Skip to main content

Guns endanger more than they protect

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
December 25, 2012 -- Updated 1252 GMT (2052 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum: NRA statement surfaced the key rationale for its views on guns
  • NRA chief talked of battle between criminals and civilians, who use guns defensively
  • Frum: In fact, guns are used to intimidate and threaten more often than in self-defense
  • He says armed civilians turn ordinary altercations into murderous exchanges of fire

Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, is a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is the author of eight books, including a new novel "Patriots" and his post-election e-book, "Why Romney Lost." Frum was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002.

(CNN) -- The National Rifle Association's Friday press event has received almost uniformly negative reviews. Yet the speech by NRA chief Wayne LaPierre had this merit: It pulled into daylight for all to see the foundational assumption of modern American gun culture.

LaPierre argued that our society is stalked by unknown numbers of monsters, potential mass murders like Adam Lanza. Then he said this: Even if we could somehow identify future Adam Lanzas, "that wouldn't even begin to address the much larger and more lethal criminal class: Killers, robbers, rapists and drug gang members who have spread like cancer in every community in this country."

David Frum
David Frum
Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



The "criminal class" sentence is key. In LaPierre's mind, the world is divided between law-abiding citizens and dangerous criminals. Citizens and criminals form two separate and discrete categories. The criminals pose a threat; if the citizens do not go armed against the threat, they will be victimized by the threat.

I know people who carry handguns with them wherever they go, and for just the reason described by LaPierre.

Now let's take a look at the real world of American gun ownership. The following incident occurred in August:

"A man was shot in the face 9 p.m. Friday in an altercation with a neighbor over barking dogs on Atlas Street," Troy Police said.

"Police arrested David George Keats, 73, of Troy [Michigan] and charged him with attempted murder in the incident," according to a media release from the Troy Police Department.

"According to police, witnesses stated that the altercation began when Keats let his three dogs outside and the dogs began to bark. According to the media release, Keats' 52-year-old next door neighbor yelled at the dogs to be quiet and kicked the fence. Keats then ran up to the victim, yelled, 'Don't tell my dogs to shut up,' and began shooting at the victim.

"One bullet hit the man in the face, piercing both cheeks, and four more shots were fired at the victim as he was running away," according to the report.

The encounter between Keats and his neighbor ended nonlethally only by good luck. A shot in the face is a shot to kill.

NRA: 'Armed officers in every school'
Fareed's Take: Gun control
Lieberman on America's gun culture
89 guns per 100 people in the U.S.

The great divide on guns

Nor was this encounter aberrational. There's solid research to show that most so-called defensive gun uses are not really defensive at all.

In the late 1990s, teams of researchers at the Harvard school of public health interviewed dozens of people who had wielded a gun for self-defense. (In many cases, the guns were not fired, but were simply brandished.) The researchers pressed for the fullest description of exactly what happened. They then presented the descriptions to five criminal court judges from three states.

"The judges were told to assume that the respondent had a permit to own and carry the gun and had described the event honestly from his/her own perspective. The judges were then asked to give their best guess whether, based on the respondent's description of the incident, the respondent's use of the gun was very likely legal, likely legal, as likely as not legal, unlikely legal, or very unlikely legal."

Even on those two highly favorable (and not very realistic) assumptions, the judges rated the majority of the self-defensive gun uses as falling into one of the two illegal categories.

The researchers concluded:

"Guns are used to threaten and intimidate far more often than they are used in self-defense. Most self-reported self-defense gun uses may well be illegal and against the interests of society."

That certainly describes the Keats shooting. With a little Google searching, you can pull up dozens of similar incidents.

Kurtz: Will media stay focused on gun story?

Here's a story from just this past week, December 22.

"Longview, Washington -- A man shot and killed his uncle during an argument at their apartment complex late Friday night. ...'We heard a big bang,' said Ron Nelson, who lives a few apartments down...Nelson said the men were fighting over a hat and a cell phone."

Now that so many Americans carry weapons when they go out of the home, shooting incidents can occur anywhere, including very commonly the road. Another recent incident: In Pensacola, Florida, in October a man in a Jeep Cherokee cut off another car. A roadway confrontation followed, the two cars stopped, and the Jeep owner emerged to shoot the other driver in the knee. He was arrested this past week.

In these cases, and thousands like them each and every year, it is not so clear who is the "good guy" exercising responsible self-protection and who is the "bad guy" who can only be deterred by an armed citizen.

But the guns in their hands protected exactly nobody. They turned ordinary altercations into murderous exchanges of fire. They brought wounds, death and criminal prosecution where otherwise there would likely only have been angry words or at worst, black eyes.

LaPierre's offers a vision of American society as one unending replay of the worst scenes in Charles Bronson's 1974 vigilante classic, "Death Wish."

The people most victimized by this nightmare vision end up being the people who believe it -- and who carry the weapons that kill or maim their neighbors, their relatives, their spouses, and random passersby.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 13, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
To prevent war with North Korea over a comedy, what would Dennis Rodman say to Kim Jong Un? Movie critic Gene Seymour weighs in.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
Michael Werz says in light of the spying cases, U.S. is seen as a paranoid society that can't tell friends from foes.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Eric Liu explains why in his new book, he calls himself "Chinese American" -- without a hyphen.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1512 GMT (2312 HKT)
John Bare says hands-on learning can make a difference in motivating students to acquire STEM skills.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1320 GMT (2120 HKT)
Karl Alexander and Linda Olson find blacks and whites live in urban poverty with similar backgrounds, but white privilege wins out as they grow older.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1841 GMT (0241 HKT)
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
ADVERTISEMENT