reduce the mayhem from mass shootings. Many more children could have escaped from the Newtown massacre if Lanza had had to reload more frequently.

At the more local level, far greater effort to impose and enforce safe storage requirements and gun licensing would play a useful role in keeping guns out of the wrong hands. Without safe storage, gun thefts and inappropriate use by children is a constant problem that arms criminals and/or courts disaster. The single most common link between guns and crime is gun theft, thereby putting the gun of a law-abiding citizen into the hands of a criminal hundreds of thousands of times each year. Just this month, three young drifters from Oregon stole a gun from an unlocked car in San Francisco and killed a young woman in Golden Gate Park and a man hiking in Marin—both with their newly acquired weapon. Just this week, an 11-year-old boy in Tennessee shot and killed an eight-year-old neighbor girl because she wouldn’t show him her puppy. The boy has been charged with murder but the problem was a shotgun that was loaded and available in his home. There is a reason that the constitution explicitly states that those who use weapons must be “well-regulated.”

There is much to be done to stop overall violence in America. We just need to get to work, and it would help if every gun owner and every citizen would pitch in.

For more information about a recent study Professor Donohue led at Stanford that found that right-to-carry gun laws are linked to an increase in violent crime, go to

John J. Donohue III has been one of the leading empirical researchers in the legal academy over the past 25 years. Professor Donohue is an economist as well as a lawyer and is well known for using empirical analysis to determine the impact of law and public policy in a wide range of areas, including civil rights and antidiscrimination law, employment discrimination, crime and criminal justice, and school funding.



13 Responses to Professor John Donohue: Facts Do Not Support Claim That Guns Make Us Safer
  1. Thank you so much for this article. I have lived in other countries (Canada and Switzerland) which are among the “other affluent countries” with significantly lower incidence of gun violence than the US.
    In my view, one of the largest obstacles to effective gun control is the mindset in this country is vastly different from other countries that has roots in the broadest possible interpretation of the “Second Amendment”. Combined with that the NRA and gun lobby has enormous political clout you’d never find in other developed nations. So long as people will get their backs up about “my rights” without a thought about the inherent responsibilities connected to those rights this guns remain an insoluble problem.

  2. Some alternative perspectives linked below. It seem either very odd, or par for the course (depending on your perspective), that serious academic studies have no significant overlap and routinely contradict each other regarding gun ownership and violence in the community. My take is that the studies reflect the biases of the authors with data cherry picked to bolster their own pre-existing position(s) on the issue. By the way, who stopped the bad guy with the gun in Roseburg…wasn’t it good guys with guns?

  3. I must protest! Professor Donohue asserts that there is no evidence that guns make us safer when in fact even a cursory review of the literature demonstrates that there is considerable evidence that guns-at-home deter crime. While it is true that improperly secured guns kill a lot of people, so do improperly driven cars…and no car ever deterred a criminal from committing a burglary, battery, or rape.
    While the need for greater control over who possesses (not simply owns) guns is absolutely vital to curb wrongful deaths, this does not ipso facto mean that guns (properly stored by owners properly trained in their use) are not equally vital to deter crime.
    The Constitution expressly approves of people carrying and owning guns. But that is not all the Constitution says on the subject. One of the “penumbras” of the Constitution was the assumption by the framers that permission to own or carry a gun would be denied to crazy or incompetent people of all ages. There was no need for a law to this effect, rather the village elders kept guns away from the village idiots. This assumption and social control continued on into the 1950s, at least in rural America where I grew up. I owned my first shotgun when I was eight-years-old and went hunting all by myself. I never shot anybody by accident because I had been taught gun safety by my father. Had I demonstrated any reluctance or inability to handle my weapon carefully it would have been taken away.
    The most accurate statement made by Professor Donohue on the subject of guns is that “The lesson is that there is often very little connection between what people passionately believe about guns and the truth.” His (totally incorrect) beliefs about the utility of guns for home defense are as equally clouded by passion as are the (totally incorrect) beliefs of many gun owners that guns should not be controlled. Here’s a link to an article by someone who has dispassionately studied the utility of gun ownership:
    It’s very important not to bring the gun control movement into disrepute by making inaccurate claims about what the facts are. Let’s leave that type of behavior to the NRA.
    As a young trial attorney, later president, John Adams (1735-1826) said in his successful defense of the British soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
    James Luce, Yale ‘66
    Alt Empordà, Spain

  4. The bad guy in Roseburg was stopped by police, not self appointed ‘good guys’. Then he shot himself. The veteran who *tried* to stop him was himself shot 5 times. Several other armed men on campus made the wise choice to not try to ‘help’.

  5. What is your point in mentioning Switzerland? They have the 4th highest gun-ownership rates in the world, after the US, Serbia and Yemen. That would indicate that gun ownership does not equal gun violence…

  6. With all due respect, you link here to studies by John Lott, a renowned charlatan when it comes to research. I think most Americans have respect for independent academic and medical institutions like Stanford, Johns Hopkins, the American Association of Pediatrics and Texas A&M University – all of whom have issued comprehensive research highlighting the US’s position as an outlier amongst developed nations when it comes to gun violence.

