"No Such Thing as a Responsible Gun Owner" Except for the 99.6% Who Are
Gun control advocates faceplant while stealing a PETA slogan
About a month ago I hosted a gaming weekend for a bunch of old friends, where about eight folks crashed at my house and played board games and went swimming. There’d been some gun discussion on Friday night, so on Saturday morning I cracked out a suppressed AR-15 to shoot (responsibly) into a shooting berm behind my house. As not all of the folks there were gun owners, I went through a safety session, Four Rules, proper handling, range etiquette, and such, with everyone there. My most liberal friend there had brought his teenage son, and I asked permission separately and with respect whether I should let his son shoot. He agreed. We all shot together. Towards the end of the shooting session my most liberal friend said something that really threw me for a loop.
He said “There’s no such thing as a responsible gun owner.”
We were both literally on my land while I was teaching his son safe firearms shooting protocol, and he dropped that slogan, surrounded by men who’d all just taken a turn throwing bullets down range with the scariest gun you can legally buy.
I chalked it up to garbage he’d probably heard recently on Occupy Democrats or something, chuckled internally over the knowledge that guns have already won, and that I was literally teaching his son how to shoot while he said it. Didn’t think twice about it since. But in the last month, that slogan has started to pop up everywhere, so it seems instructive to me to trace its origins and talk about exactly how wrong it is, mathematically speaking.
If I type “no such thing as a respons…” into a google search bar, the phrase is not auto-completed with a statement about guns, but rather a statement about dog breeders.
It was a 2015 PETA Slogan…
…tied in with their official stance on breeders, that occasionally gets traffic in places like the reddit vegan forums. The reason it gets traffic is it dehumanizes (!) the opposing side of a culture war argument. And dehumanization is great clickbait.
The gun version of this meme owes its origins, as near as I can tell, to a Twitter parody account of Maxine Waters:
This fake tweet went viral in February of 2020 and was quickly fact checked because of its obvious absurdity. But since then, the phrase has started to gain purchase within anti-gun circles purely because of how clickbaitey it is. The phrase now appears in a Change.org petition, the Texas Observer, an ABC B-Tier Sitcom, The Atlantic, and most recently in a two part article from Washington Monthly.
Let’s take a look at the most recent incarnation and do some math with it.
Mr. Berlow gives lip service to the idea that “plenty of gun owners are responsible” while bombarding us with numbers that aren’t. The first thing we need, is a baseline. If we presume 45% of households have a gun in the United States, a country of 331 million population, then 149 million Americans have access to a firearm in their home. That’s the baseline. Then we divide any number Mr. Berlow hits us with by that number to see what percentage of gun exposed Americans are not responsible on an annual basis.
We are increasingly numb to mass shootings, the destruction wrought by an alienated man (rarely a woman) who uses a weapon designed for war to kill the innocent at a movie theater or Walmart, synagogue or church, high school or elementary school. These shootings have become so commonplace that the details blur: 16 dead and injured at a Texas outlet mall; 36 at an Alabama birthday party; 14 at a Louisville bank; eight at Nashville Christian school; 21 at a dance hall in California. Just as unsettling, in some ways, are the shootings in recent weeks based on what can only be called a hair-trigger response to a perceived threat. In Kansas City, Missouri, Ralph Yarl, a 16-year-old, was going to pick up his younger twin siblings from a playdate when he went to the wrong address and was greeted by 85-year-old Andrew Lester, who shot him in the head. Yarl is Black, and Lester is white. Around the same time, across the country in New York State, Kaylin Gillis was heading to a friend’s house when her boyfriend mistakenly turned into the wrong driveway. Its owner, 65-year-old Kevin Monahan, fired at the car, killing 20-year-old Gillis. (He’s been charged with murder.) In Texas, two high school cheerleaders were shot in a supermarket parking lot after one of them mistakenly entered a car she thought was her own. Police say that 25-year-old Pedro Tello Rodriguez, Jr. fired multiple shots. Payton Washington, 18, dressed in her cheerleader outfit, was shot in the back and nearly died. These were not criminals with a history of mental illness but legal gun owners who chose to pull the trigger.
