Fascinating Findings From A New Study On Bear Attacks

While browsing through a popular science Web site recently, I came upon this rather startling headline: “Using a Gun in Bear Encounters Doesn’t Make You Safer.” Naturally, I read the brief article, which said that new research out of Brigham Young University “found that firing a gun is no more effective in keeping people from injury or death during bear attacks than not using a firearm.”

Really? I wanted to know more about the study so I went hunting around on the Internet. Clearly, the news bites were stirring up a lot of commentaries (anti-gun, pro-gun, anti-bear-spray, prober-spray, etc.), but I wasn’t seeing any convincing substance. I decided to read the actual scientific report and look into the facts for myself.

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Bears, Guns, and Safety

If “guns don’t make you safer,” as some media coverage had it, how come, right up there in the paper’s opening abstract, the authors said that firearms successfully stopped a bear’s aggressive behavior in more than three-quarters of the encounters? I decided to contact Tom Smith for some clarification. Fortunately, Smith, who has researched bears for two decades, was happy to discuss his work. In fact, he explained his study and findings so well, I’m going to step aside as much as possible here and let him do most of the talking.

My first question to Smith concerned the “guns don’t make you safer” media emphasis and headlines. Didn’t his own numbers show that handguns successfully stopped aggressive bears 84 percent of the time, while rifles and shotguns succeeded in 76 percent of the dangerous encounters?

“Yes,” Smith replied. “Which says that guns are pretty successful. So it’s troubling to see some of the news reports that say whether you have a gun or not doesn’t matter. Where did they come up with that? The success rate numbers speak for themselves. And as we say in the article, the success rates [with guns] are likely even higher, because a lot of times when people successfully defend themselves with a bear, it’s not reported, it’s not dramatic. An encounter might involve a moose or sheep hunter who has a bear tag, and a bear comes around and gets aggressive over their [downed game]. The hunter shoots the bear and tags it, and it never gets reported as an ‘encounter: So the 84 percent and 76 percent success rate with guns is the minimum. I suspect the actual percentage of gun success is even higher.

“But, and this is important, you can’t dismiss the fact that a lot of people were hurt in those gun-bear encounters, and a lot of bears were killed, too.”

Smith was alluding to one of the study’s more surprising findings: He found no statistical difference in the outcome to humans (whether of no injury, injury, or fatality) when he compared those who used a gun in an aggressive encounter (229 instances) with those who had a firearm but did not or could not use it (40 instances.)

“I think what the media have done is cherry-pick that one odd finding in the report. Out of the 444 persons involved [in the bear encounters] there was a number who had guns but didn’t use them for one reason or another. There were lots of cases where the person simply couldn’t get the gun into play. They did try, but couldn’t get a shot off.

“When you look at that group and the group that did get the gun into play [i.e., were able to shoot], we found that the [human] injury rates were the same, the fatality rates were the same and the uninjured rates were the same. So you have to sit back and wonder, what does that mean?”

One significant factor in most of the gun bear conflicts was the sudden, hectic manner in which they occurred.

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“Fifty-one percent of these encounters were at 30 feet or less. A huge percentage of the rest of the encounters occurred at 60 feet or less. You can imagine the difficulty of successfully dispatching a large animal very motivated to attack you, one that’s close in and moving very fast. So a lot of this is really not about the firearm’s ability to take out a bear, it’s about the human’s ability to bring the gun into play with basically no time at all. It’s one thing to be shooting at a target at a range; it’s another thing when the target weighs 800 pounds and is charging you in the woods. An important message here for hunters is the actual nature of these encounters, which are very split-second, close-range, chaotic sorts of things.”

Smith’s data, as reported in the study, showed that “firearms failed to protect people for a variety of reasons, including lack of time to respond to the bear [in 27 percent of the cases], did not use the firearm (2 1 percent), mechanical issues (i.e., jamming; 14 percent), the proximity to the bear was too close for deployment (9 percent), the shooter missed the bear (9 percent), the gun was emptied and could not be reloaded (8 percent), the¬†safety¬†mechanism was engaged and the person was unable to unlock it in time to use the gun (8 percent), people tripped and fell while trying to shoot the bear (3 percent).”

“I think that’s why handguns did better than long guns,” Smith said, about a result that surprised some people. “Handguns are simply easier to deploy. We had some guys literally lying on their backs, shooting up into the bear’s mouth.”

Another interesting finding was that shotguns had a much better success-to-failure ratio than rifles. For instance .300 caliber rifles had seven successes and seven failures, while 12-gauge shotguns had sixteen successes to two failures.