  7. Just one question for you, how likely is it that the guns that supposedly are there to protect the owner from crime will be used in the commission of a crime ? How many mass shootings have been committed by people who use their protection guns to murder and maim innocent folk ? Which gunshot wound is preferable to you. the ones inflicted by guns stored for protection or the ones inflicted by guns obtained illegally?

  8. Let me also offer a quick response to James Luce. James is correct that you can find many articles that seem to support the 1994 NRA newsletter that he cites. The problem is that these studies have been entirely discredited — see the National Research Council report on Firearms and Violence. The NRA has followed the playbook of the tobacco industry, which similarly had put out many articles suggesting that smoking was actually good for your health!

    That said, I don’t mean to suggest that it is easy to know what the precise effect of any legal change will be (or has been). I do know that I am highly skeptical of any claim made by the NRA or its cadre of supporters until it has been carefully checked because i regularly catch them making outrageous mis-statements of fact and highly misleading statements about guns and gun policy.

    I should also point out that the massive support among all Americans — including NRA members and Republicans — for reasonable measures to keep guns away from terrorists and criminals via appropriate background checks reveals what a threat the NRA has become to American democracy. When a monetarily driven special interest like the NRA can dictate policy to Republican members of Congress to the detriment of the country and against the overwhelmingly will of the people, the democratic process is in serious peril.

  9. It appears to me that the more insecure a society is, the more they feel the need for very strong protection. Michael Moore found in “Bowling for Columbine” that it is not just gun ownership that is the problem, but the news swat teams that concentrate on all the bad things in the news, and consequently make society more inclined to quake in their boots. An insecure society serves the market economy very well, because people spend more money on protection, such a security doors and windows, cameras, deadbolts and weapons. Guns are a very large part of the American economy, and Congress is very much addicted to the market and lobbyists, compared to other countries like the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Denmark etc etc. And big business has a gyroscopic effect-it is very hard to stop or change direction, Just witness how long it took to ban smoking and asbestos in Australia.

  10. Radical Islamic Terrorist, Drunk Driver or Man in the Mirror: Who Will Kill You First?

    In America, if one were to look at terrorism with only pure reason, one would see that dramatic death by Jihadi is highly overhyped and the person to most worry about is the man in the mirror, if one owns a gun. For suicide by gun is far more likely to happen than death at the hands of a Jihadi. In 2005, an average of 46 Americans per day committed suicide with a firearm, accounting for 53% of all completed suicides. Gun suicide during this period accounted for 40% more deaths than gun homicide.

    Regarding homicide, over the past 10 years more than 300 women have died in South Carolina at the hands of a man who once loved them. That’s about one killing every 12 days, just in South Carolina.

    Also, in the USA, there are the ubiquitous automobile accidents where in 2014, there were 32,675 deaths caused by them. Therefore, if news crews went to every fatal automobile accident, they might not have time to cover the terrorist and people might stop driving out of fear.

    Furthermore, we are all mortal and will die someday anyway. So the sooner we lose our fear of death, the happier we will be. Because terrorism is a head game that is all about creating fear and by succumbing to fear we allow them to win. Thus it is way past time to stop being cowardly and look at the facts.

    Over a period of 43 years, from July 1973, until June 2016, there have been a grand total of 3,300 deaths attributable to “Islamic” terrorists in the USA. This is a drop in the bucket compared to drunk driving automobile accidents. For in 2013 alone, 10,076 people were killed in alcohol-impaired-driving crashes, an average of one alcohol-impaired-driving fatality occurring every 52 minutes!

    Consequently in the USA, Fox News is the chief fear maker, helping the terrorists by convincing us to afraid of something not worthy of mindless fear. As there are other things much more dangerous and worthy of our worry.

    So, if you want to stop people from dying needlessly, stop a drunk from driving and you will save many more lives.

    Does this mean that people won’t die due to a terrorist act? No. But drunk drivers are several times more likely to kill you and your family and that is something much more worthy of our concern.

  11. Ask the police if they feel safer with guns then without. You will then find the real answer to this problem. Also, you could just apply common sense by answering this simple question.

    If you were at home and someone with a gun smashed down your door with intent to kill you, would you feel safer with a gun or would you feel safer without a gun?

    Before anyone tries to be smart by saying that if guns were banned criminals wouldn’t have them just look at the UK where hand guns have been illegal since 1997. Today hand guns are the most popular gun for criminals to use in the UK. Crimes involving guns have increased and Birmingham is now the UK’s gun capital with crime involving gun on the increase there. So, banning guns doesn’t work because the criminals always have access to guns. Why shouldn’t they? It’s not like they obey the law banning guns, they are criminals after all. I would have to agree with some of the comments above that these studies do appear rather biased. For example, if the argument that a nation is safer without guns then surely the logical thing to do would be to also include banning police from having guns. Of course, this study didn’t take that into consideration. Don’t police officers carry guns around with them when they are off duty? Don’t police have any guns at their home? So, if the argument that less guns means we are all safe then logically we must also disarm the police.

