The Volokh Conspiracy

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Defensive Gun Use Among Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, Asians, and American Indians


As I mentioned yesterday, there's a new survey aimed at determining patterns of gun ownership and defensive gun use, from Prof. William English at the Georgetown University. It's much larger than most other such surveys, with over 54,000 adult American respondents, of whom over 16,700 personally owned guns.

The large sample allows the survey to give much more reliable information about subcategories of the U.S. population, for instance getting a sense of gun ownership rates by state (ranging from 16%, or about half the national level, in Massachusetts, to 54%, or more than half above the national level, in Idaho). My own California, generally seen as a state with very heavy gun regulations, is still not far below the average, at 25%. Even deepest-of-deep-blue D.C. is at 24% (though with a higher margin of error, 16% to 35%).

It also gives more reliable information about demographic subgroups. Gun ownership was reported by:

  • 25.4% of black respondents.
  • 28.3% of Hispanic respondents.
  • 19.4% of Asian respondents.
  • 34.3% of white respondents.
  • 38.2% of American Indian respondents (information not in report, but supplied to me separately by Prof. English).

But black and Hispanic gun owners report a higher rate of defensive use of the guns they do own than do whites (and the differences is statistically significant); defensive uses were reported by

  • 44.3% of black gun owners.
  • 39.3% of Hispanic gun owners.
  • 26.0% of Asian gun owners.
  • 29.7% of white gun owners.
  • 47.7% of American Indian gun owners.

Multiplying out yields estimates of about 18% of American Indian respondents and 11% of the black and Hispanic respondents reporting having used a gun defensively, and about 10% of the white population, though only about 5% of the Asian respondents. (As other surveys report, the defensive uses are much more often displaying the gun or saying something like "I have a gun!" than actually shooting the gun.) There thus seems to be virtually no racial disparity in reported defensive gun use among the three largest racial/demographic groups in the U.S.

There's more interesting stuff in the survey, which I hope to report on in later posts. One general note: Surveys of course have various limitations, including that respondents might err (deliberately or inadvertently), yielding either overcounts or undercounts. Still, for questions such as this, a well-designed survey is pretty much the only game in town, since there generally aren't other ways of measuring gun ownership or defensive gun use. (Many defensive gun uses, for instance, might not even get reported to the police, for instance if a gun user scares away a burglar: The gun user might think there's no point in reporting, especially if he didn't see the burglar's face clearly, and might even worry that there's some risk, for instance if he's not sure that his gun ownership is technically legal. If the crime is reported, the gun user might not mention the gun use. And if the gun user mentions the gun use, that might not get stored in police records in a way that could then be aggregated with similar information from other records.)