This essay by criminologist Gary Kleck is a must read reference for anyone involved in the citizen disarmament (gun control) debate. While it is a bit dated, as crime rates have been cut in half since it was written, 80 million more firearms have been added to the civilian American stockpile, and concealed carry permits have likely tripled or quadrupled, it is still highly informative and useful.
Gun ownership for self-protection, and defensive gun use, must be distinguished from other forms of forceful activity directed at criminals, such as private vigilantism, or the activities of the criminal justice system, such as police making arrests. All of these can be coercive and all may be done by armed persons. However, vigilantism and criminal-justice activity share a purpose that self-defensive actions do not–retribution. Whereas the criminal-justice system and the vigilante both seek to punish wrong-doers, the defensive gun user seeks to protect the bodily safety and property of himself and others. Retribution is neither an essential nor even necessarily common part of self-defense actions. Further, the vigilante proactively seeks out contact with criminals, while the defender typically reacts to actions initiated by criminals. The true vigilante acts collectively, in concert with like-minded individuals, whereas the defender ordinarily acts alone. It therefore is an oxymoron to refer to a defensive gun user as a “lone vigilante.” Further, gun ownership is largely passive self-protection–once a gun is acquired, the owner only rarely does anything defensive with it. Only a minority of defensive owners actually use their guns for self-protection; most of the rest just keep the gun in a bureau drawer or similar location, where it is available for use should the need arise. This contrasts sharply with neighborhood crime control strategies, that may require considerable investment of time and effort from each participant.
Although gun ownership costs more money than simple measures such as locking doors, having neighbors watch one’s house, or avoidance behaviors such as not going out at night, it costs less than buying and maintaining a dog, paying a security guard, buying a burglar alarm system, or relocating one’s residence to an area with less crime. Consequently, it is a self-protection measure available to many low-income people who cannot afford more expensive alternatives. Gun ownership is not a replacement or substitute for these other self-help measures, nor for criminal-justice-system activities, but rather is more accurately thought of as a complement to them–an additional measure that might prove useful, for at least some crime victims, some of the time.
At least 12 national and 3 state-wide surveys have asked probability samples of the general adult population about defensive gun use. The surveys differ in many important respects. The two most sophisticated national surveys are the National Self-Defense Survey done by Marc Gertz and myself in 1995 and a smaller scale survey done by the Police Foundation in 1996.
The National Self-Defense Survey was the first survey specifically designed to estimate the frequency of defensive gun uses. It asked all respondents about both their own uses and those of other household members, inquired about all gun types, excluded uses against animals or connected with occupational duties, and limited recall periods to one and five years. Equally importantly, it established, with detailed questioning, whether persons claiming a defensive gun use had actually confronted an adversary (as distinct from, say, merely investigating a suspicious noise in the backyard), actually used their guns in some way, such as, at minimum, threatening their adversaries (as distinct from merely owning or carrying a gun for defensive reasons), and had done so in connection with what they regarded as a specific crime being committed against them.
The National Self-Defense Survey indicated that there were 2.5 million incidents of defensive gun use per year in the U.S. during the 1988-1993 period. This is probably a conservative estimate, for two reasons. First, cases of respondents intentionally withholding reports of genuine defensive-gun uses were probably more common than cases of respondents reporting incidents that did not occur or that were not genuinely defensive. Second, the survey covered only adults age 18 and older, thereby excluding all defensive gun uses involving adolescents, the age group most likely to suffer a violent victimization.
The authors concluded that defensive uses of guns are about three to four times as common as criminal uses of guns. The National Self-Defense Survey confirmed the picture of frequent defensive gun use implied by the results of earlier, less sophisticated surveys.
A national survey conducted in 1994 by the Police Foundation and sponsored by the National Institute of Justice almost exactly confirmed the estimates from the National Self-Defense Survey. This survey’s person-based estimate was that 1.44% of the adult population had used a gun for protection against a person in the previous year, implying 2.73 million defensive gun users. These results were well within sampling error of the corresponding 1.33% and 2.55 million estimates produced by the National Self-Defense Survey.
The one survey that is clearly not suitable for estimating the total number of defensive gun uses is the National Crime Victimization Survey. This is the only survey that has ever generated results implying an annual defensive-gun-use estimate under 700,000. Not surprisingly, it is a favorite of academic gun-control supporters. If one is to make even a pretense of empirically supporting the claim that defensive gun use is rare in America, one must rely on the National Crime Victimization Survey, warts and all.
This excerpt is about one eighth of the entire essay, enough to give a good taste for the meat involved. Highly recommended for anyone who is interested in facts and logic.