Sunday, April 6, 2014

Are Intruders or Home Invasion that Likely?

Many folks argue that having a handgun in the house "for protection" is a good idea, as you can "protect yourself" from an intruder or a home invasion.   Is this a likely scenario or not?

When I was a kid my Dad had a handgun.  My parents, both being alcoholics, decided to get rid of the gun.  This was a good thing, as my Mother started to lose her mind eventually, and tried to attack my Father with knives, leaving a kitchen knife embedded in the bathroom or bedroom door on more than one occasion.
That's one problem with owning a handgun - or any weapon.   If you are mentally imbalanced even in the slightest amount, very tragic things can happen.   And even if you believe yourself to be well-adjusted, even a momentary lapse in judgement, an argument, drinking, prescription medication, drugs, or depression can push you over the edge.   Having a gun around the house is nothing to take lightly.

Once Dad got rid of the gun, he kept a baseball bat by the bed (I have since discovered that many Dads do this) for "protection."   It is interesting that he had this anxiety about being violated.  Well, he was from Jersey.  Maybe that explains it.

And after 70 years of not-being-home-invaded, one night, someone did break in.    Well, they came in through an unlocked door.   But the person wasn't an invader, but rather a drunken fisherman who grounded his boat at their dock, mistaking their Christmas tree for the navigation lights of St. Michael's Maryland.   Wading ashore in the cold weather, he saw the house with a fire in the fireplace, and went inside to get warm, and passed out on the couch.

Fortunately, my Dad did not bludgeon him to death with the baseball bat.   Fortunately, he did not shoot him, either.

So, over a 90-year life, the "home intruder" situation came into play only once, and that wasn't a violent intruder, but rather a lost drunk.   The latter scenario plays out more often than you think.  Here on retirement island, all the homes look alike, and on more than one occasion, a senile senior has gone into the wrong house (it happened to us, when a neighbor from two doors down walked in the front door and exclaimed, "This isn't my house!" and left.   I am not making this up!).  No one has been shot - yet.

But sadly, people do get shot when this sort of thing happens - Japanese exchange students, for example, trying to find a Halloween party.

For me, I have had several situations where I have woken up at night and momentarily not realized where I was.   For example, in a darkened hotel room or on a moonless night.   When you are tired and groggy, you don't remember where you are or what is going on.   I literally have walked into walls this way.

To me, it seems a no-brainer that under such circumstances that it would be very easy to shoot someone or yourself, by accident, in the middle of the night, when it is dark and you are half-asleep.   And of course, that is exactly what happens, a lot, in this country.

Reliable statistics about real home invasions or intruders are hard to come by, as everyone has a dog in this fight.   The firearms industry relies upon anecdotal evidence (various incidents) to back up its claims.  These are very emotionally-based arguments, as you can use some horrific incident to show that "thanks to having a gun" the homeowner was saved.

People selling home security systems, of course, like to tout scary stastics like this one:

Today’s Statistics
Because home invasions are typically filed as a robbery, burglary, battery, assault, rape, or murder, keeping the public informed of the frequency of home invasions within their communities is difficult. However, thanks to data gathered by the FBI and Statistics USA, we’re able to get a better idea of the prevalence of this sinister crime:
  • Home burglaries occur approximately every 15 seconds in the U.S.
  • Most home intruders force their way into homes through the front door. 
  • In the U.S. alone, 1 out of every 5 homes will be victimized by a violent home invasion or burglary.
Note how they lump "Burglary" (which is a break-in when you are not home) with Robbery (which is when you are) to make the "1 in 5" statistic.   And this "1 in 5" statistic is meaningless without knowing the timeline.    One in five homes is broken into every year?  Or during the life of the homeowner?  Or the life of the home?   It is not clear - perhaps by design.

Perhaps the Bureau of Specious Statistics is again at work here - sort of like the alarming statistic that One in Four Women will be raped during their lifetime, which is true, only if you redefine rape to mean any unwanted sexual advance or having had sex after taking alcohol or drugs provided by a man.

