If It's Not in the Paper, It Didn't Happen

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Gun control scholar Alan Korwin calls attention to a front-page story in the Arizona Tribune that credulously reported a local 17-year-old's conclusion that "almost nobody uses their guns in self-defense." High-school senior John Denton started his research project when he was 12 by collecting Tribune articles about defensive gun uses from April through June 1998. With help from his father, William Fabricius, a psychology professor at Arizona State University, Denton followed up on the cases to see how they were resolved by the legal system. "Of 81 incidents in which a gun was used," the Tribune reported, "only two were legitimately for self-defense." The father-son team concluded that survey data indicating as many as 2.5 million defensive gun uses a year in the U.S. must be wrong. Fabricius certified his son's work, which will be published in the Canadian journal Injury Prevention, as "scientific."

As Korwin notes, this study has the same weakness as research that estimates defensive gun use based on police records: The data represent just a small share of the total. Most cases where guns are used in self-defense–which (according to surveys by criminologist Gary Kleck and others) typically means brandishing the weapon to ward off an attacker–do not show up in police records, and they are not covered by the news media. In an open letter to Fabricius, Korwin writes:

Can you imagine conducting a similar "study" that finds most black people are either criminals, entertainers or sports figures, based on an analysis of blacks who are covered in the paper? It is too outrageous to consider! Can you then see how similarly flawed your father-and-son project was, as far as meaningful research goes?

Korwin's point is certainly valid. At the same time, there are problems with relying on survey data: Some of the people who say they've used guns in self-defense may be lying or mistaken. It's also possible that some fail to report incidents of self-defense because they're worried about legal repercussions (if they used an unlicensed weapon, for example). On balance, however, self-reports probably tend to exaggerate the total number of defensive gun uses.

Still, it beggars the imagination that the numbers could be off by as much as Denton and Fabricius seem to think, and it's telling that the Tribune story did not offer a single critical perspective on their research. Even if the reporter and her editors saw this as mainly a human interest story about an unusual father-son project, they had to know that it would upset Arizona's legions of gun rights supporters. Maybe that was the point.

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  1. You know, Russ, as much as I?d like to see Kerry take a Cheney-like stand on gun issues, I think I?ll probably see pigs fly first.

    Kerry took time out of his extremely busy Primary schedule just to cast a vote for a renewal of the Sem-Auto ban. Gun control seems to be one of the few things that Kerry takes a firm stand on. I get the impression he?d rather lose than cross the anti-gun crowd. So be it.

    My big problem is that I?m a very pro-gun social liberal. I don?t fit in with either the Dems or the Reps. Gary Nolan, anyone?

  2. You know, Russ, as much as I?d like to see Kerry take a Cheney-like stand on gun issues, I think I?ll probably see pigs fly first.

    Kerry took time out of his extremely busy Primary schedule just to cast a vote for a renewal of the Sem-Auto ban. Gun control seems to be one of the few things that Kerry takes a firm stand on. I get the impression he?d rather lose than cross the anti-gun crowd. So be it.

    My big problem is that I?m a very pro-gun social liberal. I don?t fit in with either the Dems or the Reps. Gary Nolan, anyone?

  3. Korwin’s point is not valid. As the article makes clear, they are comparing with the numbers of firings and woundings that there would have been if Kleck’s numbers are right. If Kleck’s numbers are correct there should have 98 defensive woundings. Instead there were just two reported.

    If it beggars the imagination that Kleck could be off by so much, then I recommend John Allen Paulos’ book “Innumeracy”, and read the section on false positives.

  4. Russ: {Ted Rall’s most recent column (appearing in yahoo op/ed today) opines that Kerry needs to uncompromisingly support the right wing version of the second amendment in order win.}

    It’s a little late, given that the gun control groups give him close to 100% on supporting their issues, and the only time he interrupted his campaign to return to D.C. and vote it was a pro-gun control vote.

    {The only way to counteract the Bubba-baptists is to let the non baptist bubbas keep their guns.}

    Given that there are 80 million gun owners, and not near that many “non-Baptist bubbas,” I think maybe your count is off.

    {Think about it – where are all the militia nuts worried about loss of rights, invasions of privacy, and all that patriot Act activity? They’re supporting it, because Bush has them thinking they get to keep their guns.}

    I doubt if any of the former “militia” organizations have enough members to stage a good baseball game. And half the members that do show up are law enforcement infiltrators.

