Does owning a gun change your behavior?

Guns and Homicide
A graphic illustrating the six weapons Oscar Pistorius had applied to own firearms licenses for.  The Olympian was charged with the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp who was shot and killed in his apartment in Pretoria, South Africa.
A graphic illustrating the six weapons Oscar Pistorius had applied to own firearms licenses for. The Olympian was charged with the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp who was shot and killed in his apartment in Pretoria, South Africa.
Rudi Louw/Graphics24/Gallo Images/Getty Images

It's pretty clear that owning a gun puts you at higher risk for harming yourself, but what about harming others?

A lot of the government-funded research on gun violence comes from the early to mid-1990s. That's because in 1996, the National Rifle Association successfully lobbied Congress to cut funding for gun violence studies. But before that, the CDC found that having a gun in the home made homicide about three times more likely for family members in that house [source: Sapien]. This jibes with a 1992 study, which found that family disputes that turned violent were three times more likely to result in death when a firearm was present versus other weapons [source: Saltzman].

Most homicides aren't carefully planned events. Instead, an argument with a friend or family member -- maybe over money or infidelity -- turns violent. Add a gun to the mix and the chances of death are greater than say, using a baseball or a knife.

But researchers point out that the correlation between homicide and firearms in the house is not as strong as the relationship between suicide and firearms in the house. Most murder victims are not shot at home – unless they are women, children or elderly. Also households with gun ownership might be more engaged in criminal activity. But one often-cited study of 400 homicide victims who were killed in their homes showed that half died of gunshot wounds and in the vast majority of cases, they knew the perpetrator. Forced entry was rare – only 14 percent of the time. Thirty-six percent of these homes owned firearms versus 23 percent of control households [source: Hemenway].

The change in behavior extends to the street. A 2009 study looked at 677 shootings in Philadelphia over two-and-a-half years and found that people who carried guns were 4.5 times more likely to be shot and 4.2 times more likely to be killed as unarmed people. The study authors think that guns may give their owners a sense of empowerment that leads them to act rashly or go into dangerous situations or places they might otherwise avoid [sources: Callaway,Branas].

Author's Note: Does owning a gun change your behavior?

In the fall of 2011 I was sitting on the couch watching TV when I thought I heard someone fall off of our roof. There was a loud bang right outside followed by a man screaming. It was a teen shooting my neighbor across the street in the leg during a botched robbery attempt.

As you'd expect, that incident shook up everyone on our block. Any time I came home after dark I was afraid for my safety, and I definitely thought about arming myself. The thing that stopped me from getting a gun was realizing that in a similar situation, I didn't think I'd be able to use it.

The bullet didn't cause any major damage to my neighbor's leg, and he was up and about again within a few weeks. As soon as he was on the mend, he did get a handgun to protect himself and his wife.

I've always gone back and forth on gun ownership. While I don't think that owning a gun is for me, I can see wanting to protect yourself. Between my neighbor's shooting and getting mugged on our street a few years before that, I definitely know what it's like to feel unsafe in your home and want to empower yourself somehow.

Related Articles


  • Anderson, Jon Lee. "Guns and the Limits of Shame." The New Yorker. Dec. 16, 2012. (Feb. 25, 2013)
  • Bushman, Brad Ph.D. "The Tradeoffs of Gun Ownership." Psychology Today. Aug. 1, 2012. (Feb. 25, 2013)
  • Bushman, Brad Ph. D. "The Weapons Effect." Psychology Today. Jan. 18, 2013. (Feb. 25, 2013)
  • Callaway, Ewen. "Carrying a gun increases risk of getting shot and killed." New Scientist. Oct. 6, 2009. (March 13, 2013).
  • Dahlberg, Linda L. "Guns in the Home and Risk of a Violent Death in the Home: Findings from a National Study." American Journal of Epidemiology. Volume 160, Issue 10. Pp. 929-936. Nov. 15, 2004. (Feb. 25, 2013)
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  • NRA. "Gun Ownership Rises to All-Time High, Violent Crime Falls to 35-Year Low." NRA-ILA. Sept. 15, 2010. (Feb. 27, 2013),-less-crime-again.aspx?s=guns+in+home&st=&ps
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