Playing the Odds

MikeB wonders why people who carry guns don’t also take protective measures against being killed by falling meteors. An interesting question, but probably the wrong analogy. The odds of a person being killed by a falling meteorite are astronomically small. Best estimates of lifetime risk of being killed by meteorite impact is 1 in 700,000.

By contrast the violent crime rate in the us is currently 450 per 100,000 per year. Presuming that’s entirely random (it isn’t, far from it, actually, but let’s just assume it is for now) that’s a total lifetime probability of nearly 40% of being the victim of a violent crime. I don’t have UCR statistics for how much violent crime is stranger on stranger crime, but I do have that for murder, and about 15% of murder is stranger on stranger. Extrapolating the data for violent crime, we have a total lifetime probability of 5.3%. Now, if you adjust for other things, you can probably get that down to under 1% for people who live in very safe areas. But keep in mind, in society we also protect against other very low probability events.

For instance, your odds of being killed by a terrorists are actually lower than being killed by a meteor, yet we take great measures to prevent terrorism. Odds of dying in an automobile accident are only about 1.4% over a lifetime, yet it’s mandatory in all but a few states to wear one’s seatbelt, and we spend billions each year on making cars safer. The total lifetime odds of dying in a fire are only about 0.09%, yet we say it’s irresponsible not to have smoke detectors in the home, and most people agree it’s sensible to keep one in your automobile. The odds of being killed by amusement rides is about the same as a meteor, statistically, yet amusement rides are typically subject to fairly rigorous inspection requirements for safety.

What MikeB fails to understand is that these aren’t really games of just odds. We believe in spending a lot on automobile safety, amusement safety, smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, fences around pools, and the like, because the safety we enjoy is almost entirely the creation of many of these things our society has put into place to create that environment. Remove those things, and the relative danger goes back up.

In the context of guns, this brings us back around to the heart of the debate: does the presence of firearms in society make that society safer, or more dangerous? Those of us who believe in relatively liberal gun laws believe their presence makes society safer, on the whole. Those who believe it makes society more dangerous, naturally they want to take guns out of the society. So we’re back to where we started. And odds argument isn’t going to carry any weight, because on these things, we don’t play odds.

24 thoughts on “Playing the Odds”

  1. Shouldn’t keep fire extinguishers either. I honestly don’t know why people bother to rebut mike’s stupid arguments.

  2. Besides that, the risk of crime is one that we can do something about. There isn’t any way that I know of for me to personally prevent a meteor from falling in my head. It would be a futile effort with no options. With crime, I have options.

  3. ‘The odds of a person being killed by a falling meteorite are astronomically small.’

    That there is right funny writing.

  4. Dude, you’re a pro-gun blogger using statistics to make a strong point. I suspect Mike shifted mental gears by the beginning of your second paragraph. ;)

    But your point is completely sound. Violent crime is a low-probability, high-consequence risk, and as such it’s worth preparing for just like other low-probability risks with catastrophic consequences for a lack of preparation. It’s the same reason we keep fire extinguishers and buy home insurance. The risk may be low in absolute terms, but the consequences for a lack of preparedness are so high that they’re worth the cost of preparing.

    That guns have a recreational value to offset the cost (much greater than a fire extinguisher, anyway) is a happy incidental benefit.

  5. Got to thinking about this and realized we may want to take a different tack.

    Wouldn’t it be part of the citizen’s militia job to protect the country from attack from outer space?

    Maybe those meteorites are actually ballistic attackers?
    I think we need portable rail guns with high explosive war heads for daily carry. Even if the odds are small, it doesn’t hurt to be prepared.

    Since we don’t know if a meteorite wouldn’t hit our homes, we might want to consider a set up with more range at home.
    Something with intercontinental capability and possibly a warhead measuring in the megaton range of nuclear capability.

  6. I always wonder, why is everyone obsesses with the probablility of becoming a crime victim? Isn’t it more important, whether that probability is 1 in 1,000 or 1 in 100,000 that if you are a victim, you have resort to the best possible defense?

    Isn’t it more interesting to look at the survival rate, once one becomes a victim, based upon whether one has a gun or not?

  7. Probability arguments are reasonable if the odds are astronomical, but they aren’t in the case of becoming a crime victim. If there hadn’t been a murder, assault, or rape in the past 25 years in the whole country, carrying a firearm would be legitimately paranoid.

