More on Defensive Gun Use

gun defense

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the NRA and the gun lobby have profited immensely from the most recent school massacre du jour. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that they always profit immensely from mass shootings. And you’re probably familiar with the fact that part of their strategy involves whipping up hysteria in their constituents about how President Obama (or fill in the Democrat of your choice) wants to “take away your guns”. What you may not realize, however, is that during the past election season while they were publicly demonizing the president for his supposed hostility to supposed “Second Amendment rights”, they were privately rooting for his reelection so they could ratchet up the paranoia and the profits even more. Nice work if you can get it.

You’ve probably heard about Wayne LaPierre and others declaring that the solution to gun violence is… well, a hair of the dog, natch. (Actually, they’re likely to insist that “gun violence” is merely a semantic contrivance of the “gun control” advocates — that “there is no such thing as gun violence, only violence committed with a gun”. You just can’t make up this kind of stuff.) They have an ample supply of cutesy slogans to promote their panacea, but their primary mantra is “more guns, less crime” — which is even the title of a popular book by soundly discredited gun guru John Lott. This slogan expresses their belief (or at least the belief they want their clientele to maintain) that guns are used more often for defense than for crime.

Even if that were perfectly true, employing it as an excuse to put more guns into circulation is rather like saying we should start more house fires because more people will collect insurance than will die.  But there’s no evidence their premise is correct; in fact, the evidence strongly suggests that the reverse is true.  The best they can come up with is statistics that seem to show a correlation in certain localities between stricter gun laws and higher crime and/or looser gun laws and lower crime. (In reality, such correlations aren’t nearly as clear-cut as they assume; and in any case, correlation is not the same as causality. But that’s a topic for another day.)

Gunsters often tout “studies” (i.e., surveys) that supposedly prove that there are hundreds of thousands, or even a few million, defensive guns uses (DGUs) every year. But not even all of these surveys support the “more guns, less crime” motif.   Two of the best known figures, both projected by the Dept. Of Justice, are 108,000 and 65,000 DGUs. Both of which fall far short of the documented 400,000-plus crimes committed with a gun annually. No wonder the gun culture has such a love affair with Dr. Kleck, who posits 2.5 million. He calculated this by interviewing just 222 individuals. Furthermore, as stated by the Virginia Center for Public Safety:

Kleck’s Interviewers do not appear to have questioned a random individual at a given telephone number, but rather asked to speak to the male head of the household.  Males from the South and West were oversampled.  The results imply that many hundreds of thousands of murders should have been occurring when a private gun was not available for protection. Yet guns are rarely carried, less than a third of adult Americans personally own guns, and only 27,000 homicides occurred in 1992.”

I’ve discussed some of the problems with these surveys in two previous posts, Make My Day: Mention Gun Defense Statistics and Estimating Defensive Gun Uses Reasonably.  Since then, I’ve heard from a great many gunsters who really, desperately want my analysis to be wrong. Which is not surprising; if we burst the bubble of “more guns, less crime”, the very foundation of the gun culture starts collapsing.  Some of them are obsessed with trying to establish that I’m a “liberal”, which one gathers would instantaneously vaporize all the inconvenient facts. But not one of them has been able to provide any evidence that my “theory” about the true number of DGUs (as if I actually had one) is mistaken.  Except for saying something like “I’ve had 27 DGUs of my own, and none were reported by the media”. But such anecdotes, even if perfectly true, hardly contradict anything I’ve said. The gun culture insists upon the existence of a legendary beast of titanic proportions, but the only evidence is the most miniscule of footprints.

Potential vs. Probable

Mostly, these folks just argue in a circle: “The numbers produced by the surveys must be accurate because there are surveys that produce them”; or “I believe these figures are right because they seem reasonable to me.” They also tend to confuse potential with probability. Their reasoning is that if we know the number of gun owners in the U.S. and the number of annual crimes committed,  then we can make an educated guess about the probable number of DGUs. Not so. There are many other factors that can play a role. Many of these factors we do not know; some, indeed we probably will never know. But two of the most obvious are: (1) The criminals usually have the element of surprise on their side, and (2) Few gun owners are armed at all times.  A third factor that’s not so obvious, but which nonetheless has the potential for a significant impact is that humans have a documented tendency to compensate for an added safety measure (e.g., a gun) by indulging in riskier behavior, so the net level of danger remains the same.  Which might help explain why some alleged DGUs, on closer inspection, turn out to be aggressive rather than defensive.

