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Should Fort Valley Arm Up to Gun Down the Serial Rapist?

May 10, 2015 Crime, Culture and Lifestyle, Edition 12, News No Comments

By Dave Oedel

Fort Valley homes over the past several weeks have been the scenes of two rapes, two attempted rapes, and several other suspiciously similar situations of attempted entry. All instances have involved a single masked intruder apparently intent on rape, rather than stealing or murder — though that’s subject to change at the intruder’s whim.

The Telegraph in a May 7, 2015 editorial opined that the key to ending the menace is for the Fort Valley community to take steps to do so on their own because “[l]aw enforcement can’t be at every doorstep.”

But then the Telegraph conspicuously omitted mention of the most obvious step — encouraging homeowners to arm up in order to be prepared if necessary to gun down the masked assailant. This option has not been lost on the public, even if it has been implicitly rejected by the Telegraph. For instance, a commenter on an earlier Telegraph story on the subject, James Gay, wryly wrote on April 28, 2015, “I suppose he’ll keep doing it until he invades a home with a gun.”

In its May 7, 2015 editorial, the Telegraph instead urged Fort Valley residents to “have their eyes wide open and notice things that might be slightly out of place — people, vehicles, open doors and windows, etc.” The Telegraph then suggested reporting such things to the police, and went on to propose other sensible preventive measures. “This might also be a good time to take a safety audit of your home,” the Telegraph recommended. “Is the exterior well-lit? Are the doors solid and secure? Are the locks on windows and doors operable? And what’s the escape plan if an intruder does try to gain entrance to your home?” But the Telegraph left it at that.

Without belaboring the obvious, the Telegraph’s proposed approach is a defensive one of reporting odd things to authorities, passive deterrence, and, as a last resort, “escape.” But what about Mr. Gay’s point that one good defense is steel? Why did the Telegraph omit the obvious suggestion that people arm up to protect themselves?

There’s a vigorous debate on the wisdom of the arm-up approach in various forms of academic literature in public health, law and criminology. It has developed political legs as well, with the National Rifle Association getting involved on one side, and gun control advocates on another.

The leading national academic critic of keeping guns in the home for protection is Dr. Arthur Kellermann of Emory University, who published a major piece on the subject in 1993 in the New England Journal of Medicine, and has made something of a career out of pursuing the subject. Kellermann’s conclusion from the 1993 study was that homicides are 2.7 times more likely to occur in homes where a gun was found.

Kellermann’s limited 1993 study, though, was roundly attacked, whether  for failing to identify whether the homicides in homes were caused by guns brought into the homes by perpetrators from outside the home, for not considering false reporting of gun possession, for failing to consider other factors associated with the kinds of households his team was studying, and more. A later admission by Kellermann did suggest that, indeed, many homicides in homes occur from guns brought in by outside perpetrators.

Dr. Gary Kleck from Florida State University has been a leading skeptic of Kellermann’s work. Kleck himself came to the conclusion  that “currently available data do not provide a sound empirical basis for recommending to the average American that he or she not keep a gun in the home.” At the same time, neither could Kleck conclude that benefits from defensive uses of guns kept in homes outweigh other dangers associated with having guns in the home from things like intruders using homeowners’ guns against homeowners, accidental harm from guns, and criminally aggressive uses of guns by people living in the home. Those kinds of secondary health concerns had been the subject of Kellermann’s first piece on the general subject of guns in homes back in 1986.

With the empirical information inconclusive, some have taken to evaluating the question partly as a logic puzzle. Dr. Eric Fleegler of Harvard Medical School, for instance, points out that there are three basic scenarios in a home invasion: intruder with gun and homeowner with no gun; intruder with no gun and homeowner with gun; and both with guns. Fleegler’s general point seems to be that violence can be reduced by reducing the number of guns at play, and that the homeowner can control for that by having no gun. In other words, Fleegler argues for unilateral, one-sided disarmament by the law-abiding homeowner.

Fleegler specifically argues that in situations like the ones that have occurred in Fort Valley, in which the intruder apparently has no gun, statistics show that the homeowner with a gun is just as likely to be killed by the intruder after the intruder overpowers the homeowner. This is possible, Fleegler suggests, because the homeowner waits to shoot to be absolutely sure of the identity of the intruder, and because of general homeowner hesitancy to fire in strange situations with life-or-death consequences.

Assuming Fleegler’s statistics are accurate, though, they still do not reflect the number of occasions in which homeowners’ defensive uses of guns, many without firing, result in an intruder fleeing. Those seem likely to be far more common than discharges of homeowner weapons resulting in homicides, either of the homeowner or the intruder. Moreover, Fleegler does not take into account the ability of a homeowner to train in defensive uses of guns to reduce the risk of mistake or inappropriate hesitancy. And Fleegler does not weigh the general deterrent effect on intruders who believe that the home being invaded is protected by a homeowner with a weapon.

Wherever you come out on the academic debate about keeping guns at home, one interesting empirical connection was picked up by Pew Trust polling last year.  Pew found that, although “blacks are significantly more likely than whites to be gun homicide victims, blacks are only half as likely as whites to have a firearm in their home (41% to 19%).”

So what do Middle Georgians in general, and Fort Valley residents in particular, have to say about this matter as a practical matter? Should the public arm up for defense against criminality, or, as the Telegraph suggests, limit themselves to reporting, passive defense, and escape?

And, more particularly, should law-abiding African-American homeowners in Fort Valley, which is 75 percent African American,  be encouraged to protect themselves with defensive weapons against known and unknown menaces that make those citizens in the aggregate especially vulnerable to crime?

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