Gun Stats

Measuring armed self-defense


Gun control advocates emphasize the easy-to-count number of crimes committed with firearms. But what about crimes that are prevented by guns?

As historian Clayton E. Cramer and activist David Burnett explain in a new Cato Institute study, attempts to estimate how often Americans use guns for self-defense have generated a wide range of estimates, from tens of thousands to 2 million per year. Cramer and Burnett's paper, "Tough Targets: When Criminals Face Armed Resistance From Citizens," does not settle the issue, but it attempts to balance our understanding of firearms in America by presenting information derived from a 5,000-case sample of defensive gun uses reported in newspapers from 2003 through 2011.

Government opposition to expanding gun rights "is typically based on assumptions that the average citizen is incapable of successfully employing a gun in self-defense," they write. But the authors find that "such cases represent an exceedingly small minority of gun uses by otherwise law-abiding citizens and that a great number of tragedies—murders, rapes, assaults, robberies—have been thwarted by self-defense gun uses."

The newspaper method likely undercounts the incidents, since most defensive gun uses—especially ones that don't result in the gun being fired—never make the papers. The case studies and the conclusions the authors draw provide a wide picture of the varied human circumstances in which gun possession is a clear benefit.