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Defensive Gun Use

From Guns in American Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, Culture and the Law (Gregg Lee Carter ed., ABC-CLIO 2002).

By David B. Kopel

"Defensive Gun Use" (DGU) is the actual use of a firearm for defensive purposes against an immediate threat. The "use" may involve firing the gun, but more commonly, the "use" amounts to simply brandishing a gun. Scholarly research suggests that the overwhelming majority of DGUs are "successful"--although whether such successes are moral legitimate is a subject of controversy. There is a heated controversy about how many DGUs take place in the United States annually; Gary Kleck's National Self-Defense Survey suggests 2.5 million or more, whereas the National Opinion Research Center estimates that a figure of several hundred thousand is more plausible.

Defensive gun useshould be distinguished from the deterrent effects of firearms ownership; DGUs involve crimes-in-progress, whereas deterrence involves crimes which are never attempted, because the criminal fears that the victim might be armed. Thus, John Lott's More Guns, Less Crime(2d. ed. 2001) which finds that violent crime drops 5-8%, and that mass murders in public places drop about 90%, after the enactment of "shall issue" handgun carry licensing laws, is not really part of the DGU debate, since Lott's research involves deterrence much more than the thwarting of attempted crimes.

The National Crime Victimization Survey is conducted annually by the United States government, to estimate the prevalence of crime, and to study related matters. Studying survey results from 1979-85, Gary Kleck found that respondents who reported using a firearm to resist a violent crime were injured less often than were people who resisted by other means, or who did not resist at all.

The lowest crime completion rates were found when the victim used a firearm. For example, when robbery victims did not resist, the robbery succeeded 88 percent of the time, and the victim was injured 25 percent of the time. If the victim resisted with a gun, the robbery success rate fell to 30 percent, and the victim injury rate to 17 percent. In fewer than 1% of DGUs did the criminal take the gun away from the victim. Other forms of resistance (e.g., shouting for help, using a weapon other than a firearm), had crime success rates somewhere in-between the non-resistance/firearms resistance extremes. All other forms of resistance had high victim injury rates than did non-resistance or firearms resistance.

Many gun control advocates argue that DGUs are harmful to society. For example, the United Methodist Church, which founded the National Coalition to Ban Handguns (now named the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence) declares that people should submit to rape and robbery rather than endanger the criminal's life by shooting him. (Methodist Board of Church and Society, "Handguns in the United States.") Opposing gun ownership by battered women, Betty Friedan argues that "lethal violence even in self-defense only engenders more violence." (A. Japenga, Health, March/April 1994, p. 54.) Under this view, violence is per seevil, and it is irrelevant whether that violence is used to perpetrate a crime or to prevent one.

The only national study of how frequently firearms are used against burglaries was conducted by the Robert Ikeda and four other researchers for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 1994, random digit dialing phone calls were made throughout the United States, resulting in 5,238 interviews. The interviewees were asked about use of a firearm in a burglary situation during the last 12 months.

The CDC researchers found that 6 percent of the sample population had used a firearm in a burglary situation in the last 12 months. Extrapolating the polling sample to the national population, the researchers estimated that in the last 12 months, there were approximately 1,896,842 incidents in which a householder retrieved a firearm but did not see an intruder. There were an estimated 503,481 incidents in which the armed householder didsee the burglar; and 497,646 incidents in which the burglar was scared away by the firearm.

As detailed by Gary Kleck, other research suggests that there about two dozen cases annually in which an innocent person is fatally shot, having been mistaken for a burglar.

While the CDC burglary data has attracted little controversy, estimates of the total number of DGUs is the subject of great debate. The table below, from Gary Kleck's book Targeting Guns, summarizes all American studies aimed specifically at estimating DGU numbers. The latter studies tend to be considerably more methodologically sophisticated than the earlier surveys, and also include various safeguards to weed out respondents who might invent a DGU story.

 

 Summary of Defensive Gun Use Surveys

 

 

Survey

 

Field

 

Bordua

 

DMI one

 

DMI two

 

Hart

 

Ohio

 

Area

 

California

 

Illinois

 

U.S.

 

U.S.

 

U.S.

 

Ohio

 

Year of interviews

 

1976

 

1977

 

1978

 

1978

 

1981

 

1982

 

Gun type covered

 

Handguns

 

All guns

 

All guns

 

All guns

 

Handguns

 

Handguns

 

Recall period

 

Ever/1,2 years

 

Ever

 

Ever

 

Ever

 

5 year

 

Ever

 

Excluded uses against Animals?

