American Culture

Raw materials: how often are guns used in self defense?

3 men shooting handguns at a range

At home on the range

One challenge of stepping hip-deep into an issue about which one wishes to be as objective as possible is that of not believing one’s own PR. I might like cliches, but I hate drinking the Kool-Aid, even my own special brew.

To that end, fact-checking is indispensable. As a starting reference, I’ll be using the Gun Control Fact Sheet 2004 from Gun Owners of America. I’ve searched their website and am unfamiliar with any more recent version at this time. However, I should throw out a caveat or three.

I am not affiliated with Gun Owners of America and know precious little about the organization or its history (as of now).

I am also not affiliated with the National Rifle Association and know precious little about them, either.

Further, I’m unaffiliated with any political party. It would be tempting to say that I lean toward the progressive liberal end of the spectrum, except for the fact that when I lean away, I lean really far away. Case in point: gun control. Until I see adequate reason to change my perspective, I’m radically pro-Second Amendment. In part, it’s because I currently subscribe to the “because TYRANNY!” school of thought.

Lastly, this is not part of a series, so to speak. I’ve tried that before and, any excuses aside, did not meet the objective. It might be better to consider this part of a case of chronic head-scratching.

Having said that, I’ve got plenty of history to read before I can either solidly shore up or shoot down the “because TYRANNY” line of reason. Go ahead, have a giggle or lob a verbal grenade if you will. In the meantime, there’s the assertions put out there by organizations such as GoA and NRA from which to work.

For starters, there’s the claim that guns are used in self-defense 2.5 million times per year. A cursory search turns up the following resources. I’ve yet to read all in depth, but I must say it’s not looking good for the “2.5 million per year” claim.

In any case, even should this claim not stand up to scrutiny, there’s plenty of other data in the above-linked fact sheet. I encourage anyone interested in the issue to engage in their own fact-checking, pro or con.

And remember folks, logical fallacies invalidate reasoning. The conclusion may be correct, but the reasoning will lack persuasive power. If there’s to be any hope of persuading someone to come down off the fence, try for sound reasoning. I’ll be the first to admit I’m the pot calling the kettle black on more than a few occasions, but I’m working on that.

Articles about the “2.5 million times per year” claim:

First, there’s the article referenced in footnote 1 in the fact sheet linked above.

1 Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz, “Armed Resistance to Crime: The Prevalence and Nature of Self-Defense With a Gun,” 86 The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Northwestern University School of Law, 1 (Fall 1995):164.

For what it’s worth, a correction was subsequently submitted, but I don’t know that it is material to the outcomes and analysis.

From what I can tell, JCLC has its bona fides in order. It’s one of the library-screened journals for 2012 at the National Criminal Justice Reference Service.

From the JCLC About page:

The Journal remains one of the most widely read and widely cited publications in the world. It is the second most widely subscribed journal published by any law school in the country. It is one of the most widely circulated law journals in the country, and our broad readership includes judges and legal academics, as well as practitioners, criminologists, and police officers. Research in the area of criminal law and criminology addresses concerns that are pertinent to most of American society. The Journal strives to publish the very best scholarship in this area, inspiring the intellectual debate and discussion essential to the development of social reform.

Then there’s the authors to consider. Granted, Wikipedia is hardly the best source, but I’ll take it as a point of departure.

Dr. Kleck is covered in brief there, with some deficiencies in citation of course. Dr. Gertz is not. Both Dr. Kleck and Dr. Gertz have “About” pages at Florida State University. One good reason to check out the Wikipedia article on Dr. Kleck is for the criticism of his research directly related to the “2.5 million times per year” claim, as one is hardly likely to find criticism on their own PR pages. Make what you will of the criticism of his methodology as highlighted there, and his response that, in all reality, his number is probably an underestimation.

We’ll see, perhaps.

For one thing, there’s this article by the Dr. Hemenway mentioned in that criticism:

The Myth of Millions of Annual Self-Defense Gun Uses: A Case Study of Survey Overestimates of Rare Events

Then there’s this to consider:

Harvard Injury Control Research Center: Gun Threats and Self-Defense Gun Use

Of note, items 1-3 are geared to debunking the Kleck claim. Interestingly, all three feature Dr. Hemenway, who just happens to be Professor of Health Policy at, you guessed it, Harvard School of Public Health.

Mind you, I’m not schooled in this content area, but I have been trained to raise an eyebrow when things don’t look quite right, somehow. My intuition and $5 will get you a fancy cup of coffee. Consider, though, to all appearances at this stage, we have one Dr. Hemenway all but calling Dr. Kleck a crank, at least in one respect. One is from Harvard, one from FSU, which may be meaningless in itself. Then again, according to The Never Ending War Over a Gun Statistic at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Hemenway, et al’s attitude toward Kleck’s results might best be described as ridicule.

