Bear Spray v. Bullets: Flaws in the Studies

By Dean Weingarten

Brown Bear
Bear Spray v. Bullets: Flaws in the Studies
Dean Weingarten
Dean Weingarten

Arizona – -(Ammoland.com)- Three recent cases of bear attack in Wyoming illustrate the flaws in studies purporting to show that bear spray is superior to firearms as a defense against bears.

On September 20th, 2014 the following incident occurred.  From county10.com:

(Dubois, Wyo.) – The Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service both confirmed today that a third bear incident occurred this past weekend, on Saturday in northwestern Fremont County. In this incident, Lander Large Carnivore Specialist Brian DeBolt said a Grizzly bear was shot and killed “in an act of self defense” in the East Fork drainage east of Dubois. He said the bear was an adult male. He said there were no reported injuries in the incident.

It appears that in the above incident, a defense with a gun worked without any injuries to the defending humans.

There was another attack a day later, this time from a sow with cubs.  It occurred on September 21, 2014.   From ktvq.com:

DeBolt said the man suffered only minor injuries from a bite to his side. The man's partner sprayed the bear with bear spray, causing it to stop its attack and retreat. The pair was then able to pack out and get to help.

This one is a lot harder to classify.  Do you say that the pepper spray failed, as the man was injured, or that it worked, because the bear left the scene?   Do you count it as a failure of gun defense, because, as a hunter, he probably had a gun?  Could it be a failure of a hunter to use a gun, because “bear spray studies” had convinced him to use bear spray instead?

The third attack was fatal, and occurred sometime before September 12th, probably at least five days earlier.  From wyofile.com:

Searchers found Stewart’s body Sept. 12, on the fifth day of searching in Cub Creek, just north of Togwotee Pass in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Preliminary investigations reveal he died of blunt force trauma, likely a bear bite.

None of the responders has reported that either pepper spray or a firearm were found at the scene.  It is not certain what species of bear killed Stewart.

Investigators found both black and grizzly hairs on Stewart’s remains. They haven’t said what species killed the researcher, but McAuslan told the Associated Press he suspects a grizzly bear.

If you are in bear country, having either a gun or pepper spray, or both, could be a good idea. In an excellent article by the Bear Attack Examiner, Dave Smith, he tears apart the idea that studies have shown bear spray to be more effective than firearms.

 A thorough review the research on firearms and bear spray reveals that it's not possible to make a legitimate comparison of bear spray to firearms, and that Smith's research on bear spray and firearms is flawed and biased.

The Bear Attack Examiner goes on to show selection bias in the study by Tom Smith.     All 269 incidents used to classify gun defenses were incidents involving aggressive bears, while less than a third of the bear spray incidents involve aggressive bears.   Dave Smith goes on to write:

A far more significant problem is that the results of Tom Smith's study on firearms are inconsistent with the results of a 1999 study by Miller and Tutterrow on Characteristics of Nonsport Mortalities to Brown and Black Bears and Human Injuries from Bears in Alaska. Miller & Tutterrow examined more than 2,000 incidents from 1970 to 1996 when people killed bears in defense of life of property, and less than 2% of the people involved reported injuries. Instead of offering a meaningful explanation for major differences between the two studies on firearms vs bears, Smith and Herrero claimed there were no previous studies on firearms vs. bears.

I found an interesting quote from one of the authors of the bear spray studies.  From elk-hunting-tips.net:

In the Sept/Oct 2012 issue of Sports Afield, BYU professor Tom Smith, the author of Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray in Alaska and Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska–says, “If I'm actually out hunting and I have a gun in my hands a 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?” Smith also asks, “Does it really have to be a spray versus gun argument? That's ridiculous.” Smith says “both guns and spray have their place… because there are times when one is the better, or the only option.”

Another indicator of selection bias in the two bear spray vs. gun studies is that numerous incidents were included where people did not have time to use their gun, but no incidents were included where people did not have time to use bear spray.

I highly recommend the Bear Attack Examiner series of articles on this issue.   Dave Smith's attention to detail, citations, and reporting make it easy to know the players involved, who did the actual research, and who hyped the research to reach conclusions that simply are not supported.

c2014 by Dean Weingarten: Permission to share is granted when this notice is included. Link to Gun Watch

About Dean Weingarten;

Dean Weingarten has been a peace officer, a military officer, was on the University of Wisconsin Pistol Team for four years, and was first certified to teach firearms safety in 1973. He taught the Arizona concealed carry course for fifteen years until the goal of constitutional carry was attained. He has degrees in meteorology and mining engineering, and recently retired from the Department of Defense after a 30 year career in Army Research, Development, Testing, and Evaluation.

  • 8 thoughts on “Bear Spray v. Bullets: Flaws in the Studies

    1. First, thank you Dean for the kind words about my writing on the bear spray hoax. Second, the 2 studies on bear spray and the “study” on Efficacy of Firearms for Bear Deterrence in Alaska” are far worse than you can imagine. Third, when bear spray advocates compare bear spray research to firearms research, they leave a 1999 study on bears killed in defense of life and property in Alaska out of the equation. That’s because guns worked almost 99% of the time.

    2. @Gwendolyn
      LOL, that’s the dumbest post I have read in a long time. I’m sure that if your head wasn’t attached to your neck it would float away. What an airhead!

    3. The incident of the hunters killing a grizzly in self defense up the East Fork has had too few details revealed to draw any conclusions. Apparently a group of hunters came upon a male grizzly eating moths , now its dead. At least in the attack defended with pepper spray both the man and the bear, and her cubs, are alive.

    4. Every bear encounter with people are different . At the Russian River ,Alaska a brownie was in the river among hundreds of people fishing. A woman in her 20’s ran up to me asking me to shoot the bear. Asking if it was attacking she said no. I now saw the bear and explained he’s just fishing leave he be keep about 75 yards away you’ll be fine. I knew of this bear , he loved to fish and he would leave after eating 20-30 female salmon for the eggs. He left 50-60 carcasses a day , all along the banks for when fish stopped running.
      We were all fine ,and the tourist saw her first brown bear, about 350 lbs a small one. 2 days a paranoid fisherman shot the bear claiming defense of life because he was landing a fish and wouldn’t let the fish run downstream away from everyone and stop the splashing.
      Common sense fisherman had a little, he carried a 44 magnum. Had he just let the fish run the incident would have been avoided. Unfortunately 5 bears got shot that year for the same reason people are not willing to let 1 fish swim away , with 3 million more fish coming. Give me a break, I have let 8 fish go to avoid chase instinct from putting the bear in a frenzy.
      BTW a moose charge is scary than a bear walking around you. Hooves 5-7 feet in the air stomping at you.

    5. if a bear is charging at me, i think my gun would work better at ….lets say 20 yards than waiting for the very last second to spray in his face.

    6. No self respecting woodland nymph,wearing LL Bean wood nymph clothing and munching on granola bars, would consider carrying a….ugh…. a nasty gun or bear spray for we have No Fear of Natures woodland creatures.(Except for Rattlersnakes) Bad things only happen to those people who have no report with those beautiful creatures.

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