Gun Violence and the Irrational Fear of Home Invasion


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Yesterday I was on Chris Hayes' show discussing gun violence. In the clip above, I talked about the importance of self-defense in my life being the son of Black Panther, a devoted Malcolmite and progeny of the Crack Era.

Professor Harold Pollack, who (among other things) co-directs the University of Chicago's Crime Lab was kind of enough to send along the following note:

I enjoyed your conversation on Up with Chris Hayes. You mentioned the risk of home invasion, and the realistic fear that the cops just wouldn't get there in time. That's obviously a primeval motive to have a gun by the bedside or whatever.

But the fear is also easily out of proportion to the threat. I had the Chicago police run the number on homicides. In 2011, precisely one homicide listed "burglary" as the motive. Nationwide, there are about 100 burglary-homicides every year. When you compare that to more than 18,000 gun suicides, the conclusions seem pretty obvious.

Pollack wrote about this for the Nation. In the article Harold points out a few other cases that might be homicides from someone who gained entry, from the home. But all in all, the risk is vanishing small:

Home protection provides a common, all-too-understandable motive to buy a gun. Few things are scarier than the possibility that some violent intruder will break in when you and your loved-ones are home. This risk happens to be especially vivid for me. My gentle disabled cousin was beaten to death by two teenage burglars in his New York apartment thirty years ago.

Yet having guns around bring risks, too. Practically speaking, it's not the incredibly rare risk of mass homicide, but the everyday risks of injury, accident, domestic altercations, and suicide. The relative risks matter. And the fact is: lethal home invasions and burglaries are incredibly rare. You might not think so, since dramatic cases stick in your mind and tend to receive disproportionate press coverage. These cases are rare nonetheless.

Let me straight about this -- from a public health perspective, does the evidence here argue for a total ban on handguns? I don't know if Harold would argue for that, but New York City effectively has such a policy in place.

I've spent this week arguing for gun control and more regulation, but for some reason I can't get myself to endorse the idea of banning handguns. Maybe I'll feel different in the week. It's just so contrary to everything I've felt all my life. Part of this is being black and having in your actual family history--and in the history of your immediate community--several instances of people (white, black, whatever) invading the home.

Is looking at homicide too small? Should we include assault? Burglary is, in of itself, an intensely traumatic experience. Is the mere fact of invading someone's home an act of aggression that justifies lethal force? I don't know.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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