David Frum offers his own breakdown of the statistic at CNN in Do Guns Make Us Safer?

Blogging with Footnotes offers a similar analysis in Lies of the Gun Lobby (part 1), calling attention to the apparent absurdity of some of Kleck’s results.

Of course, no easy answers are just going to jump into our laps. In Chapter 5: The Use of Firearms to Defend Against Criminals in Firearms and Violence: A Critical Review (2004) at The National Academies Press, we find this assessment of the estimate of uses:

Ultimately, researchers may conclude that it is impossible to effectively measure many aspects of defensive gun use. As noted above, counting crimes averted before the threat stage, and measuring deterrence more generally, may be impossible. Successful deterrence, after all, may yield no overt event to count. Imagine, for example, measuring defensive gun use for a person who routinely carries a handgun in a visible holster. How many times has this person “used a handgun, even it was not fired, for self-protection?” (i.e., the NSDS definition of defensive gun use). In this regard, much of the debate on the number of defensive gun uses may stem from an ill-defined question, rather than measurement error per se.

Later, after quoting Kleck regarding the effective replication of his results, the review states:

Certainly, the numerous surveys reveal some phenomena. In light of the differences in coverage and potential response errors, however, what exactly these surveys measure remains uncertain. Ultimately, the committee found no comfort in numbers: the existing surveys do not resolve the ongoing questions about response problems and do not change the fact that different subpopulations are queried. Mere repetition does not eliminate bias (Rosenbaum, 2001; Hemenway, 1997a).

The review later goes on to say:

The most obvious and fundamental limitation, however, is that the data on defensive gun uses are, as described above, potentially error ridden.

As it stands, it seems I have much to read and absorb before I decide for myself, on the merits of the argument as I see them, whether there’s any substance to the “2.5 million times per year” claim. It might be faster if someone could provide compelling evidence as to how that claim stands up to what appears to be extensive academic criticism.

Any takers?


Image credit: Photo by Jimi Lanham, licensed under Creative Commons.

19 replies »

  1. You will never get believable numbers out of any self-reporting survey. Ever. I’ve heard this called the “Nielsen Effect.” Back when TV viewership was measured by willing watchers who filled out paper booklets on their viewing habits (which show was watched, who in the family watched it), someone (sorry, I forget who it was and this was many years ago) did research on the research, and found that viewers were writing in shows they didn’t see and/or adding family members who didn’t watch the show. They did this because they liked a particular show and wanted to see it renewed, even if they were out at a restaurant that night or otherwise engaged and didn’t watch. Heck, my family once did this, and we wrote in shows we didn’t actually watch on a given night.

    If you ask gun owners who are afraid their guns might be taken away if they have prevented a crime with their guns, the answer is likely to be “yes,” and for the same reasons. And as some of your links point out, one person’s “prevention” is another person’s “felony threatening.”

    Here’s a parallel (sort of): History books used to be full of battle accounts between armies with muskets and/or rifles that culminated in hand-to-hand combat (some history books still are). The problem is that, when you go through records from military field hospitals and look at the types of wounds treated, bayonet and clubbing wounds were extremely, extremely rare. There were a lot of bayonet wounds on dead soldiers who had died in the field away from the lines, but these were virtually always accompanied by bullet/shrapnel/cannon-induced wounds, so what was happening was that the wounded were being bayoneted after the action was over. Yet, there were reported instances of hand-to-hand combat that never produced any hand-to-hand combat wounds. The logical conclusion is that hand-to-hand combat was quite rare — as it has always been among missile armies.

    I’d look to actual, confirmed police reports, compiled by the FBI. I understand that these are not perfect, but they’re sure a lot better than any self reporting. I mean, 2.5 million incidents per year? That’s about 1% of all American adults, every year. Ask yourself how many people you know who have actually fended off a crime with a gun. If you’ve lived, say, 40 years, it would be a fair number. I don’t know anyone who claims to have prevented a crime against him/herself or others with a gun, and I know a lot of gun owners.

    • One in every 100 isn’t so much. In 40 yrs it not like your making a 100 new close friends every year. It would also depend on where you live, in the intercity it might be one in 50 in the suburb maybe one in 1000. I’m 53 I live in the suburbs in the last 40 yrs I’ve had two friends that defended themselves with knives, one lost and another friend defended their self with a gun. In that 40 yrs I bet I haven’t had more than 150 close friends, and maybe only 25 that I still keep in touch with now. So one in a 100 might not be that far off.