Are most gun owners reckless and rage-filled? Probably not. But the data show that the gun lobby’s promulgated myth of the responsible gun owner is just that—a myth.
The opening paragraph lists nine irresponsible gun owners in it. If these were the only nine in the country, then the USA would have 99.99993% gun responsibility. If Mr. Berlow is going to support his statement that “responsible gun ownership is a myth,” he will have to present more data than a string of anecdotes. Let’s see what he presents.
In two weeks this spring, the country experienced at least 25 mass shootings. In addition…
He goes on to list ten additional anecdotes in this paragraph pulled from local news, for a total of 35 irresponsible gun owners. We now have a running total of 44, for a total of 99.99997% gun responsibility. He’s going to need some more. Four paragraphs later he adds to the total.
These laws—or the lack of them—matter. The young men responsible for the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, which left 13 dead, acquired their firearms at a gun show with the help of an older classmate. The gunman who shot 23 people dead at an El Paso Walmart in 2019 purchased his AK-47 and 1000 rounds of ammunition online.
That’s two more, running total of 37, no change in the ratio. Eight paragraphs later he finally adds to the total.
To appreciate why this matters, it helps to understand that the standard measures of gun violence—homicides and suicides—vastly understate the scope of the problem. Imagine if you learned that 1,166 people had been raped, robbed, assaulted, or threatened by someone with a gun today. Well, that’s what happened every day, on average, between 2012 and 2020. That’s more than four million direct victims of gun violence in one decade. And that’s not counting homicides and suicides, which totaled 134,500 and 224,600, respectively, and the more than 192,000 injured in firearm accidents.
Ok now we’re talking. 1,166 people per day is a lot! That’s almost half a million people per year! I wonder where he’s getting that number. Google is a complete blank on it, except for people tweeting quotes from this article, so it could be totally made up. That’s about three times more than the entire total of reported rape cases in a given year, and almost four times the number of people shot, so I presume the bulk of this number is in brandishing but there’s no way to know. Don’t care, let’s pretend this number is real and add it to the total. That huge, giant, absurdly large number of irresponsible gun owners brings us to 425,590 instances of annual irresponsibility, and a responsibility ratio of 99.71%.
If you add indirect victims of gun violence, the numbers are astronomical.
No sir, we’re not doing that, because that’s padding the numbers. If one magical Santa Claus of Gun Irresponsibility brandished a gun in front of every citizen in the United States one Christmas Eve, we would have 330 million “victims” of gun irresponsibility with only one more irresponsible gun owner. No cheating.
In a nation where as many as 81 million adults own an estimated 434 million firearms (about half of the world’s supply), the assumption that “most” are responsible and law-abiding may be accurate. But that still leaves plenty of room for bad stuff to happen, which it does, every day.
Aha. On paragraph eighteen of his article, he admits that most gun owners are responsible, and therefore that his thesis is wrong. But even then, he doesn’t seem to understand how overwhelmingly wrong it is. Let’s keep going.
He goes seven more paragraphs without any numbers, then drops three bullets from the CAP Fact Sheet we debunked here last week, and finally finds some more irresponsible gun owners.
Earlier this year, the Transportation Security Administration reported that in 2022 it had found 6,542 guns in carry-on bags at 262 U.S. airports, about 18 guns per day. That number surpassed the previous record of 5,972 guns in 2021, which was no surprise to the TSA. Except for 2020, when people stopped flying because of Covid, the numbers have increased yearly since 2009. During the past decade, the TSA confiscated 33,000 of these illegally transported firearms.
That seems irresponsible, let’s add 6,542 owners to the list, increasing our running total to 432,178 irresponsible, but not budging the ratio from 99.7% firm. His first article ends with a bang that converts to a whimper once you do the arithmetic, but thankfully he has an entire second article with which he is sure to support his thesis.
