Suing Gun Manufacturers: Hazardous to Our Health

Policy Reports | Crime | Government | Regulations

No. 223
Monday, March 01, 1999
by H. Sterling Burnett

Guns: Criminal Misuse and Self-Protection

Table I - National Firearms Crimes%3A High Estimate

"Citizens use guns in self-defense as many as 3.6 million times annually."

According to the 1997 Bureau of Justice Statistics figures, 483,000 firearm crimes were reported to the police in 1996. We can derive an upper bound to the number of firearm crimes, 915,000, by multiplying the number of rapes/sexual assaults, robberies and aggravated assaults reported in the 1997 National Crime Victimization Survey, which estimates crimes both reported and not reported to the police, by the percentage of these crimes committed with firearms from the 1997 BJS Sourcebook.22 [See Table I and Figure I.]

More than 15 studies have shown that citizens use guns in self-defense between 764,000 and 3.6 million times annually.23 Criminologist Gary Kleck has estimated there are more than 2.5 million defensive gun uses per year.24 A study sponsored by the National Institute of Justice and carried out by the Police Foundation found an even greater number of defensive gun uses - approximately 2.73 million a year.25 Either figure is larger than the number of crimes committed with firearms.

"About 3,000 criminals are lawfully killed each year by armed civilians - more than three times the number killed by police."

The only survey that ever found fewer than 700,000 defensive gun uses (DGUs) per year is the National Crime Victimization Survey, which estimated that guns were used defensively approximately 80,000 times annually.26 Not surprisingly, supporters of more restrictive firearms laws cite this survey as evidence of the relative infrequency of defensive gun use versus gun crime. The clearest evidence that the NCVS data on defensive gun uses is seriously flawed is that it is radically different from the results of every other survey. Near unanimity is relatively rare in crime studies but, except for the one outlier, it seems to be the case on the issue of DGUs. Among the notable problems with the NCVS are: (1) the respondents were not anonymous, (2) respondents were not directly asked if they had ever used a firearm for self-defense but rather simply whether they had done "anything" for self-protection and (3) most violent crimes reported to the NCVS were committed away from home but relatively few people have concealed carry permits. A respondent admitting defensive use would have been admitting - to a government agency - illegal or legally questionable behavior.

Figure I - Annual Defensive and Criminal Use of Guns

Other studies show that criminals fear armed citizens far more than they fear the police.27 Their fear is reasonable. Approximately 3,000 criminals are lawfully killed each year by armed civilians - more than three times the number killed by the police.28 For example:

  • Leonard Carter, 71, shot and killed an intruder who first attacked Carter on his Philadelphia porch, followed him into his house and threatened to kill him with a knife; the young attacker was found to be under the influence of drugs.29
  • Karen Walkden, 18, shot and killed her landlord after he grabbed her and said he was going to rape her.30
  • Using a shotgun, a 15-year-old Houston boy defended his father from two masked housebreakers; one attacker died, the other fled.31

An additional 9,000 to 17,000 criminals are wounded by civilians each year.32 For instance:

  • A Massachusetts tanning salon owner who had been maced by two would-be robbers sent them fleeing when he opened fire with his .38 caliber pistol; one man was wounded and was later arrested when he sought treatment for his injuries.33
  • Concealed carry permit holder Vincent McCarthy shot a police officer's attacker, who was enraged over the fact that his wife was receiving a traffic ticket, in the back of the knee.34

Far more often, when guns are used to thwart a crime, no shots are fired. In most cases, merely showing the firearm prevents the attack or the crime.35 For example:

  • Using his .357 caliber revolver, Frank Bergamo of Pueblo, Colo., held a would-be housebreaker until police arrived.36
  • When a Louisiana woman injured during an attempted carjacking retrieved her revolver from under the seat, the would-be car thief fled.37

"At any one time, only 75,000 to 80,000 police are on duty to protect about 271 million people."

Rather than conceding that guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens deter crime, supporters of gun control argue that citizens do not need guns for self-defense. After all, they say, "that's what we have the police for." But the reality is that at any one time, only 75,000 to 80,000 police are on duty to protect about 271 million people - which is why police primarily investigate crimes rather than prevent them. In addition, the courts consistently rule that the police are not obligated to protect individuals, but only to maintain "public order and safety." Therefore, people's best security against crime is their own willingness to defend themselves.38

Figure II - Percent of Assault Victims Injured by Type of Resistance

Research supports the view that an armed response works. For example, women faced with assault are 2.5 times less likely to suffer serious injury if they respond with a firearm rather than trying to defend themselves with less effective weapons or by offering no resistance. According to the Department of Justice, only one-fifth of the victims who defended themselves with firearms suffered injury, compared to almost half of those who defended themselves with other weapons or with none.39 A study of robberies found:40

  • Of robberies begun, fewer than 31 percent were completed when the victims defended themselves with a firearm, compared to 35 percent when the victims had a knife and more than 88 percent when the victims offered no resistance.
  • During those robberies, persons who defended themselves with firearms suffered injury in 17 percent of the cases, compared to 40 percent of cases in which persons defended themselves with knives, 22 percent in which they used other weapons, 25 percent when they did not resist and 35 percent when they tried to flee.

As Figure II shows, persons defending themselves with guns during an assault were injured 12 percent of the time, compared to nearly 30 percent for those who attempted self-defense with knives, 25 percent for those using other weapons, 27 percent for those offering no resistance and nearly 26 percent for those who fled or resisted nonviolently. Firearms are the safest, most effective way to protect oneself against criminal activity.

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