The topic of how many times citizens per year and/or per capita use firearms to save lives or otherwise avoid becoming a victim is known as Defensive Gun Use, or DGU for short. It is difficult to get this data as many times when a citizen uses a firearm to avoid becoming a victim they actually prevent a crime from happening, so there is no crime to report. Many go unreported as the citizen does not want the hassle or attention. But many studies have nonetheless been done over the last half century to try to learn what the number is.
First, for those who question the notion that firearms are ever successfully used, is this: A $10 million CDC – Institute of Medicine study was commissioned by President Barack Obama as part of 23 executive orders he signed in January 2013. The CDC study, entitled “Priorities For Research to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence,” states: “Studies that directly assessed the effect of actual defensive uses of guns (i.e., incidents in which a gun was ‘used’ by the crime victim in the sense of attacking or threatening an offender) have found consistently lower injury rates among gun-using crime victims compared with victims who used other self-protective strategies.”
So, it works. Now, how many times? The same CDC – IOM study noted that estimates from various studies range from 500,000 to 3 million. Let’s see if that can be narrowed down.
Estimates of DGU per year:
Between 1976 and 1994, thirteen studies were done to find the number of defensive gun uses per year, producing estimates between 764,000 and 3.6 million. Each survey had apparent flaws, prompting Kleck and Gertz to do their seminal study in 1993 tailored specifically to get an accurate count.
1993 (published 1995) – in ‘Armed resistance to Crime: the Prevalence and Nature of self-defense with a gun ,’ Kleck-Gertz ‘National Self-Defense Survey’ found approx. 2.5 million DGU per year, based on a survey of 4,977 respondents. Pro-gun adherents have repeated this number ever since. Kleck says they found 222 bonafide DGUs directly via survey. The defender had to “state a specific crime they thought was being committed” and to have actually used the gun, even if just threateningly or by “verbally referring to the gun.” Kleck insists the surveyors were scrupulous about eliminating any sketchy or questionable-seeming responses.
The article appeared with a preface by Marvin Wolfgang, the “Dean of American Criminology,” who described himself as “as strong a gun control advocate as can be found among the criminologists in this country.” Yet Wolfgang praised the study: “The Kleck and Gertz study impresses me for the caution the authors exercise and the elaborate nuances they examine methodologically. I do not like their conclusions that having a gun can be useful, but I cannot fault their methodology. They have tried earnestly to meet all objections in advance and have done exceedingly well.”
Summer 1997 – in ‘Survey Research and Self-Defense Gun Use: An Explanation of Extreme Overestimates,’ Hemenway critiques Kleck-Gertz, using data from previous National Crime Victimization surveys (NCVS) done in 1993-94 by the Census Bureau on behalf of the Department of Justice. Hemenway suggests correct number is 55,000 to 80,000, although the NCVS itself said 116,000. The NCVS was designed to gather information, as the title indicates, on crime victimization in general, with the DGU response a byproduct. NCVS never explicitly asks about DGUs, merely asking those who say yes to having been a crime victim whether they “did or tried to do” something about it while it was happening, but not asking any follow-up questions as to what they did if they answered yes, at least not with regard to firearm use. The respondent was relied on to volunteer that they used a firearm. Anti-gun adherents have repeated this number ever since, including NPR in 2018 who published the number 100,000, again referring to NCVS data.
One argument in Hemenway’s paper is “Self-report surveys tend to overestimate rare events which carry no social stigma, and such surveys can wildly overestimate rare events which have some social desirability.”
1997 – Kleck-Gertz refutation of Hemenway’s charges, in the same issue of the same journal as Hemenway. One of their arguments is that they may have actually underreported.
1997 – in “A call for a truce in the DGU War,’ Tom Smith critiques both Hemenway and Kleck-Gertz, suggesting (without doing analysis of data himself but simply looking at their methods) that Hemenway under-estimated and Kleck-Gertz overestimated and that after controlling for errors better than they did, Hemenway’s number should perhaps have been 256,500-373,000 and Kleck-Gertz’ number should have been perhaps 1,210,000. Still a gulf between the two, but only 4:1, not nearly as bad as the 45:1 initial gulf.
