Suing Gun Manufacturers: Hazardous to Our Health

Policy Reports | Crime | Government | Regulations

No. 223
Monday, March 01, 1999
by H. Sterling Burnett

Costs and Benefits of Firearms

Table II - Estimated Firearms Crime Costs

"Less than 29 percent of the violent crimes were committed with firearms."

In 1997, 13.2 million crimes were reported to the police, of which approximately 1.6 million were crimes of violence.46 Most violent crimes do not involve guns. As noted above, only 482,954, or just less than 29 percent, of the violent crimes committed in 1996, including 13,391 murders, were committed with firearms.47 Though still alarmingly high, crime-related firearms injury or death is a relatively rare event.

  • Of the victims of nonfatal violent crimes involving a gun from 1987 to 1992, only 3 percent suffered gunshot wounds.
  • According to a 1992 survey, only 0.3 percent of injury visits to hospital emergency rooms involved firearm injuries.48
  • In 1996, approximately 0.2 percent of violence-related injuries treated in emergency rooms involved firearms - including injuries resulting from being beaten with a firearm.49

What Firearm Violence Costs. Calculating the total cost of crime is difficult, with estimates ranging from as low as $17.6 billion50 to as high as $450 billion51 annually. [See the sidebar: Crime Victims' Rights.] The figures for the cost of violent crime in these studies show just as wide a disparity, from a low estimate of $1.4 billion by Patsy Klaus to a high estimate of $426 billion by Ted Miller, Mark Cohen and Brian Wiersema. The figures vary because different researchers included different factors in their calculations. Klaus's cost figures excluded murder and accounted only for direct costs (lost work time, medical expenses, lost property, etc.), whereas Miller, Cohen and Wiersema included estimates for the numbers of crimes not reported and placed a dollar value on such intangible, hard-to-quantify losses as pain and suffering, emotional trauma and the risk of death from victimization. These intangibles account for more than 77 percent of the cost of crime, according to the authors.52 Like the estimates of the costs of all violent crime, those of the costs of firearms-related crime vary greatly, ranging from $253.1 million to $18.7 billion, as shown in Table II.

Table III - Estimated Benefits from Defensive Gun Use

Cost estimates like these may be driving the cities' firearms lawsuits.

Lawyers in Philadelphia pointed out that 80 percent of the medical costs from firearms violence is picked up by taxpayers because the victims rarely have insurance. However, among the general population only about 17 percent are uninsured.53 This may have something to do with the fact that a substantial portion of gunshot victims have criminal records.

  • Between 1985 and 1990, two-thirds of murder victims had prior criminal arrests, averaging four arrests for 11 offenses, and 36 percent had prior firearms-related arrests.54
  • A study of victims of nonfatal gunshot wounds in Charlotte, N.C., found that 71 percent had been arrested previously and 64 percent had been convicted of a crime.55
  • A 1995 survey of males arrested in 11 cities showed that 21 percent of the adults and 11 percent of the juveniles had been shot at least once.56
  • 71 percent of teen-age drive-by shooting victims are "documented" members of street gangs.57

Benefits of Defensive Gun Use. Depending on the source, at the low end of reasonable estimates, the annual number of defensive gun uses (764,000) is somewhat lower than the highest estimate of the number of crimes committed with firearms (915,000), while at the high end the number of defensive gun uses (3.6 million) is far greater than either of the two estimates of firearms-related crimes.58

"The estimated benefits from defensive gun use range from $570.2 million to $57.5 billion per year."

The most reasonable estimate of defensive gun use was made by Kleck: approximately 2.5 million annually. If Kleck's numbers are even close to correct, then the saving to society from the crimes prevented is about five times greater than the cost to society of firearms violence.59 There are several reasons for believing that Kleck's research provides the most accurate numbers for defensive gun uses: (1) it was the first survey specifically designed to estimate the number of defensive gun uses; (2) it asked respondents about their own DGUs and those of all members of the household; (3) it inquired about DGUs with all guns, not just handguns; (4) it asked about a recall period of one and five years; and (6) it included detailed questions about whether the respondents actually confronted an adversary, used their guns in some way and did so in connection with a specific crime.

Table IV - Net Benefits of Defensive Gun Use

According to Klaus, each crime (excluding murder) costs, on the average, $524.60 Another study, by Edwin Zedlewski, estimates the average cost of crime at $2,300.61 These two estimates are based on all crime. A third estimate of $20,360 is based on the cost of firearms crimes alone, drawn from the Miller, Cohen and Wiersema study and a second study by Miller and Cohen on the cost of firearms-related crime injuries.62

Using these three estimates, and based on the 483,000 firearms crimes reported to the police, Table II shows that the costs of firearms crime range from $253.1 million (Klaus) to $9.8 billion (Miller et al.). If one instead employs the estimate from the victimization survey of 915,000 firearms crimes, the costs range from $479 million (Klaus) to $18.6 billion (Miller et al.).