Mind you, these are just some of the major factors. And even a number of very minor factors can make an enormous difference in the final product. Which might help explain how Kleck’s 222 interviewees mutated into 2.5 million.  It’s called the butterfly effect. Look it up. Or see the movie.

The Hawthorne-Rambo Effect?

The overriding fatal flaw of those DGU surveys is that, contrary to what they purport, they really don’t even attempt to determine how many DGUs really occur. Instead, they attempt to determine how often participants say they occur. And they obviously have difficulty succeeding even at that task, as evidenced by the extremely wide range of results. Gallup, for instance, conducted a poll in 1991 in which it concluded that the annual DGU count was just under 800,000. Two years later, the organization conducted another poll on the subject, and came up with a total more than twice that high! And we’re really expected to take such estimates seriously? If so, which one?

Dr. Kleck and others poo-poo the notion that interviewees in these studies might have been, um, less than truthful. While I won’t go so far as to say that they outright lied — well, at least not all of them — it’s clear that their responses are grossly distorted.  And we don’t have to cast about a great deal for a scientific explanation.  It might be a variation of the experimenter effect, epistemic feedback, the subject-expectancy effect and/or the Hawthorne effect  — all of which involve the researcher somehow influencing the subject’s response. In addition, this particular topic of inquiry invites the subject to regale the researchers with tales of his derring-do, which openly invites embellishment, whether deliberate or inadvertent. (See Prof. Hemenway’s commentary for more factors of distortion.)

In preparing to write the previous posts, I scoured several gun-friendly websites that attempt to do their own tracking of defensive gun use, inviting their followers who’ve experienced one to submit their accounts. Among others, I combed through more than 50 years of records compiled by the NRA. But none of these sources ever racked up a tally of more than a few hundred per year. Why the gargantuan discrepancy between these totals and those supplied by the scientific surveys? The likely explanation lies in the difference in how the data are collected. In the surveys, researchers contact individuals directly and put them on the spot to deliver narratives of their heroism. The tracking websites maintained by gun communities, however, put out a general call; and perhaps only those individuals who’ve had a genuine experience are likely to respond. I’d also submit that perhaps these individuals feel bound by some unwritten code of honor to be truthful and accurate when dealing with an organization they belong to and/or respect. Moreover, they might fear, and perhaps rightly so, that their narratives will be subject to corroboration.

Virtually all of these latter incidents also were reported in the media. This, of course, does not prove that all DGUs that occur appear in the media, nor even that most of them do. But it does make you wonder why, if these (as often alleged) are only the tip of the iceberg, can’t millions of gun owners cough up more personal accounts to put on these websites and keep the public better informed about them. In any event, whether or not most DGUs really are covered by the media, most — are at least a very large percentage — are newsworthy; i.e., they would be reported in the news given the right circumstances. The less newsworthy such an event is, the less likely it is to be a bona fide defensive gun use. The media love this kind of story, and they’ll seldom just ignore it if it comes to their attention. And a great many genuine DGUs are difficult to keep secret even if one wanted to. Bear in mind that it’s irresponsible of the defender not to report the encounter to police, given that there’s a criminal running around who might attempt the same crime on someone else with tragic results. Of course, there is sometimes good reason why the alleged defender might keep the episode under his hat: he might, for example, be in possession of a firearm in violation of the law. But isn’t that all the more reason to question the defensive nature of the “defense”?

It’s particularly difficult to hush up those incidents in which a gun is fired; and doubly, triply, quadruply so for those instances in which the assailant is killed or wounded. For one thing, concealment itself would be a serious criminal offense. With the latter group, you can be virtually assured that such a sensationalist episode will make the news.

And here is where those surveys actually might be of some value. According to Kleck, 8 percent of the defenders wound or kill their assailants. This figure is certainly too low,  given Kleck’s extremely loose standards for what constitutes a DGU. But even so, 8 percent of 2.5 million would mean it happens about 200,000 times per year. And yet only about one in 400 of these is reported in the news? Seriously? The National Crime Victimization Survey says it happens 3 percent of the time out of 108,000 DGUs per year.  That’s 3240 in which the offender is wounded if not killed. And yet fewer than one in six is deemed newsworthy? Get real. One might argue that the media would have neither the capacity nor the interest to cover 200,000 such incidents per year. Perhaps not. But they would definitely have both the capacity and the interest to report 3240.