  2. The only instances of which I am personally aware were in post-Katrina New Orleans, but even my anecdotal second-hand knowledge doesn’t even register as a speck on a blip on the radar. I’ve personally never fended off an actual attack, although I’ve been one of the lucky ones with with gun drawn and a world of nothing other than critters in the garbage going on.

    Between the Nielsen Effect you mentioned, and perhaps a justifiable reticence to self-report a legitimate situation to the authorities (what do you mean I’m being charged with aggravated assault?), I’m inclined to agree with one of the assessments linked above that the actual number may well be impossible to know.

  3. According to the FBI ( In 2011, an estimated 1,203,564 violent crimes occurred nationwide, a decrease of 3.8 percent from the 2010 estimate.

    That would mean there would need to be twice as many crimes prevented some way with a firearm. I’m not sure that’s right. One reason–we have cameras everywhere recording everything. There is some defensive gun uses (dgu) making it on youtube, but if over 6800 were happening a day I think there would be a lot more video evidence.

    I follow and often post to a subreddit trying to capture dgu. Unfortunately it involves relying on the media to tell the truth, and these last couple weeks it seems they’re only paying attention if a scary black gun is somehow involved.

    • It’s almost tempting to think it a good idea for an aggregation site that specializes in collecting together, daily, all those purported instances, because surely there’s some evidence, right? 😉 Then it occurs to me to be afraid, very afraid. Last thing we’d want is some motivation to go out looking for reasons to create documented instances of DGU’s.

  4. My problem with the “because TYRANNY” argument has to do with the CIA and law enforcement ordering unmanned drones. The government is getting out of the ATF/David Koresh business. It makes them look bad. Unseen drones is a cleaner, sexier option as long as the media can paint unintended casualties as collaborators.

    So, unless the right to bear arms includes shoulder-mounted, ground-to-air rocket launchers, I’m not buying the tyranny argument.

    • Pardon me for being cheeky, but I can’t help to read that as “my problem with ‘because TYRANNY’ is ‘EXACTLY because TYRANNY.'”

      By all means, please correct me if I’m mistaken. If I’m not, I’m wide open to ideas as to how the tyranny to be feared more than resisted should be addressed. Believe me, the idea of our own future and much-to-be-avoided government of domestic drone insurrection suppression utterly horrifies me. The idea that you, hypothetically living three doors down from a “threat” and working in your yard with a rake might be mistaken for an “enemy combatant” because you might be of military age and appear to be holding a “rifle” horrifies me more. The idea that someone coming to your aid would be targeted, even more. The idea that children might be killed for being in the wrong place/wrong time horrifies me the most.

      Do we really think that as long as we keep voting lesser evils into office this scenario will be avoided?

      • I don’t think that voting for lesser evils is the issue here, although I agree with you. The issue is rather narrowly defined: to what extent does gun ownership protect us from tyranny? This is a very different question in 2012 than it was in the 18th Century, or, for that matter, in the 1960s.

        Practically speaking, your gun is worth dick if they decide to come for you. If they send a drone, you’re fucked. If they come by land, you’re fucked even if you have AP ammo because while you might take out a jackbooted thug or two, you won’t take out the APC.

        But really, beyond all that. The best way to take people’s freedom is to have them give it to you. Happily, in fact. In exchange for pleasant entertainments. Instead of the 2nd Amendment, I’d advise you to look closely at media ownership and campaign finance. Then go read up on the term “hegemony.”

        Not only do I not have to take your guns away to oppress you, I can give you more guns. The tyranny you’re worried about is already happening and those doing the tyrannizing don’t need guns.

        • You personally may be screwed if they come for you, but if you’re part of a group committed to defending you and the others members of the group against tyranny (even a loosely organized group), then you have a great chance of quelling government intrusions. Think about Afghanistan: We’ve been there 10 years and we’re still having trouble with the locals. So, one of the most primitive countries on earth is giving one of the most technically savvy armies on earth, at a minimum, lots of trouble. 2 million soldiers vs. 50 million armed citizens equals a lot of dead people for both sides, but most certainly leads to a completely broken will for the army at some point.

  5. I totally agree with you about media ownership and campaign finance. For that matter, you might have noticed that I posted the following on FB earlier with the comment, “Yeah…because media consolidation is such a great idea. Way to go, Team Obama.”

    Little things like that, and the drone strikes (and a long list of my complaints against the sitting lesser evil) are exactly what compel me to see voting lesser evils as an overarching issue.

    As for my gun being worth dick, again, absolutely correct. My gun alone (hypothetically, considering I don’t own one for budget reasons) wouldn’t do squat other than give them a muzzle flash or heat signature to target. A government assault on an individual isn’t taking down an insurrection; it’s going after a lone nutter. On the other hand, what happens when a whole bunch of armed people are the target? Hence my “see also: Syria” argument.

