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


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.