The most comprehensive listing of DGUs I’ve found is at keepandbeararms.com. Looking at the 75 most recent incidents listed (which covers a period of about 2 months), I see that, as best I can determine, there were 22 offenders killed, 38 merely wounded, and 29 were neither — some incidents involved more than one assailant. (And by the way, these incidents include “Man pulls gun on rowdy, line-cutting Black Friday shopper” and “Woman pulls gun on man who exposed himself at lake”. Very defensive, no? Note also that at least one of the stories is listed twice, and at least one actually details a case of unarmed self-defense — the defender had guns on hand but chose not to use them. How many other “DGUs” could be prevented if more people used their heads instead of their trigger fingers?)  If these proportions are typical — and further research would be needed to declare that they are — then we could conclude that attackers wounded in a DGU die more than a third of the time.  (In fact, this is quite consistent with a larger sample I examined in a previous post.) So if the NCVS is correct, then at least one percent of DGUs should involve the death of the suspect — which would amount to more than 1000 per year. But FBI statistics confirm that this only happens no more than about 300 times. Therefore, it seems that NCVS estimates are inflated by a ratio of more than 3 to 1, and thus the actual sum, by its own standards, should be about 25,000 to 30,000 DGUs per year. But bear in mind that this includes an unknown number of false positives. The Kleck survey would yield nearly 75,000 deaths, which would suggest it’s inflated by more than 250 to 1, which works out to fewer than 10,000 annual DGUs.

In fine, there is substantial proof of only a few hundred DGUs per year, and even inferential evidence of no more than a few thousand. The surveys that profess to demonstrate far in excess of that are, to say the least, highly unreliable. Crimes committed with a gun almost certainly outnumber gun defenses, probably by a large factor. And it’s staggeringly naive at best to propose that the remedy for gun violence (or whatever euphemistic circumlocution you choose to apply) is even more guns.

(NOTE: This post was revised on 1/7/13 to correct a couple of minor errors and insert a new paragraph of further explanation.)

45 thoughts on “More on Defensive Gun Use

  1. Thanks for your work. If you really want to address crime (we really don’t) look at Singapore, which has nearly zero violent crime and nearly zero guns.

    • The same is true for many other places. But you’re far more likely to hear about a couple of countries (e.g., England and Australia) that saw a rise in crime after enacting stricter gun laws. Which supposedly proves that “gun control doesn’t work.”

    • Have you been to Singapore? Do you know why they have less violent crime? It starts as the most basic of crime period, and respect, you will get lashed for just littering there. The people there have respect, for each other and themselves and where they live. We do NOT have that in the US. Your article does exactly what you say the others do, cherry picks the info you want to include in your study. One of the reasons you don’t find youtube accounts of DGU is that if a trigger is never pulled, there would be no video, no injury, no police report. but right now I can pull up over a 100 youtube videos of homeowners, etc defending themselves with a firearm. What about the stat that has been verified, over 15 people die when police respond to a mass shooting, but 2.5 when an armed citizen is there and stops it. If you want to disarm a law abiding citizen based on this info, better try again. I personally know there are bad people out there, and in our news, every single day there is one of those people doing bad things to good people. I want to have every advantage I can if I were to find myself in one of the many situations that we see on the news. BTW, if national news covered all of the BGU, we would have less doubt by people like you, but the fact is, they cover negative stories when it comes to firearms, never ever a good guy stopping the bad guy :(

    • Right, so by your logic, guns cause violence! Never mind the government shipping guns abroad to attack the 2nd Amendment, never mind our government shipping in drugs and working with the megabanks to money launder the drug money. Your right, our 2nd Amendment is the problem. Forget also the fact that we have economic disparity, de-evolving moral fabric, and heterogeneous population.

  2. The UK rise in “gun crime” after restrictions was temporary and has now declined greatly, it was also due to the new laws that made many more actions with guns into crimes. Invent more gun crime charges and you wil first get a rise in gun crime numbers.

