Defensive gun use is more common than criminal gun use. Almost every major study has confirmed that.
MYTH: Guns are used for crime more than they are used for defense.
REALITY: This is false. The data supports the opposite conclusion. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, there were around 480,000 criminal uses of guns in 2019. This is in contrast to about 500,000 to more than 3 million defensive gun uses (DGU) per year.
A 2013 study ordered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and conducted by The National Academies Institute of Medicine and National Research Council reported that “Defensive use of guns by crime victims is a common occurrence”: 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, in the context of about 300,000 violent crimes involving firearms in 2008.”
In addition, based on unpublished surveys, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in its Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS); in the years 1996, 1997, and 1998, Criminologist Gary Kleck estimated that there were an average of 1.1 million defensive gun uses annually.
In 1997 research published by the department’s National Institute of Justice found that there were about 1.5 million DGUs annually. One of the largest surveys of its kind found the number may even be higher. Firearms Survey, conducted by the private polling firm Centiment on behalf of William English of the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University found that there were about 1.67 million DGUs per year. That is extremely close to the figure by the National Institute of Justice.
One of the arguments that left-wingers use is that the questions in the surveys, about DGUs, were too broad. My response is that that the survey questions have many of the same qualifications that the questions tallying criminal gun use have. Defending your life, family, and property should be counted as a DGU; just as an armed criminal trying to take someone’s life, family, and property counts as criminal use of a firearm. This is the only fair way to determine it. Any other way would be biased.
The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) finds that the number is much lower. The NCVS estimates 116,000 DGU incidents per year. The objection to the NCVS number is that the survey never directly asks whether the respondents/victims used a gun to protect themselves. This methodological flaw, along with several others, severely undercounts the true number.
If the low end is 116,000 and the high end is 3 million, then what is the true number? According to the Rand Corporation, a non-partisan research organization, the true number is somewhere in between. “Estimates for the prevalence of DGU span wide ranges and include high-end estimates—for instance, 2.5 million DGUs per year—that are not plausible given other information that is more trustworthy, such as the total number of U.S. residents who are injured or killed by guns each year. At the other extreme, the NCVS estimate of 116,000 DGU incidents per year almost certainly underestimates the true number.” However, one mistake that the organization makes is the assumption that when a gun is used defensively, it results in the perpetrator being hospitalized. According to a 2002 study by John R. Lott, 95% of the time, brandishing a weapon alone, without firing, was sufficient enough to stop an attack. Other criminologists have got similar results (somewhere between 70% to 90%). Also, none of this is even taking into account when someone shoots but misses. Nonetheless, I do believe the true answer is somewhere in the middle.
In conclusion, most evidence points to the number of DGUs being somewhere in the millions; (somewhere between 500,000 to more than 3 million times per year). This is far more than how many times guns are used criminally.
National Institute of Justice, Guns in America: National Survey on Private Ownership and Use of Firearms, May 1997
Rand Corporation, The Challenges of Defining and Measuring Defensive Gun Use, March 2, 2018
Georgetown McDonough School of Business, 2021 National Firearms Survey, July 14, 2021
Hsiao, T. (2021, October 5). Guns used more for self-defense than crimes. Washington Times.
Myth #3 – “2.5 million defensive gun uses each year can’t be accurate”. Buckeye Firearms Association. (n.d.). Retrieved July 17, 2022, from https://www.buckeyefirearms.org/myth-3-25-million-defensive-gun-uses-each-year-cant-be-accurate
Doherty, B. (2018, September 4). A second look at a controversial study about defensive gun use. Reason . Retrieved July 17, 2022, from https://www.google.com/amp/s/reason.com/2018/09/04/what-the-cdcs-mid-90s-surveys-on-defensi/%3famp
Kleck, G. (2018). Response errors in surveys of defensive gun use: A national internet survey experiment. Crime & Delinquency, 64(9), 1119–1142. https://doi.org/10.1177/0011128718763138
McDowall, David (Summer 2005). “John R. Lott Jr.’s Defensive Gun Brandishing Estimates”. Public Opinion Quarterly. 69 (2): 246–263. doi:10.1093/poq/nfi015.
Hsieh, P. (2018, April 30). That time the CDC asked about Defensive Gun Uses. Forbes. Retrieved July 17, 2022, from https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.forbes.com/sites/paulhsieh/2018/04/30/that-time-the-cdc-asked-about-defensive-gun-uses/amp/
Tom W. Smith, A Call for a Truce in the DGU War, 87 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 1462 (1996-1997)