Raw materials: how often are guns used in self defense?

3 men shooting handguns at a range
At home on the range

One challenge of stepping hip-deep into an issue about which one wishes to be as objective as possible is that of not believing one’s own PR.  I might like cliches, but I hate drinking the Kool-Aid, even my own special brew.

To that end, fact-checking is indispensable.  As a starting reference, I’ll be using the Gun Control Fact Sheet 2004 from Gun Owners of America.  I’ve searched their website and am unfamiliar with any more recent version at this time.  However, I should throw out a caveat or three.

I am not affiliated with Gun Owners of America and know precious little about the organization or its history (as of now).

I am also not affiliated with the National Rifle Association and know precious little about them, either.

Further, I’m unaffiliated with any political party.  It would be tempting to say that I lean toward the progressive liberal end of the spectrum, except for the fact that when I lean away, I lean really far away.  Case in point: gun control.  Until I see adequate reason to change my perspective, I’m radically pro-Second Amendment.  In part, it’s because I currently subscribe to the “because TYRANNY!” school of thought.

Lastly, this is not part of a series, so to speak.  I’ve tried that before and, any excuses aside, did not meet the objective.  It might be better to consider this part of a case of chronic head-scratching.

Having said that, I’ve got plenty of history to read before I can either solidly shore up or shoot down the “because TYRANNY” line of reason.  Go ahead, have a giggle or lob a verbal grenade if you will.  In the meantime, there’s the assertions put out there by organizations such as GoA and NRA from which to work.

For starters, there’s the claim that guns are used in self-defense 2.5 million times per year.  A cursory search turns up the following resources.  I’ve yet to read all in depth, but I must say it’s not looking good for the “2.5 million per year” claim.

In any case, even should this claim not stand up to scrutiny, there’s plenty of other data in the above-linked fact sheet.  I encourage anyone interested in the issue to engage in their own fact-checking, pro or con.

And remember folks, logical fallacies invalidate reasoning.  The conclusion may be correct, but the reasoning will lack persuasive power.  If there’s to be any hope of persuading someone to come down off the fence, try for sound reasoning.  I’ll be the first to admit I’m the pot calling the kettle black on more than a few occasions, but I’m working on that.

Articles about the “2.5 million times per year” claim:

First, there’s the article referenced in footnote 1 in the fact sheet linked above.

1 Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz, “Armed Resistance to Crime: The Prevalence and Nature of Self-Defense With a Gun,” 86 The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Northwestern University School of Law, 1 (Fall 1995):164.

For what it’s worth, a correction was subsequently submitted, but I don’t know that it is material to the outcomes and analysis.

From what I can tell, JCLC has its bona fides in order.  It’s one of the library-screened journals for 2012 at the National Criminal Justice Reference Service.

From the JCLC About page:

The Journal remains one of the most widely read and widely cited publications in the world. It is the second most widely subscribed journal published by any law school in the country. It is one of the most widely circulated law journals in the country, and our broad readership includes judges and legal academics, as well as practitioners, criminologists, and police officers. Research in the area of criminal law and criminology addresses concerns that are pertinent to most of American society. The Journal strives to publish the very best scholarship in this area, inspiring the intellectual debate and discussion essential to the development of social reform.

 Then there’s the authors to consider.  Granted, Wikipedia is hardly the best source, but I’ll take it as a point of departure.

Dr. Kleck is covered in brief there, with some deficiencies in citation of course.  Dr. Gertz is not.  Both Dr. Kleck and Dr. Gertz have “About” pages at Florida State University.  One good reason to check out the Wikipedia article on Dr. Kleck is for the criticism of his research directly related to the “2.5 million times per year” claim, as one is hardly likely to find criticism on their own PR pages.  Make what you will of the criticism of his methodology as highlighted there, and his response that, in all reality, his number is probably an underestimation.

We’ll see, perhaps.

For one thing, there’s this article by the Dr. Hemenway mentioned in that criticism:

The Myth of Millions of Annual Self-Defense Gun Uses: A Case Study of Survey Overestimates of Rare Events

Then there’s this to consider:

Harvard Injury Control Research Center: Gun Threats and Self-Defense Gun Use

Of note, items 1-3 are geared to debunking the Kleck claim.  Interestingly, all three feature Dr. Hemenway, who just happens to be Professor of Health Policy at, you guessed it, Harvard School of Public Health.

Mind you, I’m not schooled in this content area, but I have been trained to raise an eyebrow when things don’t look quite right, somehow.  My intuition and $5 will get you a fancy cup of coffee.  Consider, though, to all appearances at this stage, we have one Dr. Hemenway all but calling Dr. Kleck a crank, at least in one respect.  One is from Harvard, one from FSU, which may be meaningless in itself.  Then again, according to The Never Ending War Over a Gun Statistic at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Hemenway, et al’s attitude toward Kleck’s results might best be described as ridicule.

David Frum offers his own breakdown of the statistic at CNN in Do Guns Make Us Safer?

Blogging with Footnotes offers a similar analysis in Lies of the Gun Lobby (part 1), calling attention to the apparent absurdity of some of Kleck’s results.

Of course, no easy answers are just going to jump into our laps.  In Chapter 5: The Use of Firearms to Defend Against Criminals in Firearms and Violence: A Critical Review (2004) at The National Academies Press, we find this assessment of the estimate of uses:

Ultimately, researchers may conclude that it is impossible to effectively measure many aspects of defensive gun use. As noted above, counting crimes averted before the threat stage, and measuring deterrence more generally, may be impossible. Successful deterrence, after all, may yield no overt event to count. Imagine, for example, measuring defensive gun use for a person who routinely carries a handgun in a visible holster. How many times has this person “used a handgun, even it was not fired, for self-protection?” (i.e., the NSDS definition of defensive gun use). In this regard, much of the debate on the number of defensive gun uses may stem from an ill-defined question, rather than measurement error per se.

Later, after quoting Kleck regarding the effective replication of his results, the review states:

Certainly, the numerous surveys reveal some phenomena. In light of the differences in coverage and potential response errors, however, what exactly these surveys measure remains uncertain. Ultimately, the committee found no comfort in numbers: the existing surveys do not resolve the ongoing questions about response problems and do not change the fact that different subpopulations are queried. Mere repetition does not eliminate bias (Rosenbaum, 2001; Hemenway, 1997a).

The review later goes on to say:

The most obvious and fundamental limitation, however, is that the data on defensive gun uses are, as described above, potentially error ridden.

As it stands, it seems I have much to read and absorb before I decide for myself, on the merits of the argument as I see them, whether there’s any substance to the “2.5 million times per year” claim.  It might be faster if someone could provide compelling evidence as to how that claim stands up to what appears to be extensive academic criticism.

Any takers?


Image credit: Photo by Jimi Lanham, licensed under Creative Commons.


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