Cato Paper Shows How Guns Thwart Crimes and Save Lives


In a new Cato Institute paper, Clayton Cramer and David Burnett review the controversy over how often Americans use guns in self-defense each year. Estimates range from about 100,000 to more than 2 million, and the surveys used to generate the numbers are subject to weaknesses that plausibly lead to undercounting or exaggeration. Cramer and Burnett's contribution, an analysis of defensive gun uses reported in the press during an eight-year period, does not resolve this issue. As they emphasize, the vast majority of defensive gun uses seem to be encounters where brandishing a weapon suffices to interrupt or prevent a crime. When no shots are fired and no one is injured or killed, the incident may not even be reported to the police, let alone be deemed newsworthy. Still, Cramer and Burnett's analysis, based on a randomly drawn sample of nearly 5,000 incidents, sheds light on the details of cases that are considered interesting enough to report in a newspaper.

The most common situation, accounting for 1,227 of 4,669 incidents, was a "home invasion," where intruders try to force their way into a home they know to be occupied. Burglaries were also common, accounting for 488 incidents. In 285 cases, the defender had a concealed carry permit, and most of those incidents occurred in public. There were very few cases where a permit holder became involved in an avoidable dispute that turned deadly because he had a gun—a scenario that figures prominently in arguments against nondiscretionary permit laws. Also contrary to the warnings of gun controllers, victims in this sample were rarely disarmed by their attackers; the reverse happened more than 20 times as often. Criminals took away defenders' guns in 11 out of 4,669 incidents, and the defender ended up dead despite being armed in 36 incidents, less than 1 percent of the time. Cramer and Burnett describe many specific cases (mapped by Cato here) in which a gun prevented robbery, rape, serious injury, or death, illustrating their general point that policy makers need to take these benefits into account instead of focusing exclusively on criminal uses.

Cramer and Burnett note that journalists often seem irrationally hostile to the very idea of armed self-defense, as reflected in a 2009 Miami New Times story:

It was pouring rain just after 1 p.m. Monday, July 20, when a man burst into a Honduran grocery store on NW 36th Street in Miami. A shirt was wrapped around his face as he gripped a black semiautomatic handgun. Twenty-year-old Charles Bell shoved the pistol into the face of a manager behind the counter. Then he demanded the contents of the cash register and cartons of cigarettes in a plastic bag. Next he began herding customers to the back of the small market.

After the store's manger shot and killed the robber, police deemed it a justifiable homicide. The headline on the article: "South Florida Store Clerks Go Vigilante."