  3. If there really were many instances of DGU, one would expect a fairly serious offense was being committed. Since the gun-wielder is presumed to be law-abiding and a good citizen, there should be a report of the crime, which you would expect to mention the use of the gun. Doesn’t this provide some means for authenticating otherwise unsupported claims of DGU? Not that it would be easy to pull together such reports, but at least for individual claims it would seem at least a baseline expectation to authenticate.

    • Exactly. My critics often say that I’m placing too much faith in media as a source of documentation. Not so; one of the main reasons for starting this blog is to criticize media. But for DGUs it happens to be virtually the ONLY source of documentation we have — except maybe for police reports, which are harder to access and tabulate. My main thesis is that it’s much more reliable to use documented fact as a foundation than to use unsubstantiated anecdotes, as the surveys do. The big question is, what percentage of DGUs actually end up in the news? That’s the missing Rosetta Stone that perhaps someone should try to discover. The evidence, and pure logic, suggest that the percentage is rather high.

  4. I have been a victim of two handgun crimes. I have never met anyone outside of law enforcement or the military who has prevented as many as two crimes with a personal weapon.
    I live in Texas and I resent having to wonder on a day-to-day basis whether the people I encounter are armed and perhaps up to no good or ready to erupt into violence.

    • WTF? What the hell does a doctor need to know if you own a gun for? Its just the Illuminati trniyg to find out if you have a gun. Heres the thing. Guns are LAWFUL and you do not need to tell ANYONE you own a gun.My claim of right has never been challenged and I include the right to carry whatever weapons I choose in it.

  5. Awesome example of guns making us all safer, the recent shoot out in the drive-thru at the McDonalds in Wichita. It was bad enough one idiot with a gun shot at someone that breached etiquette, imagine if the other person shot back. I would not want to be sitting in that line. Then what if all the other people in line started to shoot? The NRA folk need to give it up. I think the right to bear arms as intended by the founding fathers is safe and secure. They need to find a new cause to spend money on.

  6. Two factors often ignored by the pro-gun crowd are accidents and suicides. Let’s assume violent crimes have gone down due to the increased number of guns available and not due to other factors like an explosion in the incarceration rate. Given the increased availability of guns has there been a corresponding increase in the number of gun accidents? Likewise are suicide rates for gun owners higher than those for non-gun owners? There are some benefits as well as risks to owning a gun. Considering only the benefits and ignoring the risks does not provide a balanced view of the issue.

    • In my opinion both points are irrelevant. Accidents are simply linked to improperly stored/unsecured firearms or a lack of training/understanding. Suicides are irrelevant to me as well. Any person unhappy enough with living has the right to do so.

      • They are irrelevant if you consider the injuries and deaths they cause irrelevant. True one can have an accident with just about anything, but a gun accident – like a car accident – often ends with serious injury or death. The same cannot be said of say a baseball bat or can of mace. It goes back to the assumption that everyone who owns guns (apart from the criminals) is a “responsible gun owner” which is like saying everyone who drives a car is a “responsible car driver”. It’s a nice idea but I don’t believe in bullshit.

        Suicide is a complex issue. Sometimes a person wants to live but due to disease or injury their suffering brings them to want suicide. In these cases many would argue as you have that the person has a right to end their life. Other times though a person is suffering from depression, a mental illness, and to simply say it’s their choice so let them commit suicide is nothing short of manslaughter. The person needs professional health not easy access to a deadly weapon. If this is what you consider irrelevant your sense of empathy must seriously be lacking.

  7. So a friend of mine links a thread (your Godwin’s Law piece) and I decide to check you out. Your “about me” seems interesting. You write well. But here is what I see you advancing, “all studies/surveys were systematically coached and influenced a complete debauch population of pathological liars.” And sadly, there your true colors bleed through. You are, in fact, alive and well in your world of confirmational bias, although you are for certain no kool-aid ™ drinker. Your take on the propaganda situation between NRA and the Hill, I can only mark as iron clad reasoning, and your Hawthorne vs Rambo argument I thought was salient and remarkably cogent. But you frivolously deconstructed Kleck’s study -true or not- and lost all credibility as an academic to me. Good day, Sir, I will not be back. Have fun suckering others into thinking you’re a policy-before-party high brow.

