Estimating Defensive Gun Uses Reasonably

By now, we hope to have laid to the rest the absurd notion that there are 2.5 million defensive gun uses (DGUs) annually, or anything even close to it,  in the U.S.  But that still leaves unanswered just how many there really are. Is it possible to make a more reasonable approximation than those suggested by the various “studies” that indicate at least 65,000? Indeed it is; and it possibly could be done using real numbers – i.e. actual statistics – rather than survey results.

As we noted, there are at least 200 DGUs per year; we know this because there has been a rather consistent listing circulated during the past few years, of media accounts of such events. But we also noted that keepandbeararms.com, which has reported between 200 and 300 per year for the past decade or so, has recently shifted gears. In recent weeks, the rate of occurrence has been around 1 or 2 per day. Assuming the trend continues and they’re all genuine and non-duplicated, 2 per day would add up to a whopping 730 annually. Better buy another Uzi, ma.

So does the higher incidence lately indicate  an increase (perhaps temporary) in frequency, or does it just mean that the team of volunteers at keepandbeararms.com has become more diligent in its detective work? There’s reason to believe the latter.

There’s another website called Armed Citizen (not the same as the one affiliated with the NRA) that is currently on hiatus, but which compiled DGU stories from 2003 to 2010. This site was co-founded by Clayton Cramer, who’s connected with the prominent right-wing “think tank” The Cato Institute.  I laughed out loud when I saw the interactive map of DGUs he’s now compiling. Supposedly millions of the suckers every year, and he expects to indicate them all with dots on a map? They’d be layered so thick that even at maximum magnification they’d be spilling out of the computer screen onto the floor.

Actually, he’s a bit more modest than most gun propagandists, averring only “tens of thousands” per year. But even that is going to be hard to pile up on a map, especially since he’s depicting several years’ worth.

This Armed Citizen site does have a rather extensive archive of  “nearly 4000”. Which isn’t quite “tens of thousands”. And oh yes, it’s not just for one year – it’s for the entire period of a little over 6 years. Which comes out to between 600 and 700 per year. Since “tens of thousands” suggests a minimum of 20,000, then Cramer evidently believes that at least 96 percent of these incidents go unreported. The interesting thing is that his estimated total is far lower than the Kleck-Gertz total, yet he is suggesting that a much higher percentage of them slip under the media radar. Go figure. (Somebody certainly needs to.)

Still, it does appear that (assuming these incidents are all genuine non-duplicates) there are 600 or more DGUs reported in the media annually, and keepandbeararms.com is just catching up.

Now according to the Kleck-Gertz figures, 36 percent – roughly a third – of such incidents go unreported. I don’t buy that, of course; one reason is that Kleck and Gertz are extremely loose in their standards for defining a DGU. A defensive gun use means that someone uses a gun to prevent a crime – or, okay, an animal attack. It does not mean a pissing contest that one person settles with a firearm. If a guy breaks into your house and you greet him with a shotgun, that definitely qualifies as a DGU. If you get into an altercation with a guy over a parking space and he becomes disproportionately aggressive to the point of threatening violence and you pull out a gun, chances are that qualifies as well. If you’re arguing with a guy, or even having a fistfight, with more or less equal ferocity and you whip out your Luger just to get the upper hand, that probably does not qualify.

But since we have no other number to use, let’s take it. If there are about 600 reported DGUs, and that’s about two-thirds of the total, that would give us 900 or so. Call it an even grand if you like.  We’re still short of 2.5 million, and we’re still outnumbered by gun crimes at least 400 to 1. But at least we’ve surpassed the frequency of lightning strikes.

We still should allow for the possibility, however, that there are other incidents out there that have been reported, but that these websites have overlooked. So let’s cross-check it.

FBI statistics show that for the five-year period ending in 2010, there was an average of 213 justifiable homicides per year by firearm. (A justifiable homicide is not necessarily a defensive use, but the majority apparently fit that description.) The Kleck-Gertz figures indicate that the defenders wound or kill their assailants only 8.3 percent of the time, but this is surely far too low – especially given that many alleged defensive gun uses involve nothing more than mentioning the existence of a gun! And the figures don’t specify how many are fatal. But if indeed there are 2.5 million DGUs per year, then the fatal shootings would account for only .0085 percent!  So let’s just skip Kleck altogether and stick with real numbers.

In a random selection of 200 DGU stories, I found that at least 69 resulted in the death of an alleged offender. (I say at least because I only read the headlines, which may or may not specify death – which often does not occur immediately in a fatal shooting.) If there are 213 such killings per year, and that represents about a third, then once again we are left with between 600 and 700 annual DGUs. In other words, it appears that there is no significant number being overlooked.