January 2015 – Evan Defilippis and Devin Hughes, in Politico Magazine article ‘The Myth Behind Defensive Gun Ownership,’ repeat Hemenway’s critiques from 1997 in an attempt to discredit Kleck-Gertz. One of their statements is that Hemenway’s article was “one of many decisive rebukes” of Kleck-Gertz, but for this statement they only provide a link to Hemenway’s paper and no others. Their argument is largely that according to available police reports, only about 1% of those who reported DGU to Kleck-Gertz reported it to police and they can’t believe the number would be so low, but don’t provide any empirical analysis as to whether it is or isn’t.
February 2015 – Kleck answers the Defilippis and Hughes article, again in Politico Magazine article ‘Defensive Gun Use Is Not a Myth.’ He refers to his refutation of Hemenway from 1997 and that Defilippis and Hughes failed to counter any of his refutations. One of his statements is “In order for a survey respondent to report a typical DGU, she or he must be willing to report all three of the following elements of the event: (1) a crime victimization experience, (2) his or her possession of a gun, and (3) his or her own commission of a crime. The last element is relevant because most DGUs occur away from the user’s home, and only about 1 percent of the population in 1993, when we conducted our survey, had a permit that allowed them to legally carry a gun through public spaces. Thus, although survey-reported defensive gun uses themselves rarely involve criminal behavior (that is, the defender did not use the gun to commit a criminal assault or other offense), most (at least back in 1993) involved unlawful possession of a gun in a public place by the defender,” and therefore that he may have underreported. He says, “Since neither of those authors nor Hemenway—nor any other critics for that matter—have ever made the slightest effort to estimate the number of false negatives, they cannot possibly know whether false positives outnumber false negatives and therefore have no logical foundation whatsoever for their claims that erroneous responses to DGU questions result in an overestimate of DGU frequency. The authors’ discussion of possible flaws in survey estimates of DGU frequency is conspicuously one-sided, addressing only supposed flaws that could make the estimates too high—but none that could make the estimates too low.”
At the bottom of Kleck’s article is an answer from Defilippis and Hughes where they accuse Kleck of ad hominem attack (he did call them “a couple of investment counselors with no graduate degrees, (who) do not claim to have had any training in survey research methods” but also did include detailed criticism of their article) and finish their piece with “such tactics are particularly deplorable when they are used in service of a gun-worshipping culture (emphasis mine) that generates tragedy on a massive scale,” revealing to the reader exactly who they are. They are both members of the anti-gun group ‘Armed with Reason,’ not objective researchers.
April 2018 – it is revealed (in several articles including this Reason Magazine piece) that the CDC conducted research on DGU in its Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System in 1996, 1997, and 1998 and never published the results. Their respondents numbered 5,484, even larger than Kleck-Gertz’ 4,977, with all others significantly lower. Kleck speculates that CDC showed a sudden interest in the question of DGUs starting in 1996 because Kleck’s own famous/notorious survey had been published in 1995. Their data suggests somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 million DGU per year, very much affirming Kleck. Kleck notes that “CDC never reported the results of those surveys, does not report on their website any estimates of DGU frequency, and does not even acknowledge that they ever asked about the topic in any of their surveys.”
- The seminal study, with the most data points and the least refuted methodology, remains the 1993 Kleck-Gertz study which found approximately 2.5 million per year.
- The 2018 revelation that the very anti-gun CDC had in fact studied the issue more carefully in the 90’s and also came up with an estimate of around 2 million is as good an agreement as you will find on a contentious subject.
- We are going to say that the number as of 1998 was 2 million per year, which adjusted for population would be around 2.3 million in 2019.
- As the FBI reported 1.2 million total violent crimes in the U.S. in 2018 in their 2018 crime report, and 16,200 murders of which 72 percent were committed with firearms, we conclude that :
- Firearms are used about twice as often to save people from becoming victims of violent crime than the instances of violent crime which do occur.
- Firearms are used 200 times as often to save people from becoming victims, as they are used to commit murder in the U.S. per year.