    On the other hand, the NRA is one of the lead organizations working against campaign finance reform’s First Amendment breeches. Or doesn’t that count?

  5. Wait, you can’t only define a defensive use of a gun when it is fired, and that shot hits something, and then someone reports it. Merely racking the slide on my Mossberg, or letting the bolt on my AR slam shut is all that’s needed to turn a criminal into a sprinter. And again, this is reported uses. Who has time to report a gun use when we’re digging holes?

  6. “Most cases where guns are used in self-defense–which (according to surveys by criminologist Gary Kleck and others) typically means brandishing the weapon to ward off an attacker–do not show up in police records, and they are not covered by the news media.”

    So a gun can only be used in a crime when somebody fires AND hits somebody, but a guns can be used defensively just by clicking shut the whatever the hell fetishists like Usoe click shut.

    Provide some evidence that offensive use of guns is 39.5 times more likely than defensive use to go beyond intimidation (“empty the register,” grab bag, run) or involve misses, and you might have a case.

  7. Offensive uses of guns by criminals whether shots are fired or not are a lot more likely to get reported to authorities than are defensive uses of guns to ward off criminals.

    Robbery victims have to file a police report to collect insuruance money toward recovering their loss. Criminals aren’t going to call up the cops and announce that some citizen thawrted their attempted mugging by aiming a gun at them.

  8. Offensive uses of guns by criminals whether shots are fired or not are a lot more likely to get reported to authorities than are defensive uses of guns to ward off criminals.

    Robbery victims have to file a police report to collect insuruance money toward recovering their loss. Criminals aren’t going to call up the cops and announce that some citizen thawrted their attempted mugging by aiming a gun at them.

  9. “So a gun can only be used in a crime when somebody fires AND hits somebody, but a guns can be used defensively just by clicking shut the whatever the hell fetishists like Usoe click shut.”

    Joe, I’d recommend you do some google searches on “robbery + brandish”.

    I think that the fundamental thing you’re missing is the fact that brandishing in the comission of a crime, say robbery, would still be a crime, and most likely would be reported as such. While brandishing in self defense wouldn’t necessarily.

  10. If a mugging victim being chased down the street pulls out a gun and stops the attack, a crime has been committed, as well. If there is no crime occurring, why the hell are you pointing a gun at someone?

    Dave, I suggest you do some google searches on “breaking and entering,” “assault,” “attempted rape.”

  11. Joe, I know you like to be contrarian, but you’re not making sense. Yes, a crime has been committed in your mugging scenario — but the crime isn’t the part with the gun, so the defensive gun use may never be recorded.

    To break it down:

    Offensive gun uses: usually reported to police (by the victims), whether or not the gun is fired.

    Defensive gun uses: often reported to the police only when the gun is fired. For instance, if someone breaks into your home, you wave your gun at him and threaten him, and he leaves, you may call the police to report a break-in, but not mention the part about brandishing your weapon.

  12. “Defensive gun uses: often reported to the police only when the gun is fired. For instance, if someone breaks into your home, you wave your gun at him and threaten him, and he leaves, you may call the police to report a break-in, but not mention the part about brandishing your weapon. ”

    Yeah.

    Or if you scare off a mugger on the street by pulling your gun and consequently didn’t get your money stolen, why bother reporting it to the police? All they’re going to do is waste your time at no benefit to you.

  13. Joe,

    It’s really quite simple: Not every person who brandishes a gun and stops an attack calls the police to let them know about it. Why? Several reasons, including the police saying “so? you didn’t get robbed, did you?” and the police saying, “Really? What was your name again? Do you have a license to carry a firearm? No? We’ll be right over to pick you up for questioning.” The reasons are immaterial; when you get attacked and have to brandish to thwart the attack, all you want to do afterward is go home and have a stiff drink. Believe me, I know. In my case I did get the police involved since my car had run out of gas and I didn’t want to stay in the area longer than I had to after the event. But even then they never made an official report of it as a defensive use.

    On the flip side, just about everyone who gets robbed, mugged, or attacked by an armed person reports it to the police, unless they were doing something incriminating at the time as well.

    Hence, more “offensive” than “defensive” gun uses get reported in the official literature, as well as the papers.

  14. I think we’re coming up with a lot of very good questions to ask here. People have framed all sorts of scenarios where one type of gun use might be under-reported relative to the other. I can see how if we aren’t careful about definitions we might run into problems where mere brandishing is sufficient for gun use to be counted in one category, while firing a shot and injuring somebody is required to be listed in the other category.