      • Ummm, I see no where that I listed myself as impressed. I think if you were to re-read it, you would discover two things. Your response is an affirmation of my declaration of your confirmational bias, which is in no way an academic or scientific behavior, which you espouse being. The second is that I deconstructed where you advance a substantiated argument, and where you advance your own propaganda, which is a brilliant maneuver, by the way, right up there with naming it the Federal Reserve Bank. The Federal Reserve Bank is neither federal, nor maintains a reserve, but slap a name on it and the uninformed masses follow the PSYOP; no different here. I would encourage you to re-explore the logical fallacy of Affirmation of the Consequent, which is robust in your pieces. Perhaps is you could reduce your arrogance and foster more of the conversation, since you clearly cannot substantiate yourself as an expert based on your anonymity and guilt of logical errors. And that’s more of about it, but feel free to delete this since your you just made yourself out to be an asshole in your response. Thank you.

  8. Out of curiosity and fairness, have you ever heard of Kennesaw, Ga? The city has a law requiring gun ownership by the head of household there, which has been in place the early 80′s, and the crime numbers there are incredibly low. This doesn’t state of course that more guns insure less crime but it does provide some backing to the theory that criminals will usually seek other locations if they’re aware a firearm is present.

    • Yep, I’m familiar with the Kennesaw law, which was largely just a symbolic gesture, since pretty much everybody in town already owned a gun anyway. The claim that this law, or that the nearly universal gun ownership in town, actually deterred crime, is highly questionable. I’ll be commenting more about this in a future post on “gun control”, and the manipulation of statistics to fight it.

      • My biggest issue with it is the comparison of crime statistics of the US vs. say Singapore. These cultures are so vastly different it paints a picture which does not mirror reality. I also think that while gun c ontrol is a fantastic idea in theory, it is just not possible in this country at this point. The ATF operation “Fast and furious” proves this. The Feds have zero control on the illegal drugs brought into the US. Why would anyone think illegal firearms would be any different? It would simply be another market that would assist in the business expansion of the cartels. I’m not saying the Feds are going to outlaw guns but it seems to certainly be an ideal of many gun control advocates. In which case I pose this question, who is supposed to protect my family(if the Feds decide to follow the path of other countries and outlaw firearms)from individuals with illegaly obtained firearms?

        • It’s a complex issue. And it’s hard to “prove” either than gun control works, or that it doesn’t. Because there are indeed always other factors to weigh.

  9. Yeah gun crime went down in England but murder rates and all other violent crime went up. You all sound happy to have more people killed, just as long as it’s not with a gun. Brilliant.

    • The article reports on a discrepancy in rates of crime reduction between the Crime Survey and police records.

      “A study of crime trends in England and Wales has suggested the fall in offences recorded by police may have been exaggerated.”

      “The ONS compared certain categories of crimes and found police-recorded offences had fallen by 33% over the previous five years, while data from the Crime Survey of England and Wales suggested a decline of 17%.”

      In other words, the police may have been exaggerating the rate in decline.

      Nonetheless, crime has been and still is decreasing since the mid-1990s, despite strict gun control. This is just a question of how much.

  10. On the 80th anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Germans to always fight for their principles and not fall into the complacency that enabled the Nazi dictator to seize control.
    The fact that Hitler was able to destroy German democracy in only six months serves as a warning today of what can happen if the public is apathetic, Merkel said.
    “Human rights do not assert themselves on their own; freedom does not emerge on its own; and democracy does not succeed on its own,” Merkel said. “No, a dynamic society … needs people who have regard and respect for one another, who take responsibility for themselves and others, where people take courageous and open decisions and who are prepared to accept criticism and opposition.”

  11. P.O.P. I like you ‘did forensics’. I was in the early 70′s attached to CO C3 London Metropolitan Police, working out of Paddington Green Police Station. I just wondered, having seen the results of a high velocity round from a semi-automatic Infantry Weapon – Armalite on the human body four times too many, do you think that the demonstration in ballistic gel of the effects of both cavitation and fragmentation shown at the latest hearings will finally get through to the general public that these weapons are unnecessary? T.

    • I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but I don’t think anything will ever get through to the American public on the matter of guns — at least nothing will ever get through to a certain percentage of them.

  12. Pingback: The (Poorly) Armed Assault On Gun Control: How the Gun Culture Manipulates Statistics (Part 2) | The Propaganda Professor

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