My exercise was not a controlled scientific study, just a suggestion or two about how one might be conducted. My figures may not be precise but they are, if not in the ballpark, at least on the right planet. If I had to wager whether the true DGU tally is closer to (a) 2.5 million, (b) 65,000 or (c) 500 to 1000, I’d bet the deed to the Ponderosa on the latter.

AFTERWORD: (2-22-12) In order to get an accurate estimate of DGUs, there are still three questions that need to be answered: (1) How often do the defenders actually report the incident to police? (2) How often do the police follow up on it? (3) How often do the media report the incident? I’m willing to bet that the answer to each question – for genuine DGUs – is “the great majority of the time”. But whether that’s true or not, researchers would be better served seeking answers to those questions and comparing those answers to the verifiable incidents, than in questioning gun owners about how often they’ve brandished their goodies. Even if the answer to each question is only 50 percent, that would mean no more than about 5000 annual DGUs.

Gun Anecdotes and Pretzel Logic

They seem to be arriving in the Inbox more frequently these days, those reports of incidents in which a law-abiding citizen thwarts the intents of evildoers thanks to being armed. Passed on by one of the gun addicts we all know in an effort to rationalize their habit, these narratives are often accompanied by dubious statistics about how often this sort of thing occurs, and often by comments that defy all reason for anyone except a gun addict.

In the first place, most of these incidents are bogus. There is, for example, the popular story of the 11-year-old girl in Montana who fatally shoots two home invaders. For an added touch of realism, the names and ages of the offenders are also included, and their names are -whaddaya know- Hispanic. (Paranoia about THEM wanting to harm us dovetails neatly with paranoia about THEM invading our borders and taking over our country). Nonetheless, the story is a fabrication.

Occasionally, however, such a thing really does happen. Earlier this month in Philadelphia, a Temple University student named Rob Eells was accosted by three teenagers demanding money, one of whom pulled a gun and shot him. Whereupon Eels pulled out his own gun and fired back. This incident has been making the rounds along with the fake one. And both of them have prompted some very strange conclusions, like the following.

1.” This proves that we have a constitutional right to own a gun.”

Say what? It might establish the advisability of owning a gun in some circumstances, but that’s a different matter from constitutionality or legality. Reason, alas, does not always inform constitutional or legislative changes. Remember Prohibition?

2. “This proves that gun control doesn’t work.”

How so? Firearm regulation, more pejoratively known as “gun control”, is not a single measure but a wide variety of measures, some more effective than others. The fact that one teenage hoodlum was able to get his hands on a weapon hardly proves that nobody else has ever been prevented from doing so.

3. “This proves that it’s stupid to outlaw guns.”

It may make a strong case that it’s unwise to do so in some communities, but every community is different. However, the comment is mostly irrelevant. It’s not very common for a community to ban guns altogether (and it wasn’t common even before the “conservative” Supreme Court rewrote the Second Amendment). That’s not what “gun control” is all about: it’s about keeping guns away from people like the teen hoodlums rather than people like the Temple student. Many advocates of “gun control” are themselves gun owners.

4. “This proves that more people should have guns.”

Seriously? You honestly believe that the Philadelphia episode would have turned out better if all three of the teens had opened fire instead of just one?

5. “Okay, but it proves that at least more law-abiding citizen should own guns.”

Ah, the classic John Wayne wet dream. Bad guy pulls his gun, good guy pulls his gun, and bang! good guy gets the drop on him, and rides off into the sunset.  The real world, however, isn’t nearly so pat.

The day after the shootout in Philly, a man rushed into a Nevada restaurant blazing away with an AK47, killing 3 people before turning the gun on himself. Two of the dead were National Guard members – meaning that they themselves were trained in the use of weapons. They probably weren’t armed at the time, but suppose they had been. Do you really believe that they would have taken note of what was happening, and looked up from their waffles and chat in time to prevent the shooter from doing his damage? Possibly, but not bloody likely.

Still, let’s indulge the fantasy. Imagine that the gun addict’s vision of Utopia had come to pass, and EVERYONE in the IHOP was packing heat. Imagine 50 diners slapping leather and opening fire from 50 directions. Imagine a dozen or two dozen bodies on the floor instead of 4. Do you truly consider that a preferred alternative?

There is no quick and easy solution to the problem of gun violence, particularly after so many years of Americans falsely believing they have a constitutional right to be armed. Even gun addicts themselves have been known to point this out – you may have seen, for example, bumper stickers that say “Gun Control – A Simple Solution for Simple Minds”. But there is nothing simple or simpleminded about “gun control”, which does not profess to be a magic bullet, as it were. What IS simpleminded and naive is the assumption that the problem will just take care of itself if we do nothing.