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“Where there are more guns, more women die”: A Harvard public health expert breaks down the data on firearms and women's safety

Dr. Deborah Azrael explains what decades of research can tell us about guns, women and myths of self-defense


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Katie McDonough
February 24, 2015 9:06PM (UTC)

The New York Times reported last week that 10 states are currently considering measures to allow people to carry firearms on college campuses. In Nevada, the Republican assemblywoman who sponsored the bill has argued that arming students amounts to a kind of rape prevention. “If these young, hot little girls on campus have a firearm, I wonder how many men will want to assault them," Assemblywoman Michele Fiore told the Times. "The sexual assaults that are occurring would go down once these sexual predators get a bullet in their head.”

This isn't the first time a pro-gun lawmaker has argued that guns make women safer, despite consistent evidence showing a deadly correlation between firearms and violence against women. Women in the United States are 11 times more likely to be murdered with guns than women in other high-income countries. The presence of a firearm during a domestic violence incident increases the likelihood of a homicide by 500 percent. Guns are also regularly used in non-fatal incidents of domestic violence, with researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health concluding in a study from 2000 that “hostile gun displays against family members may be more common than gun use in self-defense, and that hostile gun displays are often acts of domestic violence directed against women.”

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And yet the myth that guns make women safer persists.

"Self-defense gun use is an incredibly contested area of research," Dr. Deborah Azrael, the associate director of the Harvard Youth Violence Prevention Center and a research associate at the Harvard School of Public Health, told me. "The most consistent evidence that we have comes from the National Crime Victimization Survey. [And] what you see in National Crime Victimization Survey is that gun use in self-defense is a very rare event."

While gun use in self-defense remains a contested area of research, the relationship between guns and violence against women is not. "What we know is that if a woman is going to be killed by a firearm, she’s most likely to be killed by a current or former intimate partner. What we know is where there are more guns, more women die," Azrael explained. "That’s just incontrovertibly true."

I talked to Azrael about the presence of firearms and perceptions of community safety, women and self-defense and what decades of research tells us about guns in the United States. Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

According to your research on the relationship between guns and feelings of community safety, an overwhelming majority of non-gun owners reported that they would feel less safe with more guns in their communities. Feelings of community safety were more evenly split among gun owners, but women who owned guns were much more likely to report that they would feel less safe with more guns in their community. So the presence of a firearm doesn’t necessarily make women feel safe, even for women who own guns.

We’re actually about to do another survey in which a similar question will be asked. But what you’ve summarized is really the take home, which is that half of people when posed a hypothetical question about whether they would feel more safe, equally safe or less safe if more guns were available in their communities, say that they would feel less safe. And that is true for many, many gun owners -- 2o percent -- as well as for non-gun owners. And for women in particular, 60 percent  of women who do not own guns [and] more than a quarter of those who do [said they would feel less safe].

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But there’s one caveat to that, and it’s one of the reasons that we’re about to go into the field with a new survey. There hasn’t been a survey quite like the one that these data are from in more than 10 years. If you look at recent studies done by Pew, for example, they looked at the percentage of people who say they own guns for protection as opposed to hunting or sport shooting or for a collection. And the percentage of gun owners who say they own a gun for protection, that fraction has gone way up over the past 10 years. I suspect that the findings from the survey we did before will probably hold, but how people think about guns now in the United States has changed in ways that we don’t quite understand.

There is this notion out there now that seems to have gained a foothold, the idea that it makes a lot of sense to have a gun for protection -- despite all of the evidence to the contrary.

Can we talk more about this phenomenon in which women who own guns still might not feel safer because of those guns? This makes sense in the context of what we know about guns and violence against women. There is a report from the Violence Policy Center that found that for every woman who was able to use a handgun in self-defense against an intimate partner, another 83 women were murdered with a handgun by their intimate partners. Do we have more data on women arming themselves in self-defense?

Self-defense gun use is an incredibly contested area of research. The most consistent evidence that we have comes from the National Crime Victimization Survey, which is likely where the Violence Policy Center got their statistics. What you see in National Crime Victimization Survey is that gun use in self-defense is a very rare event. What we know is that if a woman is going to be killed by a firearm, she’s most likely to be killed by a current or former intimate partner. What we know is where there are more guns, more women die. That’s just incontrovertibly true.

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But to try to nail down the counterfactual of how many homicides have been averted by women using guns in self-defense or how many of any event have been averted by use of a gun in self-defense [is a challenge]. It’s very hard to ascertain what’s averted and what is not.

What you’ve described is a kind of vacuum that the gun lobby has attempted to fill with stories of people using firearms in self-defense as if this constitutes a statistical norm. Lawmakers behind the campus carry measures in 10 states have each argued some version of, "Trust us, all of these crimes could be prevented through increased gun ownership."

