Where does science fall on the gun control debate?

In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, a Harvard School of Public Health professor shared the results of monthly polls of gun researchers.

Brennan Linsley/FILE/AP
FILE PHOTO- In this April 18, 2013 photo, community gun safety advocates and members of the public hold signs during a rally and vigil to honor victims of gun violence, sponsored by Colorado Ceasefire, on the steps of the Colorado State Capitol, in Denver. When a gunman opened fire inside a packed movie theater in July of 2012, killing 12, it helped revive the national debate over gun control. But, as the trial of theater shooter James Holmes is scheduled to begin Monday, April 27, 2015, Colorado’s gun debate has quieted down. “It’s in a sort of gridlock,” said nonpartisan Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli.

Does owning a gun make your home more dangerous? Most professionals who research the effects of gun ownership say yes. 

This is what David Hemenway, a professor at Harvard's School of Public Health saw when he began sending out monthly surveys almost a year ago to scientists engaged in research in public health, criminology, or other social sciences. A clear majority found that a gun in the home increases the risk of suicide, makes women more likely to be victims of homicide, and make homes more dangerous.

In an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, titled, "There's scientific consensus on guns – and the NRA won't like it," Hemenway writes: 

Scientific consensus isn't always right, but it's our best guide to understanding the world. Can reporters please stop pretending that scientists, like politicians, are evenly divided on guns? We're not.

Of the 150 scientists who responded, most were confident that a gun in the home increases the chance that a woman living there will be murdered (72 percent agreed, 11 percent disagreed), that strict gun control laws reduce homicide (71 percent versus 12 percent), that more permissive gun laws have not reduced crime rates (62 percent versus 9 percent), that guns are used more often in crimes that in self-defense (73 percent versus 8 percent), and that a gun in the home makes it a more dangerous place to be (64 percent versus 5 percent).

Eighty-four percent of the respondents said that having a firearm at home increased the risk of suicide.

These figures stand sharply at odds with the opinions of the American public. A November 2014 Gallup poll found that 63 percent of Americans say that having a gun in the house makes it a safer place to be, a figure that has nearly doubled since 2000. According to the same survey, about 40 percent of Americans keep a gun in the home.

The reasons for gun ownership have similarly shifted since the end of the 20th century. A 2013 Pew Research survey found that 48 percent of Americans cited protection as their main reason for owning a gun. In 1999, 49 percent said had owned a gun mostly for hunting, with just 26 percent citing protection as the primary reason.

According to Pew, a slim but growing majority of Americans 52 percent versus 46 percent – say it is more important to protect the rights of gun owners than it is to control gun ownership. In 1999, according to Pew, that figure was 29 percent versus 66 percent.

Support for gun ownership was most pronounced among whites who believed that crime rates in the United States are on the rise. This belief runs counter to crime statistic, which in particular have found that the gun homicide rate has plunged by 49 percent since its peak in 1993.

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