Table III shows the range of total benefits from defensive gun use - both immediate benefits (from crimes prevented) and the long-term benefits (from criminals killed during defensive gun use). As the table shows, using the low-end estimate of 764,000 crimes prevented, the total benefits range from $570.2 million (Klaus) to $22.2 billion (Miller et al.); using the Kleck estimate of 2.5 million crimes prevented, the total benefits range from $1.5 billion (Klaus) to $57.5 billion (Miller et al.).

In Table IV the net benefits of defensive gun use - that is, the costs of gun violence minus the benefits of defensive gun use - are shown, assuming 915,000 firearms crimes (the number most favorable to proponents of gun lawsuits). The first line in each section shows the net benefit if guns are used defensively 764,000 times (also the number most favorable to proponents of gun lawsuits); the second line shows the net benefit, still assuming 915,000 firearm crimes but using the Kleck estimate of 2.5 million defensive gun uses. With either set of assumptions, there is a positive net benefit to defensive gun use, ranging from $90.7 million to $3.5 billion under assumptions most favorable to proponents of gun lawsuits, or from $1 billion to $38.9 billion using the Kleck assumptions.

Cities are suing to recover the medical costs associated with treating criminals despite the fact that the injuries may represent net savings from defensive gun use.63 Every day an offender spends hospitalized or in bed at home after a firearm injury is a day he is not committing crimes. The savings are likely to be substantial.

"Every day an offender spends hospitalized or in bed at home after a firearm injury is a day he is not committing crimes."

Even those who do not own or carry a gun benefit from widespread gun ownership and shall-issue right-to-carry laws. Armed citizens frequently come to the aid of people under attack. In addition, criminals cannot often know in advance who is armed. And if we imagined a world where neither criminals nor intended victims had firearms, substantial numbers of crimes still would be carried out with other weapons. But only the intended victims would suffer since unarmed persons are less likely than armed persons to attempt to defend themselves against crime. In addition, those people who did attempt to defend themselves without a gun would more likely to be injured than they would have been had they been armed with a gun. (See the earlier section "Guns and Self-Protection" for evidence.)

The criminal's intended victim receives an immediate and substantial benefit from a successful defensive gun use, even though it rarely ends in the death of the offender. And though it is morbid to consider, society enjoys a long-term benefit when the criminal dies. The average offender is criminally active for 20 years, during which he commits, on average, more than 14 serious crimes per year.64 Twenty percent of criminals have been arrested five or more times for violent crimes and 44 percent from two to four times. These numbers do not include any crimes they got away with.65

Other research shows that criminals tend to commit numerous crimes.

  • In Philadelphia, just 20 percent of those arrested for nontraffic offenses committed two-thirds of all violent crimes, three-fourths of all rapes and robberies and virtually all murders.66
  • The same 20 percent had accumulated five criminal arrests by age 18 and had gotten away with dozens of crimes for every one for which they were arrested.67
  • In another study, while half the criminal population imprisoned in California, Texas and Michigan committed fewer than 15 crimes per year before imprisonment, 25 percent committed more than 135 crimes annually and 10 percent committed more than 600.68

We can calculate a rough range of the average annual long-term savings from crimes avoided due to deaths from defensive gun uses.69 If we assume that the average criminal has his active criminal career cut in half (to 10 years) and that approximately 3,000 criminals70 are lawfully killed each year, thus avoiding 14 crimes per year averaging $524 for 10 years, the social benefit is $169.9 million. Using Zedlewski's cost estimate of $2,300, the social benefit is $745.8 million.71 If, following Miller, Cohen and Wiersema, we add the indirect costs of crime, the average total cost of a violent crime is $20,360, and at 14 crimes per year averted for 10 years the long-term saving from defensive shootings is $6.6 billion per year. [See Table III.]

"The net benefit to society is ignored in the lawsuits."

The total social benefit from defensive gun uses is equal to the annual savings from non-deadly gun uses plus the annual savings from defensive gun uses in which the criminal is killed. And any number selected is greater than the cost of firearm violence.72 For instance, even under a best-case scenario for lawsuit proponents, using the NCVS firearms crimes number (915,000), and the Tarrance Group's defensive gun use statistic (764,000), the net benefit from defensive gun use ( the total benefits less the total costs) ranges from just over $90 million annually to $3.5 billion per year. Using Kleck's more credible estimate for annual defensive gun use, the net benefit ranges from $1 billion to $38.9 billion annually. [See Table IV.] The annual net benefit of civilian gun use in the prevention of crime is even greater if the NCVS overestimates firearms crimes and the Bureau of Justice Statistics figures (483,000) are more accurate.

This substantial benefit is ignored in the lawsuits. Proponents of stricter gun control routinely ignore or deny the benefits of defensive gun uses due to their unexamined belief that the U.S. would be a safer place if there were fewer guns in private hands. And it is not in the interest of the trial lawyers involved to take note of the benefits of gun ownership, since this would diminish their chances of a substantial jury award or out-of-court settlement. The question is why the mayors are ignoring the myriad benefits that their constituents receive from gun ownership and the harm that would seem to flow from diminishing individuals' responsibility for their actions.

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