Op-Ed: New VPC Study Challenges Prevalence of Gun Use in Defensive Situations

Scotus Guns
AP Photo/David Duprey)

Editor’s Note: This Op-Ed was written and submitted to Breitbart Texas by Michael Haugen, social media associate with the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

“Guns are rarely used to kill criminals or stop crimes.”

Such is the claim made by a new report released by the Violence Policy Center this month. According to the report—in which they cite data from the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report—there were “only” 259 justifiable homicides across the country in 2012 involving a private citizen’s use of a firearm, compared to the 8,342 criminal homicides that occurred the same year. Put another way, for every defensive use of a firearm that year, there 32 guns implicated in a criminal homicide.

Later on the report, this time referencing data from the National Criminal Victimization Survey (NCVS), the authors state that in the five year period between 2007 and 2011, the survey estimates that there were 29,618,300 victims of attempted or completed violent crime, and that only 0.8 percent of time—237,500 in total—did the intended victim thereof attempt to resist using a firearm. As far as property crime is concerned, there were 84,495,500 instances of victimization, with only 0.1 percent of self-protective behaviors involving a firearm.

Taking these and other ancillary data together, the author’s claim that the “reality of self-defense gun use bears no resemblance to the exaggerated claims of the gun lobby and gun industry,” who “frequently claim that guns are used up to 2.5 million times each year in self-defense in the United States.”

So, what to make of it all?

To begin, it’s difficult to tease out just what the authors would like to see happen next, armed with this information. They allude to the fact that the “gun lobby” uses their apparently false numbers to “prevent the regulation of military-style semiautomatic assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines,” but interestingly, the author’s own data states that all rifles, not just semi-automatics, are used in only a small number of homicides. Therefore, restricting their use would be of limited import. More obvious desires—like increasing background checks, or even banning certain guns—aren’t given at all.

It’s important to note at this point that a defensive gun use doesn’t necessarily mean that the gun is even fired. Most law abiding citizens who possess guns with the intent of protecting themselves or their property are nonetheless reluctant to actually shoot an invader or assailant; they just want the threat to end. Most times, simply brandishing or pointing a gun at a criminal is sufficient to thwart an attack; after all, few people interested in self-preservation aren’t taken aback by staring down the business end of a Smith and Wesson. Such realities aren’t always reflected in the data, but still constitute a defensive use of a firearm.

There are questions to be had of the data for violent and property crime victimization, as well. To wit, it isn’t explicitly stated anywhere in the data just what proportion of the total number of violent crimes were committed against victims who weren’t gun owners in the first place, but would have used them for self-protection if they were. Additionally, how many of the total number of victims were indeed gun owners, but lacked time to make use of them? These questions don’t change the realities of what actually happened, but are important to note because there is likely a significant subset of victims who would use a gun for self-defense if they actually owned one, or, owning one, were unable to make use of it. This creates a murky view of victimization when analyzing the utility of gun ownership in combatting it.

The inability of people to use a gun in certain situations in which they indeed would if given a chance has had real consequences. Amanda Collins, a former student at the University of Nevada-Reno, was brutally assaulted mere feet from her campus’ police station in 2007. A concealed carry holder, she was nonetheless unable to use her gun whatsoever due to campus restrictions on carrying a firearm. It’s difficult to know whether her gun would have made a difference for her should she have had it, but it certainly couldn’t have hurt her chances, either.

Other researchers—including Gary Kleck, Professor of Criminology at Florida State University—have raised salient methodological arguments regarding the gulf between the NCVS data, and numerous other surveys showing defensive firearm use numbering in the millions.

In his book Armed: New Perspectives on Gun Control, Kleck states that many features of the NCVS can contribute to an underestimation of defensive gun usage, not least of which is the fact that interviewers never directly ask survey respondents about defensive gun use. Instead, upon offering to NCVS interviewers that they have been the victim of a crime when asked, the follow up question is merely: “Was there anything you did or tried to do about the incident while it was going on?” Framing the question this way is noteworthy, as it allows for voluntary disclosure of defensive gun use, as opposed to asking more affirmatively.

As highlighted in the book, Tom Smith, director of the National Opinion Research Center, noted that “indirect questions that rely on a respondent volunteering a specific element as part of a broad and unfocused inquiry uniformly lead to undercounts of the particular of interest [author’s italics].”

While there isn’t enough room in this post to delve into every factor contributing to survey discrepancies—Kleck gives no less than six in his book, and discusses a few here—the takeaway point is this: there are deficiencies within the NCVS that undermine the ability of anyone to make firm assertions based on its data. Nor does the NCVS necessarily invalidate the findings of manifold other surveys, including the National Self-Defense Survey, that show millions of defensive gun uses every year.

More generally, violent crime over the last three or four decades has been dropping precipitously nationwide at the same time that the number of guns in circulation has skyrocketed. According to the Congressional Research Service, gun owners across the country owned 192 million guns in 1994; a per capita rate of roughly 73 guns per 100 citizens. By 2009, that number had jumped by 61% to 310 million guns, at a rate of 101 guns per 100 citizens. To put the increase of guns in circulation into further relief, since 1968—the year the Gun Control Act was passed—the per capita rate has doubled, from one gun per two persons, to one gun per person.

While such a large increase in privately held guns doesn’t necessarily lead to lower crime—correlation doesn’t equal causation—it’s nonetheless interesting to note that such high numbers of firearms in the hands of citizens hasn’t caused a spate of violent crimes being committed with them.

Even if we were to take as rote the conclusions drawn from this report—that defensive gun use isn’t as prevalent as common wisdom would have it—we still must ask ourselves a rather blunt question: Does it matter? Given that our 2nd Amendment codifies an individual right to keep and bear arms for the use of self-defense—a right dating back to English common law, and repeatedly upheld by federal courts—the actual number of defensive gun use loses its ultimate significance. The right to self-defense is a basic human right. A supposed lack of defensive firearm use doesn’t negate a would-be victim’s right to provide for their own defense, no matter how often it actually happens.

Michael Haugen is a social media associate with the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.


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