How Often Do We Use Guns in Self-Defense?

The validity of the NRA's stand depends on how often Americans actually use guns in self-defense Photograph by Antonio M. Rosario/Getty Images

“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

If you had to sum up the National Rifle Association’s response to the Newtown (Conn.) school massacre, and to any proposal for tougher gun-control laws, that one sentence from the NRA’s Dec. 21 press conference pretty much does the trick.

The gun owners’ lobby opposes restrictions on civilian acquisition and possession of firearms because, it contends, law-abiding people need guns to defend themselves. Millions of people also use guns for hunting and target-shooting. But at the core of the NRA’s argument is self-defense: the ultimate right to protect one’s ability to remain upright and breathing.

So how often do Americans use guns to defend themselves? If it almost never happens, then the NRA argument is based on a fallacy and deserves little respect in the fashioning of public policy. If, on the other hand, defensive gun use (DGU) is relatively common, then even a diehard gun-control advocate with any principles and common sense would admit that this fact must be given some weight.

Criminologists concur that the unusual prevalence of guns in America—some 300 million in private hands—makes our violent crime more lethal than that of other countries. (See, for example, the excellent When Brute Force Fails, by UCLA’s Mark Kleiman.) That’s the cost of allowing widespread civilian gun ownership: In this country, when someone is inclined to commit a mugging, shoot up a movie theater, or kill their spouse (or themselves), firearms are readily available.

One reason the gun debate seems so radioactive is that gun-control proponents refer almost exclusively to the cost of widespread gun ownership, while the NRA and its allies focus on guns as instruments and symbols of self-reliance. Very few, if any, participants in the conflict acknowledge that guns are both bad and good, depending on how they’re used. Robbers use them to stick up convenience stores, and convenience store owners use them to stop armed robbers.

If guns have a countervailing benefit—that lawful firearm owners frequently or even occasionally use guns to defend themselves and their loved ones—then determining how aggressively to curb private possession becomes a more complicated proposition.

As with everything else concerning guns in this country, the DGU question prompts divergent answers. At one end of the spectrum, the NRA cites research by Gary Kleck, an accomplished criminologist at Florida State University. Based on self-reporting by survey respondents, Kleck has extrapolated that DGU occurs more than 2 million times a year. Kleck doesn’t suggest that gun owners shoot potential antagonists that often. DGU covers various scenarios, including merely brandishing a weapon and scaring off an aggressor.

At the other end of the spectrum, gun skeptics prefer to cite the work of David Hemenway, an eminent public-health scholar at Harvard University. Hemenway, who analogizes gun violence to an epidemic and guns to the contagion, argues that Kleck’s research significantly overestimates the frequency of DGU.

The carping back and forth gets pretty technical, but the brief version is that Hemenway believes Kleck includes too many “false positives”: respondents who claim they’ve chased off burglars or rapists with guns but probably are boasting or, worse, categorizing unlawful aggressive conduct as legitimate DGU. Hemenway finds more reliable an annual federal government research project, called the National Crime Victimization Survey, which yields estimates in the neighborhood of 100,000 defensive gun uses per year. Making various reasonable-sounding adjustments, other social scientists have suggested that perhaps a figure somewhere between 250,000 and 370,000 might be more accurate.

What’s the upshot?

1. We don’t know exactly how frequently defensive gun use occurs.

2. A conservative estimate of the order of magnitude is tens of thousands of times a year; 100,000 is not a wild gun-nut fantasy.

3. Many gun owners (I am not one, but I know plenty) focus not on statistical probabilities, but on a worst-case scenario: They’re in trouble, and they want a fighting chance.

4. DGU does not answer any questions in this debate, but it’s a factor that deserves attention.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.