    The thing is, with all of these hypotheticals and questions, nobody on either side of the debate has really posted any facts in this discussion.

    But everybody in this discussion has posed some hypotheticals that fit their ideological predispositions.

    A pox on both your holsters!

  15. Good points, but I believe that non-shooting gun crimes may be under-reported as well. Lefty waves his gun in your face to make the point that you’d better pay back Alphonse, then punches you in the stomach as a closer. Rape is reported far less than 1/4 of the time. My own cousin got ripped off at uzi-point by a gentleman who offered to sell him some (redacted).

  16. “Rape is reported far less than 1/4 of the time.”

    What makes you think guns are involved in most rapes?

  17. A nation of people who are not responsible enough to carry guns is not responsible enough to elect people to carry guns.
    The government’s authority derives from our consent, not the other way around. Funny how few people even among the elite who blog understand that.

  18. The Tribune is a terrible newspaper. It’s articles seem to be written by 12 year olds. When I lived in Tempe, I had a subscription to that paper for a short time but quickly stopped it after I realised how terrible the paper was. It does not surprise me in the least to hear that they did no research on an article that they published or that they offered no critical perspective.

    Unfortunately, the other major paper that I have experience with here in AZ, The Republic, is only slightly better.

  19. Another fine example of high-quality research and scholarship by the anti-gun crowd. I’m wondering when Handgun Control Inc and other groups are going to be touting this study as a debunking of Gary Kleck and others.

  20. If you want a bad newspaper, try the New Haven Register. Even the student-run Yale Daily News is far better, which is why most people in the New Haven area seem to prefer the Hartford Courant or New York Times.

  21. In the high school science fairs I judge, there are always one or two stoners who submit half-assed reports on why their drug of choice should be legalized. If only the media would pay them the same attention they paid this kid.

  22. I applaud the kid for his research efforts, even if they were flawed. Most 12 year olds would just look in an encycolopedia or do a quick google search. His dad, however, needs to take some remedial research courses.

  23. Tim — Did the Kleck/Gertz study break down the figures by state? I hadn’t thought so (although I haven’t read it so I could be wrong). In particular, does it indicate that there should have been 98 woundings in the time of the kid’s study, taking place in the circulation area of the Tribune?

  24. “On balance, however, self-reports probably tend to exaggerate the total number of defensive gun uses.”
    Oh? What balance? Whose balance? Someone has a thumb on the scales, I believe.
    Why do you suppose all gun control politicians have armed guards close by, or concealed carry permits? Ain’t it kinda dumb to carry around a useless gun? Why do cops bother?
    Sheesh!

  25. Ted Rall’s most recent column (appearing in yahoo op/ed today) opines that Kerry needs to uncompromisingly support the right wing version of the second amendment in order win. “What if,” he says, “Al Gore had convinced the Floridians that he, not Bush, was more likely to let them keep their guns?” Besides not having a 6 trillion dollar deficit. He makes the point also, truthfully, that gun control efforts fruitless.

    I have to agree with him that fringe issues will make or break the landscape. I would go on to say that this is because everyone is equally stupid, including teenage hucksters and their psychologist daddies, and the fringe issues are the only things that separate left wing fascists from right wing fascists.

    Lyndon Johnson lamented that signing the civil rights act gave the south to the republicans. The only way to counteract the Bubba-baptists is to let the non baptist bubbas keep their guns. Think about it – where are all the militia nuts worried about loss of rights, invasions of privacy, and all that patriot Act activity? They’re supporting it, because Bush has them thinking they get to keep their guns. And they’re dumb enough to think that becasue they have those guns, all that Patriot Act activity can’t happen to them.

  26. Kleck/Gertz did not break things down by state. Denton has just used the national rate. Since Arizona has concealed carry and higher gun ownership than average, this will be an underestimate. Denton writes:

    “Kleck and Gertz estimated that 2.81% of DGUs are killings or woundings. (This is the hit rate of criminals shooting at their victims, which they argued is more realistic than the rate of 8.3% that their subjects reported because that would mean citizens were better marksmen than police.) Their subjects reported that 15.6% of DGUs involved firing at assailants, and 64.2% were known to the police. Kleck and Gertz s data would predict 77 cases of DGU killings or woundings in Phoenix during the 74 days in which we surveyed for homicides and woundings, 49 of which the police should know about, and 184 firings during the 32 days in which we also surveyed for firings, 118 of which police should know about. Phoenix accounted for half of gun uses, so we should expect the police to know about 98 DGU killings or woundings and 236 DGU firings.”

