The Use of Guns for Self-Protection – Who Is Right?

This article was last updated on April 16, 2022

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The proponents of gun ownership generally cite examples of situations where gun-toting individuals use firearms to kill criminals or put a sudden stop to the committing of a crime.  Is this really true in the real world?
A recent study by the Violence Policy Center analyzes data from the FBIs Uniform Crime Reporting Program's Supplementary Homicide Report and the Bureau of Justice Statistics' National Crime Victimization Survey to see whether guns really do stop criminals.  In case you haven't heard of the Violence Policy Center, it is a "…non-profit educational organization that conducts research and public education on violence in America and provides information and analysis to policymakers, journalists, advocates and the general public.".  It is headquartered in Washington, D.C.
Now, let's look at the VPC's analysis, starting out by looking at some statistics.  Keep in mind that the FBI defines a "justifiable homicide" as the killing of a felon, during the commission of a felony, by a private citizen.
1.) In 2010, there were only 230 justifiable homicides involving a gun.  Of these, 56.5 percent of the persons killed were strangers and 35.7 percent were known to the shooter.  Of the total, 89.1 percent of the shootings were committed by men.  Of the total, 98.3 percent of the persons shot were men.  Again, of the total shooters, 52.6 percent were white, 44.3 percent were black and 2.2 percent were Asian.  Lastly, of the persons shot, 39.1 percent were white, 60 percent were black and none were Asian.
2.) Between 2006 and 2010, there were only 1031 justifiable homicides involving a gun.  Of these, 57 percent (588 of the 1031 total) of the persons killed were strangers and 31.4 percent (324 of the 1031 total) were known to the shooter.  Of the total, 81.3 percent of the shootings were committed by men.  Of the total, 98.5 percent of the persons shot were men.  Again, of the total shooters, 53.1 percent were white, 40.8 percent were black and 3.3 percent were Asian.  Lastly, of the persons shot, 39.6 percent were white, 58.2 percent were black and 0.4 percent were Asian.
The states with the most justifiable homicides over the five year period are:
Texas with 197
California with 108
Arizona and Florida with 66 each
Michigan with 43
Fifteen states reported no justifiable homicides.
Let's look at the type of firearms used in justifiable homicides between 2006 and 2010.
77.7 percent were handguns
9.1 percent were shotguns
4.5 percent were rifles
8.5 percent were not stated
Now, let's examine the use of guns for self-defense during the five year period from 2007 to 2011 from statistics compiled by the Bureau of Justice National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) which has been in existence since 1973.  During the aforementioned five year period, the NCVS estimates that there were 29,618,300 victims of an attempted or completed violent crime.  During that same period of time, only 235,700 of the self-protective behaviours used by victims involved a firearm.  The survey does not show whether a firearm was actually used or whether off-duty law enforcement officers are included.
Here is a chart breaking down the types of self-protective behaviours used:
Surprisingly, only 0.8 percent of violent crimes and attempted violent crimes were answered with the use of a firearm for self-protection.  Firearms are used to protect property in even fewer cases; over the five year period, of the 84.5 million property crimes, guns were used for self-protection only 103,000 times or 0.1 percent of the total.  Interestingly, however, Department of Justice statistics show that between 2005 and 2010, an average of 232,400 guns were stolen every year from American households.   
To put these numbers into perspective, the NRA often quotes the Defensive Gun Use (DGU) number of 2.5 million annually as taken from 1992 research completed by Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz in their "Armed Resistance to Crime: The Prevalence and Nature of Self-Defense with a Gun" paper.  Here's a quote:
"With a sample size of 4,977, random sampling error of the estimates is small. For example, the all-guns prevalence percent used A estimates, with a 95% confidence interval, are plus or minus 0.32% for past year, person; 0.35% for past year, household; 0.50% for past five years, person; and 0.54% for past five years, household. Given how small these are already, even increasing samples to the size of the enormous ones in the NCVS could produce only slight reductions in sampling error.
Are these estimates plausible? Could it really be true that Americans use guns for self-protection as often as 2.1 to 2.5 million times a year? The estimate may seem remarkable in comparison to expectations based on conventional wisdom, but it is not implausibly large in comparison to various gun-related phenomena. There are probably over 220 million guns in private hands in the U.S.,[57] implying that only about 1% of them are used for defensive purposes in any one year–not an impossibly high fraction. In a December 1993 Gallup survey, 49% of U.S. households reported owning a gun, and 31% of adults reported personally owning one.[58] These figures indicate that there are about 47.6 million households with a gun, with perhaps 93 million, or 49% of the adult U.S. population living in households with guns, and about 59.1 million adults personally owning a gun. Again, it hardly seems implausible that 3% (2.5 million/93 million) of the people with immediate access to a gun could have used one defensively in a given year."
In the same year, Department of Justice NCVS statistics showed that there were only a maximum of 82,000 DGUs.  Kleck and Gertz defend their argument, in part, with this sentence:
"Finally, our survey was superior to the NCVS in two additional ways: it was free of the taint of being conducted by, and on behalf of, employees of the federal government, and it was completely anonymous."
Keep in mind that the NCVS statistics report data only from those that have been a victim of a crime, not from a few thousand randomly selected Americans.
Whether you choose to believe the NRA's take on the use of firearms for self-protection or the conclusions of the Violence Policy Center, you must admit that it is interesting to see just how careful we should all be when listening to statistics regarding gun ownership and use.  Both sides of the issue carefully craft their arguments with statistics that back their viewpoint and totally dismiss the statistics that argue against them.  I, for one, tend to believe the Violence Policy Center's analysis simply because, statistically speaking, the huge sample size probably has less inaccuracies even if "Big Brother" (also known as The Department of Justice) is involved.
Click HERE to read more of Glen Asher's columns

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