A Survey Not Designed to Measure Defensive Gun Use Finds Little of It

Do less than 1 percent of crime victims defend themselves with firearms?



A study in the latest issue of Preventive Medicine estimates that less than 1 percent of crime victims use guns in self-defense. The authors, Harvard health policy professor David Hemenway and University of Vermont economist Sara Solnick, find that using a gun seems to be effective at reducing property loss but "is not associated with a reduced risk of victim injury." It will surprise no one familiar with the long-running debate about defensive gun use (DGU) that the source of the data for this study is the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), which consistently generates much lower DGU estimates than other surveys do. At least some of that gap can be plausibly explained by weaknesses in the NCVS that Hemenway and Solnick do not seriously address or, for the most part, even mention.

The biggest strength of the NCVS, which is conducted annually by the U.S. Census Bureau on behalf of the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics, is its large, nationally representative sample, which includes 90,000 households and about 160,000 individuals. The survey's biggest weakness in this context is that it is not designed to measure DGUs, and there are good reasons to think it misses a lot of them.

Looking at data from 2007 through 2011, Hemenway and Solnick found "14,145 crime incidents in which the victim was present at the incident." Just 127 of those victims, about 0.9 percent, used a gun defensively, and their injury rate (4.1 percent) was about the same as the overall injury rate (4.2 percent) for victims who took any sort of protective action. Judging by the injury rates, a gun looks more effective than other weapons, unarmed resistance, or screaming, but less effective than running away or calling the police.

As Hemenway and Solnick concede, such comparisons may be misleading. "Instances of self-defense gun use [SDGU] may differ in many ways—including ways we could not control for—from instances where the victim used other forms of self-defense or took no self-protective action," they write. Fleeing and calling the police, which on the face of it seem like the safest options, are not always feasible, and the situations where victims use guns in self-defense may be more dangerous to begin with. Notably, victims who reported any kind of protective action were almost twice as likely as the other victims to have been injured before reacting, which suggests, as you might expect, that victims adjust their responses according to the threat they perceive from their attackers.

When they considered property loss, Hemenway and Solnick found stronger evidence that guns can help. While 85 percent of victims who took no protective action lost property, the rate for victims who used guns was 39 percent. Victims who used other weapons did a little a better, losing property 35 percent of the time. By comparison, most victims had something taken when they resisted without weapons, argued, cooperated, screamed, or called police. "Compared to other protective actions," Hemenway and Solnick conclude, "the National Crime Victimization Surveys provide little evidence that SDGU is uniquely beneficial in reducing the likelihood of injury or property loss."

That interpretation seems too strong, since the survey does provide evidence that guns (and other weapons) are pretty effective at preventing theft. But the real problem is that the 127 DGUs identified by this survey may represent just a fraction of respondents' DGUs, for reasons that Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck has long emphasized. The NCVS, unlike surveys by Kleck and others that have generated higher DGU estimates, is not anonymous. Respondents have to supply their names and contact information, they are initially interviewed in person by a representative of the federal government, and they know the survey is commissioned by the Justice Department, a law enforcement agency. Hence it is plausible that some respondents remain silent about their DGUs because they worry that their actions could be legally questionable, given all the restrictions on where and when people may use firearms.

Furthermore, as Hemenway and Solnick acknowledge, respondents are never directly asked about defensive gun use, and they are given an opportunity to describe it (along with any other actions they may have taken in response to an attack) only after identifying themselves as crime victims. Kleck notes concerns that the NCVS seriously undercounts crimes such as spousal assault and rape, which implies that it undercounts DGUs by victims of those crimes. People who use their guns to prevent crimes—say, scaring away a would-be burglar or rapist simply by announcing that they are armed—may not see themselves as crime victims and therefore may not get a chance to report their DGUs in this survey, even assuming they are inclined to do so. A combination of these factors may explain why Hemenway and Solnick find not a single sexual assault prevented by a gun in five years of NCVS data.

It's possible, of course, that some respondents asked about DGUs in surveys like Kleck's make up stories (despite his best efforts to distinguish between real events and tall tales), misconstrue or misremember ambiguous situations, or report DGUs as more recent than they really were (which would affect the estimate of annual DGUs). There is an enormous gap between the 100,000 or so DGUs per year indicated by the NVCS and the estimates generated by other surveys, which range as high as 2.5 million. It is tempting to conclude that the truth lies somewhere in between, although Kleck argues that even 2.5 million may be an underestimate given people's reluctance to report, even in an anonymous survey, actions that might get them into legal trouble.

Hemenway and Solnick predictably argue that Kleck's numbers are improbably high, and it is tempting to surmise that the truth lies somewhere in between. But while Kleck has responded at length to criticism of his methods and conclusions, Hemenway and Solnick's article barely alludes to the NCVS weaknesses he highlights. They do mention that the survey includes "no specific questions about self-defense gun use." That's a pretty big flaw for a study aimed at measuring self-defense gun use, which the NCVS isn't.

Brian Doherty has more on the controversy over counting DGUs.