  27. With regard to Brandishing during a crime in progress….what’s NOT being mentioned here is Brandsihing to PREVENT a crime from happening. I have personally “brandished” (showed that I was armed) on two seperate occasions. The first being while at an local bank ATM late at night here in Phoenix. As I was about leave, a pickup truck pulled up near the curb. The driver opened the door and got out with a tire tool in his hand…not an illegal act YET. But, feeling that his intentions were less that honorable, I pulled back the front of my jacket to make my weapon visable. When the driver saw that I was armed, he got back in the truck and drove off. No crime. No illegal act happened. No report. But, can you imagine what could have happened had I NOT displayed the weapon? That was a crime prevented as far as I’m concerned.

    On the second occasion, I had stopped at an accident that had just occurred. About the same time that I got there an off duty and unarmed Deputy Sheriff who was out with his family arrived. Sinse that were no other LEO as the scene, he tried to get things under control. The occupants of one of the vehicles were behaving in a less than friendsly manner towards him and were saying that they were going to leave. When he told them that they had to stay they became even more hostile. Being that my vehicle was the nearest to the officer’s, he came over and asked me to remain at the scene with him until other LEOs arrived to take over. I told him that, Yes I would remain, and, that I was armed. When things started to get really ugly looking I stepped out of my vehicle with my weapon in plain sight. THAT had a very dramatic affect. Everyone who had been, in my view, ready to attack the officer, got very polite and co-operative. Again, no crime was commited. No weapon drawn, and no report taken. BUT..a crime had been PREVENTED by the mere “showing” of a weapon.

  28. John Lott’s claims about the newspapers omitting details about the shootings are bogus. Long and setailed analysis is here.

  29. “What makes you think guns are involved in most rapes?” Nothing, merely that they are involved in some.

  30. Jeez, you folks get real trigger happy when someone questions the usefulness of deadly weapons.

  31. People get guns because they want them. They may want them or justify wanting them because of self-defense, but the real reason they get them is they want them. The 2nd Amendment is critical but as far as acquiring guns goes, that’s a consumer choice.

  32. Ed Wise: {People get guns because they want them. They may want them or justify wanting them because of self-defense, but the real reason they get them is they want them. The 2nd Amendment is critical but as far as acquiring guns goes, that’s a consumer choice.}

    I would agree that the majority of gun owners would own firearms whether they thought they “needed” them for self-defense or not. But as a concealed handgun license instructor my experience is:

    1. One reason for making the consumer choice to purchase a gun is a perceived need for self-defense. I have purchased two firearms primarily because they were good guns to carry. Many of my students have done the same.
    2. Out of several hundred students I have also had a dozen or so who had never owned firearms before learning how to shoot and qualifying for a CHL. None of them seem to have any interest in shooting as a pleasurable activity. Sometimes their motivation is simply, “My ex is getting out of prison and I don’t want to die.”
    3. Given the disastrous results of the anti-self-defense laws in Britain, for a government to allow the consumer choice to own firearms for self-defense seems justifiable.
  33. People get trigger happy when it appears that other people are looking for a justification for the government to take away yet another right.

  34. Ok this comment comes from a backwoods type that almost flunked goverment so my knowledge of the political impacts of gun control are out of my league.

    I wonder how many gun shot wounds are treated in hospitals yearly that were inflicted by self-defense? What’s the guy going to say in the hospital? Oh I was trying to mug some poor old lady and she shot my ignorant butt?

    Another comment about gun control, you might look at those “they’ll get my gun with they pry it from my cold dead fingers” bumperstickers and laugh. You need to know before you do though that alot of people like myself hold this belief without concerning ourselves with what goes on in politics concerning gun control. It’s our right, that’s what we were told by dad and/or gramps and we don’t second guess them.

    I wondered about a comment my brother made once, that one reason the US hasn’t had an invading force in a long time isn’t because of fear of the military but primarily because of the fear of the general population.

    Once again I’m not politicaly knowledgeable, I only know what dad and gramps taught me 😉

  35. “Can you imagine conducting a similar ‘study’ that finds most black people are either criminals, entertainers or sports figures, based on an analysis of blacks who are covered in the paper? It is too outrageous to consider! Can you then see how similarly flawed your father-and-son project was, as far as meaningful research goes?”

    Quoted from http://www.keepandbeararms.com

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