- [Maiya] After Hurricane Harvey slammed into Houston and caused record breaking flooding, 911 calls increased in Harris County from 3,000 calls in a day to 3,000 calls in an hour.
On a particularly bad day, the average hold time was 22 minutes.
We know that during extreme weather disasters, basic systems that we count on for everyday comfort and safety breakdown.
And that can be scary.
So, we decided that, on a show that's dedicated to the science of extreme weather, climate and prepping, we should look into one common way people address fear when 911 slows down -- guns.
In fact, personal protection is the most commonly stated reason for gun ownership in the US.
And a lot of conversations in the prepper community are about what type of gun or guns you need to survive the next event that reduces access to resources, ranging from terrorist attacks to extreme weather.
So we decided to look into what it actually feels like on the ground after a weather-related disaster, and whether or not you need a gun in your go-bag.
Obviously the subject of gun ownership is controversial.
Even our small production team represents a wide spectrum of opinions on the topic, including folks who grew up with, and own guns today, to folks who've never shot a gun and have no plans to.
So stay tuned because we're looking at the actual data.
And honestly, we were all surprised by what we found.
First, let's talk about what it's like on the ground during and after a major disaster.
To find out, we talked to Ismalia Gutierrez who weathered Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, which killed nearly 3,000 people, and was one of the worst natural disasters in US history.
- The day of the hurricane, I received a very panicked call from one of my family members, "Gather all, everything in the house, that could be a weapon and stack it right next to the door."
And the instruction to me was don't open the door, and if anybody comes to the door, grab all of your weapons.
When the hurricane hit, it was so complete that it went diagonally across Puerto Rico, so it covered the entire island.
Every kind of resource outage you can imagine was complete.
There was this feeling that all the people that I was waiting for to come help us, the government, like maybe municipal workers might come, that never happened.
By day three, it became clear we had to start doing things for ourselves.
And that's when we all opened our doors and started talking to each other.
We quickly organized and realized, okay, some of our neighbors were gonna go to the bakery, does anybody need bread?
And another one was gonna stand in line at the grocery store.
And then we quickly realized that we were the only one with a working modem and working internet.
So that became our -- the good that we brought to our neighbors was working internet.
I felt really held by my neighbors.
So that moment never came when I thought I need to barricade my door.
- But we've all heard the stories of looting and panic post-disaster from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to the California fires in 2021.
So, we wanted to know if Ismalia's experience was an exception.
- Our center has been doing research on this since it was founded in 1963, and study after study shows that people support each other.
People actually are helpful after a disaster, they are looking out for their neighbors.
There's really an interdependency that happens.
But the bad news is that we have this misconception out there.
Sometimes it is a function of popular culture, what we are seeing in the movies.
When we start thinking about what's covered in the news.
If it bleeds, it leads.
If it's exciting, we might see the same image of one individual walking out with a big screen TV.
That is what's gonna lead the news.
- A 2019 study looked at over 10,000 disasters in the US between 2004 and 2015.
And the findings showed that crime rate is actually negatively associated with natural disasters in affected areas.
And that looting following natural disasters is uncommon, and reports of its spread are exaggerated by the media.
- But what we don't see is people just behaving in a way that is helpful.
That doesn't mean that crime doesn't exist in disasters.
In an area that might have a high, normally high crime rate, those rates might still be a little bit higher compared to communities that have a low crime rate, but crime is going to go down.
What we also see is activities that are misinterpreted as being looting, that are actually people who are trying to survive, that are looking for essential goods to satisfy basic needs to bring to their family members, because they've been out of food for four days.
- And there's at least one clear reason why we see this video so frequently.
It's because it exists.
Security camera footage is securely stored, often offsite, and can go viral online, or be replayed over and over again on the news.
Footage of neighbors cooperating is harder to get and is obviously just less exciting.
- If one comes in with a mindset that people need to be controlled, that looting in crime is the priority, then conditions are gonna get worse, people are gonna need to fend for themselves.
- But what about an even longer term outage of services?
Do desperate people turn to violence when resources are scarce?
Well, the tsunami that hit Indonesia in 2004, was one of the worst disasters in modern history.
Nearly 250,000 people died, and infrastructure took years to rebuild.
Even in this worst-case scenario, again, crime rates decreased.
But we know that two types of violence do go up after a disaster.
We'll talk about what they are in a moment, and if having a gun might help.
Normally we would just ask experts for the statistics on guns and disasters, but the 1996 Dickey Amendment restricted what the CDC could fund.
- They stopped funding all gun research.
For 25 years, I would go to injury conferences, I would go to gun conferences, and people from CDC would refuse to say the word guns or firearms.
- When the CDC stopped funding gun research, David was able to continue under his own fundraising.
The research available is limited, and we couldn't find any work specifically on guns and disasters.
So we're gonna look into what we do know about gun violence in general.
And we'd love to hear how our viewers interpret this as we grapple with these questions ourselves.
Oh, and in 2021 the CDC started awarding grants to study gun violence for the first time in decades.
So, we may know more in the future.
Okay, in the US, we have nearly 120 guns per 100 people.
That's more than three times any other developed country in the world.
So let's compare that to the rate of gun murders.
- [David] But overall, our firearm homicide rate was about 25 times higher.
- He told us that guns don't cause violence, and that Americans aren't necessarily more violent than people in any other country.
- But the big thing that guns do, is they make any violence lethal.
It's very hard to kill someone without a gun, it's very easy to kill someone if you have a gun.
In any situation you introduce more guns, there's gonna be more death.
- Okay, but what we wanna know, is if having a gun will protect you in a situation where 911 can't be counted on?
David conducted a study that helps us understand exactly that, using US government data.
- Right, so we are looking at the National Crime Victimization Survey, which is the preeminent survey by the National Institute of Justice.
So in contact crime, less than 1% of the time, in the United States, even though we have these, all these guns, only 1% of the time was the victim able to use a gun, or did the victim use a gun.
And mostly nobody gets injured.
But about 4% of the time, if you use a gun you get injured.
And if you do sort of anything else, about 4% of the time you get injured.
But even better, it looks like there are a couple of things which are much better.
One which is just running away, and the other is yelling and calling the police.
So there's nothing sort of, that jumps out in the data that makes it looks like that guns are any better in terms of preventing injury.
- But just having a gun comes with its own risk.
- [David] What we know is from studies, is that having a gun in the home really increases the risk that someone in the home will die of suicide.
Something like threefold.
- [Maiya] In states where more households have guns, there are more gun suicides.
- We know that it increases the likelihood that someone in the home will die from family violence.
- More specifically, women are almost three times as likely to be homicide victims when firearms are accessible.
But let's get back to extreme weather and disasters.
They are disrupting, frustrating, exhausting and downright uncomfortable.
They often create or increase family stress when unexpected expenses, and sometimes very significant loss occurs.
And it turns out that after a disaster, the two types of violence that do go up are domestic violence and suicide.
According to David, guns don't increase those types of violence, but they do make them more deadly for the gun owner and the people around the gun owner.
- In climate change, what's good for the individual is often to do things which are bad for the climate.
It's much easier to run a power lawn mower than to push your lawn mower.
That's not the same thing for guns, but the science indicates that it's safer for the household and for society if there aren't guns around.