The Myth of the Responsible Gun Owner: An American Nightmare (Part II)

Gun Rights

This article is the second part of an investigation. The first part appeared on June 2.  

A year ago this month, the Supreme Court ruled in New York Rifle and Pistol Association v Bruen that “law-abiding” and “responsible” citizens have a constitutional right to carry concealed handguns publicly. But different states have very different ideas about who is “law-abiding” and “responsible.” Overwhelming majorities of gun owners and non-gun owners alike believe that people who carry concealed weapons should be licensed, know the laws that regulate proper gun use, and demonstrate that they can safely use a gun in common situations they might encounter. But legislatures in 25 states have enacted “constitutional” or “permitless” carry laws, allowing the 36 million or more gun owners in those states to carry loaded firearms in public without any licensing, training, background check, or other vetting. 

It would be nice to believe that in a country with 81 million gun owners, most are “responsible” and “law-abiding.” And that may be true. Yet we are bombarded almost daily with news of mass murders and other horrific gun crimes. We also know that sizeable numbers of gun owners fail to take even the simplest safety precautions and that weak state and federal laws encourage or tolerate some of the most egregious behavior by gun owners. 

Every year, thousands of firearms are lost or stolen. The FBI estimated that in 2020 more than 300,000 were stolen from homes and vehicles, about 68 every hour. If more gun owners stored their guns properly, it wouldn’t prevent all gun crimes, suicides, and accidental injuries but it could prevent many of them. A RAND Corporation analysis in 2020 found that safe storage laws are likely among the most effective ways to prevent suicide and accidental injuries among young people. Unfortunately, half of American firearm owners don’t store their guns safely, and in homes with children, fewer than half keep them locked, unloaded, and separated from ammunition.  

When the U.S. Secret Service looked into 67 averted school shootings, it found that students who planned attacks had unimpeded access to firearms in their homes. Another study of school shootings between 1990 and 2017 in which three or more people died found that 85 percent of the assailants obtained their firearms at home. (This was the case with the Sandy Hook shooter, Adam Lanza.) Unsecured weapons are also a significant factor in unintentional shootings of children and 70 percent or more of youth suicides, the second leading cause of death of teens aged 15 to 19. Nevertheless, only 24 states require that guns be stored so that they are inaccessible to minors or hold owners liable when they fail to do so. 

While its safety manuals recommend that firearms “be stored inaccessible to unauthorized persons, including children,” the NRA insists that safe storage is a personal choice and has opposed all state and federal storage mandates. In Texas, it even fought a $1 million public awareness campaign on safe gun storage, which the Republican-controlled legislature approved following a high school shooting in 2018 that left 10 dead and 13 wounded. 

The NRA also opposes red flag laws designed to temporarily remove guns from people who may be suicidal or a threat to others. The NRA has attacked them as “gun confiscation orders,” “firearm surrender” laws, and “anti-gun.” Nonetheless, the laws enacted by 21 states to date appear to be effective. During the 22 months after Florida approved its law in response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school massacre, which left 17 dead in 2018, 3,500 Floridians were forced to give up their guns and ammunition for up to a year. Among them was a man who told a friend, “I’m gonna be the greatest mass shooter,” a couple in West Palm Beach who shot up their home while high on cocaine, and a man accused of threatening to shoot up a Walmart near Tampa one day after the 2019 Walmart shooting in El Paso, Texas.  

Given the importance so many Americans place on firearm ownership, one might think that most gun owners would report a loss or theft to the police. But many apparently can’t be bothered – about 25 percent, according to a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms study released earlier this year. Many also keep no record of gun serial numbers. Over a recent five-year period, the University of Chicago Crime Lab found that gun owners could provide serial numbers only 53 percent of the time. The failure to report and the lack of record-keeping make it far more difficult for police to catch gun thieves and prevent further violence. And that’s a problem because more than a million firearms were reported stolen from private citizens between 2017 and 2021, “enough firearms,” the ATF concluded, “to arm all offenders who commit firearm homicides, firearm assaults, and firearm robberies each year.” 

Although laws mandating reporting of lost and stolen weapons garner overwhelming public support, the pro-police, tough-on-crime NRA consistently opposes them, and only 15 states have enacted them. When Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Lancaster tried to enact reporting laws, the NRA sued to block them. It lobbied against reporting bills in Hawaii and Illinois, accusing the sponsors of “further victimizing” gun owners who had already lost their guns.  

In his concurring opinion in Bruen, Justice Brett Kavanaugh cited the brief of 26 Republican state attorneys general who argued that 43 so-called shall-issue states had effectively created “a national standard of safety” by requiring such things as, in Kavanaugh’s words, “training in firearms handling and laws regarding the use of force” as a prerequisite for obtaining a concealed carry license. (In shall-issue states, concealed carry licenses are issued to anyone who meets basic requirements such as being 21.)  

