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Guns for Safety? Dream On, Scalia.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Supreme Court has spoken: Thanks to the court's blockbuster 5 to 4 decision Thursday, Washingtonians now have the right to own a gun for self-defense. I leave the law to lawyers, but the public health lesson is crystal clear: The legal ruling that the District's citizens can keep loaded handguns in their homes doesn't mean that they should.

In his majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia explicitly endorsed the wisdom of keeping a handgun in the home for self-defense. Such a weapon, he wrote, "is easier to store in a location that is readily accessible in an emergency; it cannot easily be redirected or wrestled away by an attacker; it is easier to use for those without the upper-body strength to lift and aim a long rifle; it can be pointed at a burglar with one hand while the other hand dials the police." But Scalia ignored a substantial body of public health research that contradicts his assertions. A number of scientific studies, published in the world's most rigorous, peer-reviewed journals, show that the risks of keeping a loaded gun in the home strongly outweigh the potential benefits.

In the real world, Scalia's scenario -- an armed assailant breaks into your home, and you shoot or scare away the bad guy with your handy handgun -- happens pretty infrequently. Statistically speaking, these rare success stories are dwarfed by tragedies. The reason is simple: A gun kept loaded and readily available for protection may also be reached by a curious child, an angry spouse or a depressed teen.

More than 20 years ago, I conducted a study of firearm-related deaths in homes in Seattle and surrounding King County, Washington. Over the study's seven-year interval, more than half of all fatal shootings in the county took place in the home where the firearm involved was kept. Just nine of those shootings were legally justifiable homicides or acts of self-defense; guns kept in homes were also involved in 12 accidental deaths, 41 criminal homicides and a shocking 333 suicides. A subsequent study conducted in three U.S. cities found that guns kept in the home were 12 times more likely to be involved in the death or injury of a member of the household than in the killing or wounding of a bad guy in self-defense.

Oh, one more thing: Scalia's ludicrous vision of a little old lady clutching a handgun in one hand while dialing 911 with the other (try it sometime) doesn't fit the facts. According to the Justice Department, far more guns are lost each year to burglary or theft than are used to defend people or property. In Atlanta, a city where approximately a third of households contain guns, a study of 197 home-invasion crimes revealed only three instances (1.5 percent) in which the inhabitants resisted with a gun. Intruders got to the homeowner's gun twice as often as the homeowner did.

The court has spoken, but citizens and lawmakers should base future gun-control decisions -- both personal and political -- on something more substantive than Scalia's glib opinion.

-- Arthur Kellermann, a professor of emergency medicine and public health at Emory University

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