If there is one issue which continues to define the gun debate, it’s whether the 30,000+ gun deaths and 60,000+ gun injuries that occur each year can be justified because guns also protect us from crime. Not surprisingly, the pro-gun community led by the NRA has not only embraced the notion that armed citizens protect us from crime, but use this notion to explain the decline in violent crime over the past twenty years.
While nobody would argue with the idea that a gun can be used as a protective device, the problem is trying to figure out just exactly how often what is called a Defensive Gun Use, or DGU, actually takes place. Most of the DGU evidence is purely hypothetical, based on anecdotal accounts which total less than 100 DGU events per year. For that matter, the DGU survey conducted by Gary Kleck, which claimed that DGU events totaled more than 2 million per year, was based on interviews with 213 respondents, at a time when, according to Kleck, most people with access to a gun that could be used defensively didn’t necessarily have the legal right to own a gun at all. So if you’re trying to gauge how people behave with an object that they can’t necessarily tell you they actually possess, you have something of a problem validating anything they might say.
The issue of how often guns are used in self-defense is the point of a new study released by the Violence Policy Center, which studied data on DGUs for the period 2007 – 2012. THE VPC study uses data from two sources to get at the number of DGUs that happen each year. The first source is the FBI, which tabulates justifiable homicides, defined as “the killing of a felon, during the commission of a felony, by a private citizen.” In 2012 there were 259 justifiable homicides committed with a gun, and over the five-year period beginning in 2008, the yearly average was 221.
The other source for DGUs is the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) conducted each year by the Department of Justice, which shows an average of 47,140 DGUs each year. The NCVS data doesn’t indicate whether a gun that was used in self-defense against a criminal was actually fired, but it does disclose that of all methods used by victims of violent crimes to defend themselves before or during the attack, a gun was the preferred method of defense less than 1% of the time. What was the most frequent way in which crime victims defended themselves? What you would expect, namely, by using their mouths to yell, scream or otherwise alerting either their attacker or others that something dangerous was going on.
Not surprisingly, pro-gun advocates have been taking pot-shots at the NVCS and other surveys which show minimal DGUs with guns. Gary Kleck recently re-surfaced in Politico where he defended his 1994 estimate of 2.5 million yearly gun DGUs without advancing any new data, even though the extension of CCW to all 50 states has rendered his basic thesis (that most people could not admit to carrying a gun outside the home) basically invalid.
I buy the NVCS data about DGUs for one simple reason, namely, that the survey covers a large number of respondents – more than 90,000 households – and is conducted yearly so that trends can be developed and verified over time. I also buy the FBI data because, when all is said and done, justifiable homicide is an objective definition for DGUs, rather than a subjective opinion about a criminal event that may or may not have taken place. In that regard, by comparing the scant number of gun DGUs to the 90,000+ gun mortalities and morbidities that occur each year, the VPC report represents a positive contribution to the gun debate. And if the pro-gun folks don’t feel comfortable engaging in a debate using evidence-based data, so what else is new?