    The reality is guns do save lives and there are many examples of this happening out there if one isn’t biased against the idea of guns being a life saver. If, however you already have that opinion you will generally only look for examples that fit your narrative and ignore all those other examples that go against the narrative. My answer to my own question above. If someone broke into my home with intent to kill me there isn’t much I could do. Would be pointless to call the police because they are never going to get to my home in time to save me. My best hope for survival will be to get to the kitchen before such a person could break into my home and grab a kitchen knife. I don’t fancy my odds up against someone with a gun or even a knife in that situation. I will most likely die in that attempt.

    So, does not having a gun make me safer in that situation? Of course, not. Only a crazy person would think they are better off without a gun in that situation. A person who thinks they can out run a gun. Would be great if we could do matrix style moves to dodge being shot but this isn’t reality! Nor is banning guns and thinking the gun problem is just going to go away.

    Here is another question, if you wanted to rob from someone’s home and you knew one home had someone with a gun in it and another home where someone was unarmed. Which home would you choose to rob from? Would you take your chances at getting shot by a homeowner or would you prefer to break into the home where you have the upper hand and you know there is no chance at being shot?

    Ask any person who commits crime this question and their answer will make it very clear. People will always choose the easy option with less risk. That’s common sense. So, if a nation is unarmed well if I were a criminal that would be the best situation. I would even vote for guns to be banned since of course, it benefits the criminal who won’t be taking any notice of gun bans.

    People who believe they can get rid of guns are living in a fantasy world and anyone who thinks a criminal is going to choose to pick on someone they know is armed is also a fantasy. I’ve put together a little video, well I say little but it’s around 50 minutes long titled “Do Guns Make A Nation Safe?” under the youtube username 4TheRecord. Try explaining to the many people who survived an attack thanks to owning a gun. Espeically the 911 calls where if the person didn’t have a gun they most certainly would be dead today because those who use force to break into a persons home don’t usually do so with good intentions.

  12. There is no question that if someone breaks into your home with the intent to kill you and you have access to a loaded gun and know how to use it, your chances of avoiding harm to yourself are likely improved. It is a big leap from that premise to the much more difficult question of whether guns make you safer, which the leap that the writer seems to think should be taken without going through many intermediate steps. First, how likely is that someone will break into your home with the intent to kill you? It does happen about 80 times per year in the United States that a stranger breaks into a home and kills an occupant, but this is far lower than the number of children killed accidentally by guns. Second, who are these people who are targeted for home entry and killing? At least some of them are drug dealers who would obviously be safer if they stopped selling drugs in the first place.
    Many who buy guns in the hope of protecting their families in the home have little idea that it is more likely that their gun will kill or injure a member of their family than that they will use the gun in self-defense. Many also have little understanding that a gun fired in a house can harm other occupants in the home who are supposed to be protected rather than put at risk by the gun. As the case of the Ohio gun store owner who died this past summer revealed, being in a different room when a gun is discharged is not a guarantee of safety. He was killed when a student in a right to carry training course, conducted in a different room in his store, discharged a gun accidentally, causing a bullet to pass through a wall and strike him in the neck.
    Without knowing if an individual is trained in firearm safety, properly stores and locks his guns, is knowledgeable about the power of his gun and ammunition and their ability to breach walls, has children living with or frequenting the home or family members who are at risk of suicide, and whether he or she lives in a high or low-crime area or otherwise is at unusually high or low risk of criminal attack, it is irresponsible to suggest that “having a gun” will increase safety.

  13. But if we are to take your conclusion at face value, it is also irresponsible of the author to not fully disclose all the information out there, rather than use a specific portion of the data to support his position. You can find stories of people who successfully defend themselves on a monthly basis (before you go off, not the same people). The author picks a very specific event and the fact that it was reported to the FBI. If someone tries to stab you and you end up having to defend yourself with a firearm, that is a success story, but those were excluded from the data. I would have to ask why. He also seems to have a hard time quoting the Second Amendment. It says a well regulated militia, nothing about a well regulated gun owner. There are multiple instances I. This article where the author displays his bias, those are just a few. Yes, there are things that can be done to reduce gun fatalities, no doubt. The challenge is finding that compromise that today’s society has a hard time doing. You finished with pointing out that without knowing a lot more about the situation it would be irresponsible to suggest a gun would make you “safer”. No that isn’t the irresponsible part, that part is offering an opinion without knowing that information either pro or con. You need that information to help make those judgements but you seem to decide that the only thing it does it not make you safer. How do you come to that conclusion without having the information. Use me as your test subject. Does a gun make me safer or not. Thank you

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