  8. Like I just commented at his blog, if it’s silly for pro-gunners to worry about having to defend themselves against a violent criminal (or wild animal, etc) simply because it is unlikely, then it is equally silly (if not far more so) for anti-gunners to worry about being a victim of a gun ower’s weapon being used in a crime against them, because that is unlikely as well.

  9. I had to use my fire extinguisher last spring to put out a fire in my neighbors woodshed. Had my kids not spotted it and I gotten to it in time, the fire department said they may have had a hard time containing it. Be prepared.
    I’ll keep carrying my gun thanks.

  10. It’s a moronic comparison barely worthy of a response. The risk of being hit by a meteor is so small as to be statistically insignificant (which MikeB would know if he’d actually done any research)

    Furthermore, what reasonable steps can one take to avoid being struck & killed by a meteor? On the off chance a meteor were to fall from space and hit you there’s nothing you could wear or carry that would provide adequate protection. There’s also no way for someone to anticipate such an event and react.

    Does anyone here know someone who has been hit by a meteor?, probably not, but most of us know someone who has been the victim of a violent crime.

  11. I think that MikeB302000 was just trolling for blog hits.

    I don’t mind responding to him on my own blog because it is good to get the statistics and information out.

    Sebastian did a great job of showing exactly how likely a person is to be a victim of crime. Maybe we can get some folks thinking about that.

    And if they are less concerned by the odds, maybe they’ll focus on the stakes. IF (probably should be “when”) crime happens, what are the consequences of not being prepared?

  12. Sebastian, The problem is this.

    “By contrast the violent crime rate in the us is currently 450 per 100,000 per year. Presuming that’s entirely random (it isn’t, far from it, actually, but let’s just assume it is for now)”

    Aren’t you pro-gun guys the ones who continually tell me almost all gun violence is gang related and drug related. You legitimate gun guys, assuming your not also gang members or drug dealers, would then have a much decreased probability of experiencing an incident.

    This is born out by the infrequency of the reported incidents. What Caleb shared last week is extremely rare in the pro-gun blogging world.

    So, no you cannot presume the incidents of per-year gun violence are entirely random.

  13. “So, no you cannot presume the incidents of per-year gun violence are entirely random.”

    Sebastian calculated odds of being a victim of violent crime based on a random distribution, then divided it by five to represent the fact that most violent crimes can be avoided with the right lifestyle choices.

    He ended up with a rough estimate of 1%, or 1 in 100. The odds of being hit by a meteorite are 1 in 700,000. that’s seven thousand times more likely. For the risk of meteor impacts to be anywhere near the risk of violent crime, we’d have to accept the proposition that violent criminals exclusively target other violent criminals, and that innocent victims are a vanishingly rare anomaly. This proposition would completely undermine most gun control arguments. The numbers make it clear that you need to choose one: either violent crime against innocent victims is so rare that restricting lawful citizens’ access to guns in hope of indirectly decreasing the rate is a terrible overreaction, or violent crime is a small but realistic risk that’s worth preparing for, and your belief that such preparation is paranoid is incorrect. You simply can’t have it both ways.

    That you’ve ignored the _overwhelming_ disparity of risks to nitpick a detail that makes little difference and is addressed later in the same post is just another indication that you really aren’t taking this discussion seriously.

  14. Y’know what? That’s probably a waste of electrons up there. Maybe it’d be better to just recap this discussion so far:

    Sebastian: “Why you stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking… Nerf-herder!”

    Mike: “Who’s scruffy-lookin’?”

  15. Mikeb302000, you raise a valid point, one I have thought of before. You’re right–the average person who is not involved in drugs or gangs has less of a chance of being the victim of a homicide then someone who is involved in those things. But violent crime is not just “homicide”–it also includes robberies, beatings, rapes and other street crime that is not concentrated in that particular demographic. Most rape victims are NOT drug dealers or gang bangers. There’s more to defend against than drug-related homicides.

  16. MikeB:

    As you could see if you kept reading, I tried doing a somewhat crude control for stranger-on-stranger violent crime, and still came out with a number that’s in the league of deaths people consider it normal to take precautions to prevent.

  17. MikeB302000,

    If as you say “s it fair to compare the probability of needing a gun to save your life to the chance of being struck by a meteorite?

    Then why did you illegally own firearms? By your own admission, you’ve owned firearms legally and illegally over a 15 year period.

    If the odds are so slight, why did you have the firearms then?

  18. If 2% of us wore helmets to protect ourselves from meteorites, but we found a way to disguise those helmets so that the meteorites had no way of knowing which of us were wearing helmets and which of us were not, how many meteors would be deterred from entering the atmosphere in the first place?

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