He opens Part II like this:
It would be nice to believe that in a country with 81 million gun owners, most are “responsible” and “law-abiding.” And that may be true. Yet we are bombarded almost daily with news of mass murders and other horrific gun crimes. We also know that sizeable numbers of gun owners fail to take even the simplest safety precautions and that weak state and federal laws encourage or tolerate some of the most egregious behavior by gun owners.
Gun owners aren’t the ones bombarding you with media. Organizations like The Washington Monthly are doing that, so if that’s the problem he’s trying to fix he’ll need to do some concerted introspection. Let’s continue to add to the running total and see where we end up.
Every year, thousands of firearms are lost or stolen. The FBI estimated that in 2020 more than 300,000 were stolen from homes and vehicles, about 68 every hour.
300,000 is a bullshit number, flat out, and completely unsourced. The ATF in 2023 stated explicitly that the number of firearms stolen from private citizens in the USA was 208,779, and showed data that ranged from 221,898 to 192,151 firearms stolen across a five year time span, but that’s not even what Mr. Berlow’s thesis is about. He’s trying to say that being a victim of a gun theft means you’re an irresponsible owner, because you didn’t secure your gun. That’s obviously not true for any gun owner who was forced by the law to leave their gun in their car outside of a gun free zone, but let’s pretend it is, and add these to the list. Across the five year ATF study, the average number of gun theft victims per year was 155,055. Add them to the list, and you’ve got 587,233 “irresponsible gun owners,” and our gun responsibility ratio plummets to 99.6%.
Unsecured weapons are also a significant factor in unintentional shootings of children and 70 percent or more of youth suicides, the second leading cause of death of teens aged 15 to 19.
Let’s skip the “children” thing and just say that all firearm accidents are due to irresponsibility. Most gun owners would agree with that. We get about 500 of them per year, so lets add them to the tally. Youth suicides are about 5,000 per year, but as we’ve discussed prior on HWFO, a third of those are women and women without access to a firearm will do it another way. Likewise some portion of men would do it another way, so when you correct for those two, the number of suicides due to “irresponsible gun ownership” is about 1830.
Our running total of irresponsible gun owners is now up to 589,533, for a gun responsibility ratio of 99.6%, same as it was before.
The NRA also opposes red flag laws designed to temporarily remove guns from people who may be suicidal or a threat to others. The NRA has attacked them as “gun confiscation orders,” “firearm surrender” laws, and “anti-gun.” Nonetheless, the laws enacted by 21 states to date appear to be effective. During the 22 months after Florida approved its law in response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school massacre, which left 17 dead in 2018, 3,500 Floridians were forced to give up their guns and ammunition for up to a year. Among them was a man who told a friend, “I’m gonna be the greatest mass shooter,” a couple in West Palm Beach who shot up their home while high on cocaine, and a man accused of threatening to shoot up a Walmart near Tampa one day after the 2019 Walmart shooting in El Paso, Texas.
Mr. Berlow plays the very dirty trick of pretending those few anecdotes are applicable to the total data pool when it’s very unlikely that the 3,500 Floridians who got flagged were all that irresponsible, but let’s pretend it isn’t dirty. Let’s add them all to the tally. 593,033 irresponsible gun owners. Responsibility ratio still 99.6%.
We know that many of the 25 states that condition concealed carry permits on training typically allow a seven-hour NRA safety course to satisfy the requirement. That may suffice for someone who keeps a firearm at home for self-defense, but is it enough for those who fantasize about taking down the next mass murderer at the local supermarket? Although 60 percent of gun owners say they have had some formal training, that leaves about 32 million who haven’t—and, trained or not, millions fail to keep their skills up to date.
Formal training is not necessary to be a responsible gun owner, nor does formal training necessarily make someone responsible. The remainder of the second article is a long rant about training requirements, differing Defensive Gun Use statistics, and how many hours it takes to get a barber’s license in North Carolina, none of which supports the thesis that responsible gun ownership is a myth.
By his own numbers, it’s not a myth for 99.6% of us. If he’d like to support his thesis with data, I’d love to read it.