Is the handgun the definitive firearm of the United States?

If the study conducted by Harvard and Northeastern Universities is to be accepted—and we’ll have to wait till sometime next year to see it in detail – handguns have become the firearm of choice for American gun owners, particularly those buying for the first time.  And the reason given by almost two-thirds of gun owners for having firearms was self-defense.

In one respect, this comes as no surprise.  Hunting as an activity that Americans participate in has declined over recent decades from a high of 31.6 percent in 1977 to less than twenty percent in this century.  The lowest percentage, 15.4%, was in 2014.  This matters because the long gun, a rifle or a shotgun, is the traditional tool for hunting.  Handguns remain a favorite among enthusiasts, but that’s not the usual tool for pursuit of game.

When fewer of us are going out into the field after wildlife, it’s logical for gun owners to favor firearms that are designed for defense.  Jeff Cooper, in his discussions about gun types in To Ride, Shoot Straight, and Speak the Truth, called the rifle a weapon of offense, something that reaches out, whereas handguns are made to stop an attack that is brought to us.  While a rifle can be used in defense, the convenience of a handgun is that it’s small enough to wear, something that we can always have with us, rather than having to fetch.

This defensive purpose is a point of contention between advocates and opponents of gun rights.  As reported by Alex Yablon of The Trace, the interpretation made by the authors of the Harvard and Northeastern study and by the reporters writing a series of articles about the research for The Trace and The Guardian, the reason for buying a handgun is fear.  To them, that equates to self-defense.

All of these authors are correct in saying that rates of violence, including homicide, are the lowest in decades.  In fact, we’re matching the lowest rate of murder in our history.  It’s easy enough for opponents of gun ownership to say that we no longer need guns to protect ourselves.  But this is the Catch-22 that they want to make us believe.  If violence is high, we need to remove guns, we’re told.  If violence is low, no one needs guns, and so we no reason for clinging to them.

While the causes of the decline in violence are many—education and social services, among others—the possibility that good people carrying handguns for self-defense can’t be dismissed.  The facts that violence does still happen and that at least several hundred thousand Americans defend themselves each year with firearms suggests that legal carry is a rational choice.

Note that rational is the opposite of fearful or paranoid.  If carrying a gun were a large risk to the owner, the calculation would be different.  But guns are not like black magic amulets from some fantasy game that costs the user life points while offering greater powers.  Yes, the chance that I’ll be the victim of a violent crime is low, but the chance that I’ll harm myself with my own gun through some accident is much lower.  And that being the case, I’ll continue carrying my sidearm, comfortable in the realization that I’m making a decision that’s based on evidence, rather than on what emotionalism others accuse me of.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of