    For that matter, there may even be reason to believe that our government actually isn’t yet in a position to deal with a domestic situation of that magnitude:

    To be clear, one thing I am absolutely not doing is calling for insurrection. For the time being I don’t think our Wall St overlords are going to oppress either side sufficiently to trigger one (a point, I think, in favor of your “pleasant entertainments” argument, because for now that wouldn’t be good for markets. My concern is for the day when they think they’re adequately prepared to address the deficit highlighted in link 2 above. Pleasant entertainments will only go but so far. When we’re all more like the service sector equivalent of sharecroppers than we are today and we’re singing “16 Tons” with feeling, that unabridged 2nd amendment right might be all the difference between President Wall Street (he’ll be a person too, by then, right?…or maybe it’ll be a she in the interest of diversity) pursuing Operation Fuck ‘Em or not.

    Of course, we could just do the expedient thing and, sooner or later, pass gun control legislation that does fuckall against madmen and criminals because it feels good and kicks the can down the road a generation or three so it won’t be us but our grandkids making the tough existential decisions.

  6. The tragedy of the “because of TYRANNY!” discussion is that the NRA, and their friends, run away from allowing civilians to own AAA, ATGM’s, et al. Given that IMD’s ( improvised munition devices — old school, includes more than merely explosives. ) are the popular asymmetric warfare solution, we should clearly extend the ‘because of TYRANNY’ to include the maintenance of not only explosives, but various forms of NBC ( nuclear, biological and chemical warfare agents. Again old school, not the soviet ‘weapons of mass destruction’ if you please. ) At which point we should actually engage in the discussion of transition in weapon systems from the romantic ‘arm blanche’ controversy to the modern myth that massive strategic bombing will win wars. But that way will take us into the technical and professional discussions of what it will take for a people to counter a federal mechanized force. I presume your readers are at least modestly conversant in the such issues as the Siege of Sarajevo as well as Fallujah.

    All of which makes the mere fetishizing of ‘8 inches of blued steel’ the mere penis substitute that it has always been.

    My complements to those engaged in this discussion, please find a way to first debunk the use of firearms for defense argument. But more importantly move towards address the actual problem of how to we prevent americans from waging warfare on americans.

    • #1
      don’t see the government leading a mechanized war against its own people, no carpet bombing of Chicago, no tanks blowing out buildings in Detroit and then to get soldiers to fire on their own people. Their only option would be disarming the masses, that would also explain why their going after the weapon that is only used in 1 or 2% of crimes, but would be the best in an rebellion.
      So they have exact figures on suicide, homicide, accidental homicide, what types and makes of pistols that are used and what types and makes of rifles and shotgun that are used, but self defense is nothing more than a wild guess. seems a little fishy.

  7. A stat you cannot count is the time a crime is averted b/c the gun is used in a covert manner. Perhaps you are approached in an alley by a someone or someones who appear threatening. Perhaps they ask you for money. Perhaps they insist.

    You, simply by moving your coat aside and putting your hand on your piece, make them think again. Or perhaps you even, feeling very threatened, brandish your weapon and point it at them. And they walk away. Does this get reported??? I would think not.

    And don’t fool yourself b/c this happens more often than most people would readily admit.

    • I would have to Agree. Failed street assaults might go unreported, but failed home invasion would most likely have been reported.

    • Exactly. One of my brothers and myself have been involved in those. He brandished, I did not. His incident was reported, mine was not. And neither of us lives in particularly rough neighborhoods.

  8. “… whether there’s any substance to the ‘2.5 million times per year’ claim.”

    Kleck’s study was done in the early 1990s when crime and homicide were much higher today. The homicide rate then was about twice what it is today. So it seems reasonable that today’s numbers would be less in any case.

    Hemenway likes the NCVS results better (at somewhere around 100K per year if memory serves).

    “‘Dr. Hemenway all but calling Dr. Kleck a crank”

    I have read responses by Kleck to Hemenway that go just the opposite way. One question though, when is the last time Hemenway published detailed data and methods on his studies for independent analysis? And Kleck?

    So Hemenway likes 100K DGU per year. That is still a respectable number compared to the number of homicides per year. But Kleck is obviously correct is claiming that the NCVS undercounts. As Kleck pointed out you have someone identified as an agent of the Federal government asking you questions and if you have any doubt your actions in a DGU were “kosher” you are likely not to mention it and it won’t get counted.

    So I think it beyond a shadow of a doubt reasonable that the numbers exceed 100K in the NCVS and no one knows for sure what it is today. But even at the low figure it is still a respectable number

    Hence the case for the value of firearms used in self defense is a no-brainer if you value saving lives overall.