So, just how good are the nation’s myriad firearms training programs? Do their benefits outweigh the danger of having many more people carrying guns in public?  

The NRA bills itself as “the gold standard for safe firearm training, developing millions of safe, ethical, responsible shooters and instructors.” But neither the NRA nor the gun industry’s trade associations has ever released a serious evaluation of the quality or effectiveness of the nation’s gun training programs. According to Wake Forest University sociologist David Yamane, who studies firearms training and authors the “gunculture2point0” blog, “Not only do we not know how many firearms instructors there are, but we also don’t know who they are, what they teach, or what qualifies them to teach,” especially in the area of training for concealed carriers. 

We know that many of the 25 states that condition concealed carry permits on training typically allow a seven-hour NRA safety course to satisfy the requirement. That may suffice for someone who keeps a firearm at home for self-defense, but is it enough for those who fantasize about taking down the next mass murderer at the local supermarket? Although 60 percent of gun owners say they have had some formal training, that leaves about 32 million who haven’t—and, trained or not, millions fail to keep their skills up to date

Texan Karl Rehn, a highly respected firearms trainer and author, estimated that only 1 percent of his state’s 3.2 million gun owners took any sort of training course beyond what was required to get a concealed handgun license (the Texas legislature eliminated those requirements in 2021), less than three percent take any kind of NRA course, and 93 percent never practice, which trainers say is essential. That’s millions of largely untrained and undisciplined gun owners in just one state. Rehn, who is as close to a Second Amendment absolutist as they come, nonetheless complains: “Everyone that carries regularly believes their skill level is ‘good enough…Right up until the negative outcomes happen, most gun owners will insist that their gun handling is ‘safe enough.’ And many that could not pass a baseline defensive handgun skills test … carry in public with great untested, unvalidated confidence in their skills.” 

The NRA claims to train a million “responsible shooters and instructors each year.” As the chief promoter of “armed citizens” being our first line of defense, one might think the NRA would favor high-quality training for no reason other than to fill its classes. In practice, however, the NRA opposes any training mandates. In Wisconsin, it lobbied unsuccessfully to kill a modest four-hour training requirement, which legislators described as the “minimum for what is recognized as a safety-training course.”  

Although studies of firearm training courses are limited, one conducted by Harvard, Yale, and Georgetown researchers, which evaluated 20 basic handgun safety classes in seven states, found that the average class lasted six hours. Nearly all covered such basics as loading and unloading a gun, keeping your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot, being sure of your target before you fire, and storing weapons unloaded and locked. But only 10 percent discussed suicide prevention, domestic violence, and the need to report stolen guns to police, and slightly over half (55 percent) discussed the possible legal ramifications of shooting someone in self-defense. Fewer than half recommended using a gun as a last resort, and a mere 15 percent discussed methods of de-escalating threats. Although three out of four included live fire training, that training lasted, on average, only 40 minutes. No credible trainer will tell you that this is sufficient. Moreover, in 32 states, no live fire training is required to carry a concealed weapon.  

In her book Citizen Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline, sociologist and 2022 MacArthur “genius award” winner Jennifer Carlson, who studies gun culture and firearms training, writes: “I did not meet a single NRA-certified instructor who believed that [the] amount of firearms handling” in the NRA course for concealed pistol licensing “was sufficient to develop the skills necessary to proficiently use a gun in a self-defense encounter.” 

By the way, those pistol instructors can get an NRA certification by taking a 16-hour course—about twice the number of course hours for their novice students. As a point of reference, it takes 1,500 hours to obtain a barber’s license in North Carolina.  

Meanwhile, the gun lobby and its allies make extravagant claims about how frequently armed citizens use guns to stem criminal violence. According to the NRA, more than a million people use firearms in self-defense yearly. According to Justice Samuel Alito, the number is closer to 2.5 million. 

There are cases where gun owners intervene to prevent killings, but how often this happens is hotly debated.  

When the FBI looked at 373 active shooter incidents between 2000 and 2020 in which 387 shooters killed or wounded 3,015 people, it found a total of six incidents (1.6 percent) in which civilians with valid gun licenses—two were armed security guards—killed the gunman, and an additional 10 incidents where citizens who engaged in gunfire with a shooter helped end the incident. By contrast, there were 35 instances where unarmed civilians confronted a shooter and helped end an incident, demonstrating that, contrary to the NRA’s claim, “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun” is not “a good guy with a gun.” 

