Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Numbers and Bears: Why Firing the Handgun or Spraying Bear Spray Matters


In 2008, bear spray received a large boost with the publication of the paper on the “Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray” by Smith and Herrero. The paper considered 83 incidents, of which 72 incidents were scored for effect where bears were sprayed. The eleven other incidents did not involve bears being sprayed. The authors judged bear spray to be 92% effective. 25(35%) of the scored incidents involved aggressive bears. 10 of the aggressive bears charged (14% of the incidents). 21(29%) of the 72 incidents involved park personnel targeting bears. The percent of aggressive bears which were deterred was not mentioned. While 92% seems high, the authors were not content. They created a sound bite, which was intensely magnified by the media. From the Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska:

Although bear spray was 92% effective by our definition of success, it is important to note that 98% of persons carrying it were uninjured after a close encounter with bears.

Consider the above statement.  The sentence separates carrying bear spray from using bear spray. 175 people were reported as "carrying bear spray". Only 71 bears were sprayed. How many bears were sprayed by multiple people was not reported.  The vast majority of close encounters with bears do not result in humans being injured whether they are unarmed or carry firearms or bear spray.  No one seriously suggests more than 1 or 2 percent of close encounters with bears involve injury to a human. The number is likely much less than 1 percent. Many articles about bear spray jumped to the claim bear spray was 98% effective in deterring bears.

The 98% number is from carrying bear spray. It is not from spraying bears. The article reports there were 72 incidents where people sprayed bears for hazing and/or defensive purposes. Somehow, the number used to calculate the percentages drops to 71. From the abstract:

ABSTRACT We present a comprehensive look at a sample of bear spray incidents that occurred in Alaska, USA, from 1985 to 2006. We analyzed 83 bear spray incidents involving brown bears (Ursus arctos; 61 cases, 74%), black bears (Ursus americanus; 20 cases, 24%), and polar bears (Ursus maritimus; 2 cases, 2%). Of the 72 cases where persons sprayed bears to defend themselves, 50 (69%) involved brown bears, 20 (28%) black bears, and 2 (3%) polar bears. Red pepper spray stopped bears’ undesirable behavior 92% of the time when used on brown bears, 90% for black bears, and 100% for polar bears. Of all persons carrying sprays, 98% were uninjured by bears in close-range encounters. All bear-inflicted injuries (n=3) associated with defensive spraying involved brown bears and were relatively minor (i.e., no hospitalization required). In 7% (5 of 71) of bear spray incidents, wind was reported to have interfered with spray accuracy, although it reached the bear in all cases. In 14% (10 of 71) of bear spray incidents, users reported the spray having had negative side effects upon themselves, ranging from minor irritation (11%, 8 of 71) to near incapacitation (3%, 2 of 71). Bear spray represents an effective alternative to lethal force and should be considered as an option for personal safety for those recreating and working in bear country. ( JOURNAL OF WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT 72(3):000–000;2008)

The paper was a great advertisement for the sale of bear spray. Many media and government agencies have parroted the 98% number. The claim was: science proves bear spray to be 98% effective. The actual number for aggressive bears was far less. Wes Silen, the outdoors writer, interviewed Tom Smith and debunked much of the study. From the article:

I asked Tom Smith if it was valid to conclude that the studied effectiveness of bear spray in brown bear charges is just 33 percent. “That’s what you would conclude from that data,” he says, before going on to point out that the sample size is very small. “Importantly, protracted mauling did not occur,” he says. “Whether that’s due to the spray or simply due to the vagaries of bear attacks is an open question.”