“I think one reason why shotguns did so well, they’re just point and shoot, point and shoot,” Smith said. “You can be freaked out and still run the pump back and forth. With rifles, we have seen people freaked out and they just fumble, they short-stroke the bolt or jam it somehow. Also, bolt actions are harder to bring into play in a split second just by the nature of their mechanics.

“But regardless of the specific gun, in the two groups, those who did get a shot off and those who didn’t, we found no difference in the injury rates. Unfortunately, that’s what some people have zeroed in on, and they say ‘the guns don’t matter,’ which is not what we’re saying.”

Still, it’s an intriguing finding. Smith and Herrero discussed possible explanations. One is the size disparity of the data pools–only 40 incidents of those who didn’t shoot, versus 229 instances of those who did.

“The results may be simply a problem of sampling error,” Smith said. “Maybe with more data the results would have been different. On the other hand, that finding does suggest that in some instances, on average, people might have been better off not even trying to shoot the heart, maybe just standing their ground and letting the situation unfold, or using bear spray.

The problem here is, were looking at averages, and we’re looking at a huge data set. Clearly, guns saved lives with quite a number of people. They did. That’s a key finding. For 76 to 84 percent of the time, the gun likely saved people’s lives. But for number for a number of people [who didn’t get a shot off] the gun wasn’t always necessary.”

On the darker side of the stars, when guns were fired during aggressive encounters or attacks, 103 bears were wounded, and 161 bears were killed. Additionally, 122 people were injured by the bears, 15 fatally. Hunters were the largest category of people injured, and they suffered 13 of the 15 fatalities.

The combined findings from the two studies have reinvigorated the “guns versus bear spray” controversy. For some, the conclusion is obvious: the best, no-brainer choice of deterrent is pepper spray. While Smith believes this might be true for most hikers, fishermen, and campers, when it comes to hunters the subject is a bit more complicated. Hunters usually can’t “announce” their presence in the bear country by making noise and being conspicuous in the woods, as other recreationists should. Hunters might be wearing camp, or smelling of game scent, or using calf or prey calls. And, except for bowhunters, by the very nature of their enterprise, hunters are carrying firearms. Because they already have guns, some hunters believe it’s unnecessary to also carry bear spray.

“But here’s the bigger issue,” Smith said, “does it really have to be a spray versus gun argument? ‘That’s ridiculous!

You Need both Hands to Climb

“If I’m a hunter and I’m in Alaska, and I’m climbing through the Sitka spruce, my gun’s over my shoulder. You need both hands to climb, so it’s got to be over your shoulder. It’s certainly not in your hands in the field-ready position with one in the chamber and the safety of That’s the reality. And that’s where I think bear spray has its place, even if you have a high-powered firearm. If the spray is on your hip, it’s very readily available. In many situations, it’s easier to use for rapid deployment than our firearms. And lots of times our firearms aren’t at hand, whereas the (hip-holstered) spray is always right there, and easy to deploy.

“But let’s be clear. If I’m actually out hunting and I have a gun in my hands and suddenly a bear comes at me–do you think I’m going to lay the gun down and pick up bear spray? Are you out of your mind? If somebody wants to take that approach, I wish them well, but I don’t think that makes any sense at all.

“I’ve seen some weird discussions coming out, where people want to mount cans of bear spray on hunters’ guns. I mean, that’s just out of control, it’s ridiculous. For me, the way I like to approach this is: Use what deterrent is the handiest and the one that will make the biggest difference in a successful result. Bear spray has a very good record for stopping charging bears. It really does. But if you’re holding a firearm of a caliber capable of stopping a bear and a bear’s charging–you’d shoot it! I mean, it just makes sense. On the other hand, if I had time to use the spray first or if I was in a non-aggressive situation where, let’s say, I’m in camp and a bear is coming around and being a nuisance, I’d rather spray it. Though if I had other hunters with me, I’d have them back me up with a firearm, just in case. Again, it just makes sense. I don’t want to shoot a bear if I don’t have to, but sometimes there is a time and place where it has to happen, someone has to shoot a bear. But if I can avoid it, I’d prefer that.

“The important point here is putting all this, and the study findings, in balance. It’s not about bear spray versus guns or anything like that, and it’s certainly not about some grainy [antigun] agenda–I’ve been accused of that, and obviously these people didn’t read the paper. Where the balance comes in is saying that both guns and spray have their place, and if I was hunting, I’d like to have both. Because there are times when one is the better, or the only, option. If you’re in camp, say, you aren’t going to be walking around with a .375 over your shoulder all the time. But the bear spray will be there on your hip, easy to deploy at any time.

“So one of the messages I put out to people is really simple: don’t go into bear country without a deterrent. And for hunters, even if you have a firearm, carry bear spray as an additional option. It just makes sense.”

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