And these "statistics" of course, negate free choice.   If you live in a safer neighborhood, the odds of being victimized by crime are far less.   When you average in crime rates from Baltimore and Oakland, well, it might make suburban America look pretty dangerous.

On the other side of the debate are people who want to restrict firearm ownership.   They will point out that a gun in the home is 22 times more likely to injure its owner or a innocent person, than to stop an intruder.

But at least these proponents are using cited statistics from law enforcement agencies.   And sadly, it seems that gun deaths and injuries are on the rise.   By 2015, gun deaths will exceed traffic fatalities, which is a reflection of how much safer our cars are, as well as how many more guns we have in this country.

And once in a while, you do find a site that tries to post some neutral data from the FBI and other sources.  And one statistic that is not challenged by anyone in this debate is that crime in general and violent crime in particular, has been on the decline for nearly two decades now.

There are  many explanations for this trend, and it is unclear which one is correct - if not all of them.   We are an aging country, and older people are less inclined to commit crimes.   We are a more prosperous country, so people have less incentive to steal.   We incarcerate more people than any other country in the world, except China, so the "bad guys" are locked up.   It likely is a combination of all three.   I doubt, however, that increased gun ownership is the reason.

Of course, that raises the question, if crime is on the decrease and gun ownership is on the increase, then does the connection between the availability of firearms and crime really exist?   One blogger thinks the connection is overstated, and he does make some good points.  For example, while our gun suicide rate is the highest in the world, other countries have higher overall suicide rates, as I recently noted.

Like I said, trying to find information that is not slanted, based on the writer's perspective, when it comes to guns and crime, is hard to do.   This ASCII-text report from 2010 illustrates part of the problem, in that how crimes are reported can skew the statistics.   For example, previously, Burglary was reported as a break-in where no one was home.  For the 2010 report, they count any break-in as "Burglary" and then break out whether a household member was present at the time:


*An estimated 3.7 million burglaries occurred each year on
average from 2003 to 2007. 

*A household member was present in roughly 1 million burglaries
and became victims of violent crimes in 266,560 burglaries. 

*Simple assault (15%) was the most common form of violence when
a resident was home and violence occurred. Robbery (7%) and
rape (3%) were less likely to occur when a household member was
present and violence occurred.

*Offenders were known to their victims in 65% of violent
burglaries; offenders were strangers in 28%. 

*Overall, 61% of offenders were unarmed when violence occurred
during a burglary while a resident was present. About 12% of
all households violently burglarized while someone was home
faced an offender armed with a firearm.

*Households residing in single family units and higher density
structures of 10 or more units were least likely to be
burglarized (8 per 1,000 households) while a household member
was present.

*Serious injury accounted for 9% and minor injury accounted for
36% of injuries sustained by household members who were home
and experienced violence during a completed burglary.

Read those numbers carefully.   In only 1 out of 4 "Burglaries" was someone home.   Professional burglars (who want to steal things, not assault people) don't enter your home at night, as that is the riskiest time to do so.   Even if the homeowner is unarmed, there is likely to be an altercation, or the homeowner can summon the Police, leaving the burglar less time to steal.  So most burglaries occur when you are not at home.

A far more likely scenario is that the burglar will enter the home, often in broad daylight, by posing as a repairman.  Often, these burglars back a truck right up to the home and empty it of its contents, as recently happened on a neighboring island, where intermittently-occupied vacation homes are a favorite target.  But even active suburbs are easy prey, where neighbors do not know one another, and everyone in the development is off to work every day.

Note how in many cases, the burglar was known to the homeowner.   A friend in Florida was recently burglarized when she went off for dialysis treatment.   She made an offhand comment to the pool cleaner or the yard man about what days she was home, and since dialysis takes several hours, the burglars had plenty of time to break in and steal her jewelry.  Who did it?   We may never know for sure.   But it is highly likely one of these maintenance people told a friend about it (perhaps even selling the information or taking a percentage of the proceeds).

