The latest research confirms that guns are used more in self-defense than they are in crimes.
According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, there were around 480,000 criminal uses of guns in 2019. Although this number might seem significant when viewed in isolation, existing research has consistently shown that the number of annual defensive gun uses vastly exceeds criminal uses.
A 2013 review of the literature by the National Research Council found that “almost all national survey estimates indicate that defensive gun uses by victims are at least as common as offensive uses by criminals, with estimates of annual uses ranging from about 500,000 to more than 3 million.” At the time of the 2013 report, there were nineteen surveys on the frequency of defensive gun uses. All found that defensive gun uses were prevalent. The vast majority of these surveys indicated that there are at least a million annual defensive gun uses. Of these, the most reliable survey found at least 2.1 million defensive uses of guns each year.
Confirming this scholarly consensus, two recent studies lend strong confirmation to the idea that defensive gun uses vastly outnumber criminal uses, with one finding that there is 1.67 million defensive gun uses each year.
The 2021 National Firearms Survey, directed by William English of Georgetown University, surveyed more than 54,000 Americans and identified 16,000 gun owners. They were then asked a battery of questions related to their ownership of firearms. Five methods were used to ensure truthful answers. Mr. English’s survey utilized the largest sample size of any study that has ever been conducted on defensive gun use, being nearly ten times greater than that of the next largest survey.
Mr. English found that “guns are used defensively by civilian firearms owners in approximately 1.67 million incidents per year. Handguns are the most common firearm employed for self-defense (used in 65.9% of defensive incidents), and in most defensive incidents (81.9%), no shot was fired.” Mr. English found that more than half of defensive gun uses occurred in situations involving two or more assailants, highlighting guns’ importance as equalizers. Besides producing an estimate of defensive gun uses, Mr. English also found that:
- 81.4 million adult Americans own guns.
- 57.8% of gun owners are male, 42.2% are female.
- 25.4% of Blacks own firearms.
- Handguns are the firearm most commonly used in defensive incidents (65.9%), followed by shotguns (21.0%) and rifles (13.1%).
- A majority of gun owners (56.2%) indicate that there are some circumstances for which they carry a handgun for self-defense.
- About a third of gun owners (34.9%) have wanted to carry a handgun for self-defense in a particular situation, but local rules prohibited them from doing so.
- 30.2% of gun owners, about 24.6 million people, have owned an AR-15 or similarly styled rifle.
- 48.0% of gun owners have owned magazines that hold over ten rounds.
The second study, published by Gary Kleck in the American Journal of Criminal Justice, analyzes three CDC surveys conducted in 1996, 1997, and 1998. These surveys collected information about defensive gun uses as part of the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. However, for unclear reasons, the results were never published by the CDC.
Mr. Kleck analyzed the raw data and found that these three surveys each yielded estimates of defensive gun uses that were far greater than the number of criminal uses. According to Mr. Kleck, “these three CDC-based estimates average 1,109,825 DGUs per year for the period 1996–1998.” These results are consistent with other survey research for that time period.
Why didn’t the CDC publicize the findings of its surveys? We can only speculate, but one plausible answer is that the survey results would have been against the stated goals of the Clinton administration. Further gun control measures would be a hard sell if the government’s surveys showed that guns are used more in self-defense than they are in crime.
Mr. Kleck is also the author of another study published this year in the Archives of Suicide Research, which found that gun ownership does not affect the number of overall suicides. Although gun availability does relate to how people choose to kill themselves, it does not affect the number of people who commit suicide.
Defenders of gun control frequently argue that defensive gun uses are infrequent. They will often appeal to the federal National Crime Victimization Survey findings, which yields estimates of around 70,000-100,000 annual defensive gun uses. However, these results are at odds with more than 20 surveys on the frequency of defensive gun use. Indeed, the NCVS estimates are the sole outlier.
How could the NCVS yield such a low number? The problem with appealing to the NCVS is that it never actually asks respondents about defensive gun uses. Instead, respondents have the option to volunteer this information if they indicate being the victim of a crime. As such, it is hard to take the NCVS seriously as being a reliable estimate of defensive gun use, given that it doesn’t even field a single question about that topic. All other survey research explicitly designed to measure the frequency of defensive gun uses has shown that defensive gun uses are much more common than criminal uses. The latest research hammers in more nails in the coffin for the rare DGU thesis. The three CDC survey results are particularly telling, as it is from a source that is commonly perceived as anti-gun.
Mr. English’s survey results provide insights into the nature of gun ownership that is useful in shaping the direction of policy debates over gun ownership. In particular, his findings that nearly one-third of gun owners possess an AR-15 style rifle and that half of gun owners have owned magazines holding over ten rounds (which some states classify as “large-capacity”) shows that they are in common use, contrary to those who claim that they should be restricted because they are unusual and limited to military applications.
His finding that 80% of defensive gun uses do not involve a shot being fired. More than half include situations with two or more assailants, shows that guns function as a vital force multiplier that equalizes disparities between victims and their offenders. The fact that guns are rarely fired in self-defense situations also shows that they are safe for both victims and offenders.
While the latest research provides further reasons to oppose gun control measures, the ultimate basis of the individual right to own a gun is not a balancing test of costs and benefits. The point of a right is to offer protection against competing interests, especially when these interests involve a majority against a minority. As such, the basis of rights cannot be a cost/benefit analysis, nor can such studies ordinarily override rights, especially rights that are a direct means of protecting the most important right: the right to life.
The right to own a gun does not depend on the number of defensive gun uses, but the frequency of defensive gun uses significantly strengthens gun ownership.
• Tim Hsiao is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Grantham University. His popular writings have appeared in The Federalist, Human Events, Quillette, Public Discourse, and the Foundation for Economic Education. His website is http://timhsiao.org.