There are no reliable numbers on what is known as “defensive gun use” (DGU). On the other hand, the millions of cases claimed by the NRA and Alito are highly suspect for several reasons. First, there simply aren’t enough people showing up with bullet wounds at hospital emergency rooms and morgues to account for this level of DGU. FBI justifiable homicide statistics, while incomplete (because states are not required to report), show only 386 deaths in 2019, 375 in 2018, and 368 in 2017. Second, Alito relies on a highly questionable 1992 telephone survey of 5,000 adults, 66 of whom (1.3 percent) reported using a gun for self-defense over the past year. The authors then extrapolated to the adult population and developed the 2.5 million figure. That study also claimed that 64 percent of these DGU cases were reported to the police. But the Gun Violence Archive, which keeps a running tally of DGU cases reported by police and the media, verified an average of 1,800 cases annually over the past five years, not even close to a million, let alone 2.5 million. Additionally, a million DGU cases are more than double the number of gun crimes reported annually; 2.5 million cases would be five times the number.  

The most frequently cited numbers on DGU come from the federal government’s National Crime Victimization Survey, which relies on interviews with crime victims who may or may not have reported their experiences to the police. These self-reporting surveys have obvious problems of their own. Nevertheless, the most recent estimate is that guns were used defensively in nonfatal violent crimes and to defend property about 36,600 times a year between 2014 and 2018. 

One possible explanation for the vast disparity between purported DGU events and the low mortality and morbidity numbers is that nearly all of America’s gun owners are terrible shots, which would not be a great argument for concealed carry. Another explanation, provided by the gun lobby, proposes first that gun owners rarely report these incidents due to fears of being arrested because they’re carrying illegally—which undermines the “responsible, law-abiding citizen” claim—and second, that gun owners show incredible restraint, merely brandishing their firearms one or two million times a year to make the bad guys go away. 

Claims about the value of DGU have been further muddied by the proliferation of stand-your-ground laws (SYG), which provide legal immunity to those who use deadly force to defend themselves in public. In the early 2000s, as it pushed concealed carry laws through state legislatures, the NRA began campaigning for SYG laws. In 2005 it literally wrote the first of these, which was enacted by the Florida legislature and immediately adopted as “model legislation” by the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council. Before 2005, state laws typically required a person outside the home to retreat and avoid using force, if possible, to safely do so.  

The combination of SYG and concealed carry has often proved dangerous or deadly. Last October, two Florida men driving with their daughters opened fire on each other’s vehicles with semiautomatic handguns after one of the drivers tried to run the other off the road. One girl, 14, was shot in the back and suffered a collapsed lung; the other, 5, was struck in the leg. Initially, both men were charged with attempted murder. Based on witness testimony, the state later concluded that the instigator was the sole aggressor and the other man had acted in self-defense under Florida’s SYG law. 

SYG laws, the NRA vowed, would allow responsible gun owners to defend themselves and deter crime. It hasn’t turned out that way. A study published by the JAMA Network in 2017 found that the Florida law was associated with a 31.6% increase in firearm-related homicide between 2005 and 2014. A nationwide analysis of SYG laws found an eight percent increase in monthly homicide rates. In 2020 the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights concluded, “The confluence of Stand Your Ground and concealed-carry laws is, to even the casual observer, an invitation to use deadly force.” The Commission found that more than half of the SYG claimants in Florida had criminal records. And it found clear racial bias in the adjudication of SYG cases, with 45 percent ruled justifiable when the shooter was white and the victim was Black, but only 11 percent ruled justifiable when the shooter was Black and the victim white. The American Bar Association called for repealing SYG laws because they are racially biased and “because empirical evidence shows that states with statutory SYG laws have increased homicide rates.”  

In 1934 the president of the NRA, Karl T. Frederick, told the House Ways and Means Committee that he had “never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons. I seldom carry one.” At a hearing on the country’s first significant gun law, Frederick testified, “I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.”  

Over the past 35 years, the NRA has turned Frederick’s philosophy on its head. What was once “promiscuous” is now the height of civic responsibility. As recently as 1987, fewer than 10 states tolerated carrying concealed weapons; today, it’s legal in all 50. As recently as 2010, there were only three permitless carry states; today, there are 25. In 2004, there were no stand-your-ground laws. Today 30 states have them, and in others, their courts have expanded the right to use deadly force. 

What impact Bruen will have on gun violence remains to be seen. One thing is certain: more people will carry guns in public. In New Jersey, one of the states most immediately affected by the decision, more than 300,000 residents sought concealed carry permits in the first four months after the ruling. Nationwide, as many as 22 million Americans already have these permits, and 140 million live in states that allow people to carry without them.  

Following the Court’s 2008 Heller ruling, state and federal courts heard some 1,500 gun rights cases. In one of them, the Fifth Circuit upheld a ban on handgun sales to people under 21, noting that younger people “tend to be relatively irresponsible and can be prone to violent crime, especially when they have easy access to handguns.” 

Under Bruen, courts may be forced to conclude that the government’s interest in keeping guns out of the hands of any number of “irresponsible” and dangerous people is no longer pertinent to Second Amendment jurisprudence. That’s a massive victory for the NRA, gun manufacturers, and dealers, but it’s hard to see what good can come of it for the rest of us. 

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