When we lived in Alexandria, Virginia, there was a rash of "home invasions".  Was I worried?  Not really.   You see, the homes invaded belonged to Asians who ran cash-businesses (convenience stores, etc.) and they kept large amounts of cash, gold, and jewelry at home, most likely because they were not declaring all of their income.   Asian gangs knew of this, and would invade the home, hold people hostage, and steal tens of thousands of dollars in cash.

If they invaded my home, I could only hope they take a check.   But again, you see a statistic here that applies to a narrow social group.   People who live on the shady side of the law (unreported income) are targets for crime.   Mr. and Mrs. Middle-Class, who have everything in a mutual fund account, really can't be "robbed" of much, can they?

But getting back to violent crime, of the 1 million homes Burglarized while someone was present, only a quarter of those resulted in a violent confrontation.   And in 65% of those cases, the homeowner knew the person in question.   And in 61% of those cases, the perpetrator was unarmed.

So, what does this mean, in terms of your own life?    Well, if people you know are burglarizing your home, maybe you need to know different people.   And what this statistic suggests to me is that a lot of these crimes are being committed in the slums, ghettos, and trailer parks of America, where people who live on the shady side of the law (drug users, drug dealers, etc.) are broken into, as their "friends" stop by to steal some shit.   Unless you are this sort of person, these statistics probably don't apply to you.

The rate of burglary in this country (4 million burglaries in a nation of 300 million people) certainly doesn't support the alarm company's "One in Five" statistic, unless you count this over a decade or a lifetime - or if the average household in America has 100 people in it.  Clearly, the alarm company people are exaggerating things.   Act shocked.   Historically, some alarm companies have been known to hire people to burglarize homes in order to come back the next week and "close the sale" for an alarm system.  Alarm companies use fear to sell alarm systems.   I would not rely on them for critical data.

But, what about the lady in Georgia, who shot the intruder five times in the face before he drove away?   Ahhh, there's the conundrum!  There is always some anecdotal evidence where "but for having a gun" a homeowner may have been victimized.

Or maybe not.   In the scenario described in the article, the burglar banged on the door and rang the doorbell, before breaking in with a crowbar.   He then ransacked the house, in a hurry, trying to find valuables.   It is not clear from the article, but I suspect that when he rang the bell and pounded on the door and no one answered, he may have assumed the home was empty.   We will never know if he would have merely fled, once he knew someone was home, or would have raped the homeowner.

So what conclusions can you draw from all of this data?

Well, I come to these:

1.  Crime is not as prevalent in America as the News Media and Crime Shows suggest.   The odds of being victimized by crime are very low.  And all agree that crime rates have dropped dramatically in the last 25 years.

2.  If you are a middle-class American living in a decent neighborhood, the odds drop even more dramatically.   Statistics average together people in high-crime areas with low-crime areas.   If you are not a drug dealer or a drug user, you don't live in a slum, ghetto, or trailer park, the odds of being a victim of crime diminish rapidly.

3.  A gun could protect you from an "intruder" but such a situation is a far-fetched scenario.   You are far more likely to injure yourself or a family member than to "stop a crime".

4.  If you decide to get a gun, learn how to use it and safely store it.   Leaving loaded firearms in drawers is never a good idea.   They do make rapid-response gun safes that can be opened quickly in case of emergency.

5.  If you detect an "intruder" in the house, make sure it isn't your teenage daughter trying to sneak back in from a late-night party, or your spouse having a midnight snack.   It is very easy to be disoriented late at night, when it is dark, and you are suddenly awakened.

6.  Own less shit.   If you keep large sums of cash, jewelry, drugs, gold, or other valuables around your house, you are more likely to be victimized by criminals.   Buying guns to protect your television makes no sense at all.

But I think the most important thing is this:  Stop being afraid.  Fear is an emotion that is not to be trusted.   And people who don't have your best economic interests at heart will use fear, to separate you from your money.