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  1. Happy LaboUr Day.

    1. Hello, Rufus.

      Thanks! “It’s a day *on*, not a day off.” Oh, wait — that’s MLK Day.

    2. It’ll be a happy day as long as nobody suggests Thanksgiving should be celebrated in October. That’s just nonsense talk.

      1. We should be giving thanks every single day!

        1. I’m thankful not to be Canadian.

          1. Aw.

            What’s wrong? Silver Screen Classics was discontinued?

  2. The effectiveness of defensive gun use is beside the point. That being; is the government going to obey its own laws or isn’t it? When the Gun Control proponents put forward a Constitutional Amendment, THEN I will be prepared to examine their arguments. Until then they are just another bunch of scofflaws that think their Cause should be exempted from the rules.

    1. They’re waiting for SCOTUS to imperil 2A protections for them.

      1. They’re waiting for SCOTUS to imperil 2A protections for them.

        I imagine that once Hillary Clinton is president and Chuck Schumer is appointed to the Supreme Court, the matter of whether or not the Second Amendment recognizes an individual right to keep and bear arms will be revisited.

    2. They obey the FYTW Clause of the Constitution.

    3. Yep. It’s like some of the arguments for mass surveillance.

      “Effective’s got nothing to do with it.”

    4. “The effectiveness of defensive gun use is beside the point.”

      Thank you for saying that. It really needs to be said.

      My rights exist regardless of whether they’re a net benefit to other people. A society in which people are only free to do things so long as they’re a net benefit to other people is a totalitarian society.

  3. When these knee-jerk, anti-gunners push for asny change to current laws regarding firearms possession they need to be challenged about why they are concerned with the actions of law abiding gun owners. When they walk back their rhetoric and start talking about criminals they need to be asked what is so special about their proposed law that criminals will obey it when no other law restrains their actions.

    1. I must disagree. What they need to be asked, every single time, is “Why is your Cause so important that it justifies junking the limits e Constitution places on the State? And how do we know that, once you have established gun control as a precident, you won’t follow it with press control?”

      They really don’t want to talk openly about their clear contempt for the entire concept of a limited State. They sputter and shuck-and-jive and generally beclown themselves.

  4. I’ve always felt safe with my friends Mr. Browning and Dan Wesson.BTW,the DW 357 I bought years ago is a very good gun.


    How come Reason didn’t cover the passing of Irwin Keyes?

    1. How come Reason didn’t cover the passing of Irwin Keyes?

      I’ve been wondering the same thing, and have in fact been petitioning the editors since July to cover Mr. Keyes’ passing, all to no avail.

      Interesting, the condition that gave him such a distinctive face (which arguably contributed to his success as a character actor) is also what killed him.

      1. Other notable sufferers of acromegaly: Andr? the Giant, Richard Keil (“Jaws” from James Bond), motivational speaker Anthony Robbins, and an Austrian fellow named Adam Rainer (d. 1950) who is the only person on record as having been both a dwarf and a giant.

        1. What about Lou Reed?

          1. What about Lou Reed?

            Lou Reed isn’t sufferng at all anymore.

  6. In a nutshell: Survey’s find what they’re designed to find.

    1. This is worse than that, because even the data they got doesn’t support the conclusions.

    2. Apostrophes are designed to mislead you on their use.

  7. Even if the dubious study produced quality scientific results, oh well, they will just have to get over it. There’s this thing called rights.

  8. The main takeaway from articles like this should be that any “medical” study related to guns is going to be horseshit, because they start from an incompatible view. Nothing in the RKBA or any particular of “gun use” can be rationally treated as a public health issue.

  9. Less than 1%. Well if it saves just one life. Lower percentages than that related to risk of terrorism hasn’t stopped the government from turning this country into a police state.

  10. Once again – I am not one of your goddamned statistics.

  11. It is tempting to guess that the truth lies somewhere in between.
    It is tempting to believe that the truth lies somewhere in between.
    It is tempting to reckon that the truth lies somewhere in between.
    It is tempting to deduce that the truth lies somewhere in between.

    (pumping house beat kicks in)

    1. With the Liberal Intellectual Radical Progressive establishment (and gun control is their baby), it is tempting to beleve that the truth lies in some disregarded corner.

  12. Surprised no one has pointed out the obvious conclusion: people who use guns to defend themselves are not crime victims.

  13. Yet another example of “ask the wrong question, get the wrong answer” in medical research.

  14. People need to question if the amount of DGUs is in any way related to their right to self defense, and to own the proper tools to exercise that right.

  15. 1% huh? so 99% of victims don’t use a gun? sounds like it’s really really hard to make someone with a gun a victim of a crime.

  16. I’ve always felt safe with my friends Mr. Browning and Dan Wesson.BTW,the DW 357 I bought years ago is a very good gun.

  17. I’ve always felt safe with my friends Mr. Browning and Dan Wesson.BTW,the DW 357 I bought years ago is a very good gun.

  18. i’m sure it won’t help anything.

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