Are Guns “Almost Never” Used in Self Defense?

Authored by: Matt Palumbo

Did you know that you should never buy fire insurance? What’s the point, when most people won’t ever see their house catch fire?

Most can probably see the flaw in such questions – as the very point of insurance is to protect against low-probability events. Most people seem to understand this kind of logic; apparently except in the case of self-defense.

A new article at NPR, headlined :”How Often Do People Use Guns In Self-Defense?” gives the impression “almost never.” Author Samantha Raphelson quotes Harvard researcher David Hemenway in stating that “The average person … has basically no chance in their lifetime ever to use a gun in self-defense.”

Hemenway had conducted a study back in 2015, which found using “figures from the National Crime Victimization Survey, [that] people defended themselves with a gun in nearly 0.9 percent of crimes from 2007 to 2011.”

Apparently we’re supposed to disarm ourselves, because this author thinks it would be preferable if guns were used in self-defense 0% of the time. But are his numbers right? As Reason Magazine’s Jacob Sullum noted:

The NCVS, unlike surveys that have generated higher defensive gun use (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.

The survey also doesn’t ask people if they ever used a firearm in self-defense. It’s up to them to describe if they did. And if someone voluntarily discloses the time they pulled a gun on a criminal, even if justified, you can bet there’s a chance the government will investigate. Who wants that headache?

I wouldn’t speculate that under-reporting of DGU is a variable here – if it wasn’t for studies finding drastically higher frequencies of it, including those conducted under anti-gun administrations.

A 1994 survey conducted by Bill Clinton’s CDC found that Americans use guns to frighten away intruders who are breaking into their homes about 500,000 times per year

Obama’s CDC conducted a gun control study in 2013, finding 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…” The study also noted that “[S]ome scholars point to a radically lower estimate of only 108,000 annual defensive uses based on the National Crime Victimization Survey,” but this “estimate of 108,000 is difficult to interpret because respondents were not asked specifically about defensive gun use.”

And just some other notes…

  • The Hemenway study found that it’s rural dwellers that are most likely to use a gun in self defense, but it’s urban dwellers that have the most violence – and the strictest gun control. This brings an old Michael Moore quote to mind, which he thought was a case for gun control: “the vast majority of these guns are owned by people who live in safe parts of town or mostly in suburbs and rural areas, places where there are very few murders.”
  •  It’s also worth pointing out that most crimes occur outside the home. Thus, if Hemenway is concerned about guns not being used in self-defense enough, he should come out in support liberalizing concealed carry laws. Concealed carry permit holders commit infractions at lower rates than police, so there isn’t much to fear.

Think that’ll happen anytime soon? I won’t keep my fingers crossed.