That’s right. The two big sources of data on self-defense gun use are the National Crime Victimization Survey and non-governmental phone surveys, like the survey we conducted, in which people were asked, “Have you used a gun in self-defense to protect yourself against someone?” What we know from those surveys is you get much bigger estimates [on the use of guns in self-defense] from the type of survey we did for a complicated set of reasons.

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We asked people, “Have you used a gun in self-defense?” And we got little narratives about those events. Then we sent them to a couple sets of unbiased readers of those narratives -- judges and lawyers --  and said, “Here are the narratives of people who said they used a gun in self-defense. Of these, which ones do you think were probably legal or probably illegal or in the public interest or against the public interest?”

And what you find is that a lot of what people describe as gun use in self-defense really doesn’t look very much like what you would imagine. It’s rarely, “Somebody ran up behind me and grabbed me and I reached into my pocketbook, pulled out my revolver, and he ran away.” You just don’t see that.

What you see actually are many incidents in which, for example, someone is sitting on their porch and somebody walks by and they don’t like them, they don’t like the way they look, and they pull out their gun and say, “Get out of here.” And that gets reported as gun use in self-defense. It’s deeply subjective.

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This is very much what we saw in the case of Renisha McBride, who was killed by Theodore Wafer when she showed up on his porch and knocked on his door. She had just been in a car accident, and he shot her through his closed front door.

At this point there are countless horrible stories about people being mistaken for someone else, misapprehension by a gun possessor that somebody is a threat to them and people dying as a result.

What do you make of the campus carry proposals being debated right now, particularly this idea that these measures amount to rape prevention?

To me the fundamental problem is that everything we know suggests that access to firearms increases the likelihood of death and injury. Disproportionately to women, disproportionately to children, but to everyone. The notion that somehow increasing access to guns to women is going to be an exception to that rule is, to me, unfounded.

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What I can tell you is that if more women have guns, have them accessible, the likelihood that more women are going to die by suicide goes way up. What we know is that unintentional gun deaths, when there are more guns and they’re more accessible, unintentional gun deaths will increase. What we know is that alcohol and guns are a terrible combination.

And that’s incredibly relevant in a college environment.

Yes, in a college context, where the majority of sexual assaults involve people who know one another. Just try to imagine, you’re in somebody’s dorm room, you’re in someone’s apartment, now they’re armed because they’ve been convinced that they should have a gun to protect themselves. If that gun is there, actuarially, that person is at greater risk of dying from that gun than they are of any other event happening.

In a country where there’s very little prosecution and criminal accountability for acts of violence against women in intimate partner situations and situations of sexual assault, it strikes me as dangerous to advocate that women arm themselves against their attackers. How could a woman pull the trigger with any sense of confidence that her rights would then be protected if there’s a good chance a cop or a court will tell her, “Actually, we don’t think this was a rape. We think this was a case of regretted sex.”

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There’s always this disconnect. But this Nevada bill is being framed in terms of carrying. [It is being defended with] the notion that a potential attacker is less likely to attack anyone if the probability that any prospective victim is carrying a gun is high rather than low. I think the way it gets talked about is about averting these events from happening, not thwarting an event in process, that’s my gut.

But as you know, that’s such a crazy misframing of what actually happens, which is that the vast majority of these encounters are, as you say, between known people. They’re not occurring outside in bushes, they’re occurring in apartments, they’re occurring in dorm rooms, they’re occurring in fraternity houses. They are not occurring in contexts in which a woman is likely to have ready access to her pocketbook with a gun in it or to her holster with a gun in it.

But I think in the scenario that you just described, I think it would be incredibly risky for a women to fire a gun for precisely the reasons you describe.

The case of Marissa Alexander comes to mind. And a case in South Carolina in which prosecutors argued that "stand your ground” did not protect victims of domestic violence. I wonder if this is a policy situation in which, because gun owners are so overwhelmingly male, laws around using firearms in self-defense don’t reflect the lived experiences of women.

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That’s an interesting framing of it and makes sense to me, the analogy to “stand your ground” and castle doctrine seem sound. I appreciate that you started out asking about community safety, because the question that doesn’t seem to get asked in any of these contexts is what happens to a community when more people start to carry guns?

Do women feel safer or less safe if more women on college campuses or more women anywhere carry guns? Do children feel more or less safe? I think that’s a question that clearly needs attending to. In the case of college campuses, it seems like there are any numbers of colleges and universities and states that have made a strong claim over many, many years that people on college campuses will feel safer if there are not guns on college campuses.

My read of the evidence is that more women, not fewer women, would be threatened by guns were [more women] to have them. At the very end of that spectrum, which you laid out, I think you’re right. There’s certainly anecdotal evidence that would make you think that we don’t really know what to do about armed women.

We have a much clearer sense of what an armed man defending himself looks like than an armed woman defending herself looks like. Because of that, I think you’re right, that women who do defend themselves may face challenges when invoking existing self-defense law.

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Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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