In 2012, Smith and Herrero authored another study. The title was Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska. The study selectively chose incidents of bear and human conflicts, emphasizing those which resulted in human injury.  The authors openly stated their selection bias. The results claimed firearms were only 76% effective for long guns, and 84% effective for handguns, and no statistical difference existed in the rate of injuries inflicted on humans, whether firearms were fired or not.  The selection of incidents involving bears was subjective. The bear spray study used incidents were people actually sprayed bear spray in their calculations of effectiveness. Only 25 of 72 incidents involved aggressive bears. In “Efficacy of Firearms”, all the incidents involved aggressive bears.  In “Efficacy of Firearms”, nearly two thirds of the incidents where firearms were judged to have failed involved circumstances where the firearms were not fired. The reasons given for failure of firearms to stop aggressive bears included these:

  • lack of time to respond to the bear - 27%;
  • did not use the firearm - 21%;
  • the bear was too close to deploy the firearm - 9%
  • Safety was engaged and the person was unable to unlock it in time - 8%.

These are percentages of the failures, not of total incidents. Added together, they indicate the firearm was not fired, which was counted as a failure, for 65% of failures. There were 48 recorded failures where the firearm was identified as a long gun or a handgun. If incidents where a firearm was not fired are removed, there are 17 failures instead of 48.  The total firearm success rate for long guns and handguns together changes from 77% to 93%. 93% is not so far off the 96% as shown in the Defense of Life and Property records, or the 98% for handguns seen in this correspondent's own research.

The same reasons for failure to fire would easily apply to use of bear spray. Bear spray has most of the same constraints of a handgun to bring into play. It has a safety. It may be carried in a holster. It has to be directed at the bear.  Handguns have been perfected as instruments to bring into play quickly and intuitively. Bear spray has not. While bear spray may not need to be aimed as precisely, it has a much shorter range, and cannot be reloaded.  Bear spray is very subject to wind. Comparing how mostly curious bears react to being sprayed to aggressive bears who are not shot or shot at, is misleading.  When outdoor writer Wes Siler interviewed author Tom Smith, Smith claimed the studies were never meant to be compared:

 “There was no thought of comparing the two [studies], though some do that,” says Tom Smith, who authored both reports, titled the “Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska” and “Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska.”

Perhaps Author Tom Smith had not read the “Efficacy of Firearms” paper in a long time. The “Efficacy of Firearms” paper was published in 2012. In it, Smith and Herrero make direct comparison of the two studies. Bold added for emphasis. From Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska:

The need for split-second deployment and deadly accuracy make using firearms difficult, even for experts. Consequently, we advise people to carefully consider their ability to be accurate under duress before carrying a firearm for protection from bears. No one should enter bear country without a deterrent and these results show that firearms are not a clear choice. We encourage all persons,with or without a firearm, to consider carrying a non-lethal deterrent such as bear spray because its success rate under a variety of situations has been greater (i.e., 90% successful for all 3 North American species of bear; Smith et al. 2008) than those we observed for firearms.

The media immediately magnified the comparison and the claim shooting a firearm made no difference in the probability of being injured during a bear attack. Instead of the 90% claim, many ran with the peculiar 98% claim. No mention was made of the very different selection process in choosing the incidents to include in the two studies. The dubious claim of a requirement for "split second deployment and deadly accuracy" of firearms was not challenged.

On many forums and in government publications, the same false claims are being repeated today.  Cartridge handguns have been available for about 150 years.  Bear spray has been available for about 30 years.  There is one documented case where a handgun was fired in defense against a bear and a human was killed in the bear attack. There are eight documented cases where bear spray was sprayed against bears and someone was killed in the bear attack. In one of those cases (the Pogo mine case), it is unclear if the bear was sprayed before it killed Erin Johnson. Nine humans have been killed in documented bear attacks where bear spray was sprayed.

In our series of articles at AmmoLand, we have collected all documented cases where handguns have been fired in defense against bears. All the cases are referenced and a synopsis of what happened is available to the reader. The success rate for handguns fired in defense against bears is 98%. A total of 190 cases have been documented. In 110 cases (58%), the bear(s) charged  All the data is available to be perused by the readers.

Someday the data used by Smith & Herrero in their papers on bear spray and firearms may become available to the public.

©2024 by Dean Weingarten: Permission to share is granted when this notice and link are included.

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