 

No

 

No

 

No

 

Yes

 

Yes

 

No

 

Excluded military, police uses?

 

Yes

 

No

 

Yes

 

Yes

 

Yes

 

No

 

DGU question refers to

 

Respondent

 

Respondent

 

Household

 

Household

 

Household

 

Respondent

 

% who used gun

 

1.4/3/8.6a

 

5.0

 

15

 

7

 

4

 

6.5

 

% who fired gun

 

2.9

 

n.a.

(not available)

 

6

 

n.a.

 

n.a.

 

2.6

 

Implied number of defensive gun uses

 

3,052,717

 

1,414,544

 

2,141,512

 

1,098,409

 

1,797,461

 

771,043

 

 

 

Survey

 

Mauser

 

Gallup

 

Gallup

 

Kleck &

Gertz

 

L.A. Times

 

 

Tarrance

 

Police

Foundation

 

 

Area

 

U.S.

 

U.S.

 

U.S.

 

U.S.

 

U.S.

 

U.S.

 

U.S.

 

Year of interviews

 

1990

 

1991

 

1993

 

1993

 

1994

 

1994

 

1994

 

Gun type covered

 

All guns

 

All guns

 

All guns

 

All guns

 

All guns

 

All guns

 

All guns

 

Recall period

 

5 years

 

Ever

 

Ever

 

1 year

 

Ever

 

5 years

 

1 year

 

Excluded uses against animals ?

 

Yes

 

No

 

No

 

Yes

 

No

 

Yes

 

Yes

 

 

Excluded military, police uses?

 

Yes

 

No

 

Yes

 

Yes

 

Yes

 

Yes

 

Yes

 

DGU question refers to

 

Household

 

Respondent only

 

Resp.

 

Resp.

 

Resp.

 

Resp./

Household

 

Resp.

 

 

% who used gun

 

3.79

 

8

 

11

 

1.326

 

8c

 

1/2d

 

1.44

 

% who fired gun

 

n.a.

 

n.a.

 

n.a.

 

0.63

 

n.a.

 

n.a.

 

0.70

 

Implied number of defensive gun usesb

 

1,487,342

 

777,153

 

1,621,377

 

2,549,862

 

3,609,682

 

764,036

 

2,730,000

 

Notes to Table

a 1.4% in past year, 3% in past two years, 8.6% ever.

b Estimated annual number of DGUs of guns of all types against humans, excluding uses connected with military or police duties, after any necessary adjustments were made, for United States, 1993.

c Covered only uses outside the home.

d 1% of respondents, 2% of households.

e 9% fired gun for self-protection, 7% used gun to "scare someone." An unknown share of the latter could be defensive uses not overlapping with the former.

 Gun control advocates argue that all the above surveys are wrong, and that the only correct figure for DGUs comes from the National Crime Victimization Survey. The NCVS suggests 55,000 to 108,000 DGUs annually (depending on the year). Kleck and other critics respond that the NCVS never directly asks about DGUs (but instead asks an open-ended question about how the victim responded), and that because the NCVS is non-anonymous and is conducted by U.S. Dept. of Justice officials, respondents may be reluctant to disclose DGUs.

 Kleck and David Hemenway have engaged in an extended debate about the validity of Kleck's figures (and the other surveys) vs. the NCVS. Tom Smith, of the National Opinion Research Center, concludes that the NCVS probably is too low (partly because it only asks about some crimes, and not the full scope of crimes from which a DGU might ensue), and that the Kleck figure is too high. Smith estimates that the true number of DGUs annually is somewhere between 256,500 and 1,210,000.

 

 

See also: Self-Defense; Kleck, Gary.

 

For Further Information:

 

David Hemenway, "Survey Research and Self-Defense Gun Use: An Explanation of Extreme Overestimates," 87 Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology 1430 (1997), http://www.saf.org/LawReviews/Hemenway1.htm

Robert M. Ikeda, Linda L. Dahlberg, Jeffrey J. Sacks, James A. Mercy, and Kenneth E. Powell, "Estiminating Intruder-Related Firearms Retrievals in U.S. Households, 1994," 12 Violence and Victims363 (1997).

Gary Kleck, Targeting Guns(Aldine: 1998).

Gary Kleck, "Degrading Scientific Standards to Get the Defensive Gun Use Estimate Down," 11 Journal on Firearms & Public Policy 77 (1999), http://www.saf.org/journal/10_gun.html

Tom W. Smith, "A Call for a Truce in the DGU War," 87 Journalof Criminal Law & Criminology1462(1997): 1462. http://www.saf.org/LawReviews/SmithT1.htm

 

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