2/02 The Incidence Of Gun Use For Self-Defense

The Incidence Of Gun Use For Self-Defense
Larry Pratt

Gary Kleck points out in the book he coauthored with Don Kates, Armed, that it was not until 1993 that a survey was conducted to find out how many times a year a gun is used in self-defense.

Kleck gives the layman a glimpse of the care that is needed in how to ask questions, and how to evaluate the answers that are given. There are so many different things to keep in mind, it is easy to see how a careless or unscrupulous researcher can get almost any result he wishes.

Kleck reports that various surveys indicate that there were as of 1994, some 235 million guns in private hands in the U.S. About one percent of them got used for self-defense against a human assailant of a private person during that time. Nearly half of the adult population lives in a home in which there is at least one gun; about 59 million adults personally own a gun.

When Kleck arrived at the figure of 2.5 million defensive gun uses (DGU) per year, that means that a mere three percent of the 93 million people with access to guns actually used them for self-defense during the year.

One survey found that about 85% of the crimes against people occurred outside the home, thus underscoring the importance of making it easier for people to legally carry concealed firearms. Despite the prevalence of concealed carry in many states, only one in a thousand carries resulted in a DGU.

One important reason for suspecting that Kleck’s data underestimate (by his own admission) the annual DGUs is the prevalence of laws illegalizing self-defense. Thus, many respondents to surveys will not admit to having used a DGU when their act of self-defense was a violation of law.

Kleck participated in one national survey of crime victimization that was written up in a scholarly journal. Kleck found that the authors of the survey had improperly weighted answers to deflate the appearance of self-defense with a gun during the year. The authors stuck in their conclusion (designed to make it look as if Americans don’t benefit much from guns) after their journal article had been peer reviewed!

When Kleck “objected to this evasion of peer review to the editor, he refused to respond to my objections.” We might describe this as Outcome Based Science. In other words, do what has to be done to produce the desired policy conclusion regardless of what the data say.

Kleck’s review of the literature revealed that anti-gun scholars frequently fail to even mention the growing number of surveys which show large numbers of DGUs each year.

One way of trying to ascertain how many criminals have been wounded by armed victims is to get emergency room figures. Problem is, many criminals will not go to a hospital with a bullet wound that they can treat themselves. This avoids the risk of the mandatory report of their bullet wound ending up with the police who might then determine that they were wounded during the commission of a crime. For this reason, it is not an easy matter to get accurate data. Anti-gunners have argued that there are few DGUs based on emergency room bullet wound reports. Anti-gun scholars are happy to accept any (and only) those data that support their predetermined conclusions.

In spite of anti-gun scholars’ best efforts, if their data do not accord with their desired outcomes, Kleck has caught them from time to time simply withholding their own data.

At the end of the day, analysis of the existing data indicates that DGUs outnumber criminal uses of guns at about a five to one ratio. For those who want to argue that guns have no social utility, these data are overwhelming.

But the facts do not budge those who, in Kleck’s words, view a DGU as valuing aggression. They justify this view by doubting the truly defensive nature of most DGUs. Science morphs into conclusions based on deeply-held emotional views held before the data are even collected and analyzed.

To Kleck’s credit, he began his inquiries about DGUs with a presumption that guns were more often used for harm, not for good. His own studies surprised him but he was willing to publish his results showing that guns save lives.

The impact of Armed can be appreciated in the words of Steven Duke, a professor of law at Yale University: “If you believe, as I once did, that we can reduce violent crime by simply restricting gun ownership, you should read this book. It will change your basic belief.”