How Often Are Guns Used for Self-Defense?

How Often Are Guns Used for Self-Defense?
How Often Are Guns Used for Self-Defense? A demonstrator holds a “Guns Save Lives” sign during a Second Amendment March in front of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan, U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. The event occurred as the Michigan Capitol Commission continues to consider whether to limit firearms inside the building, after rejecting one such proposal on Monday, The Detroit News reported. Photographer: Emily Elconin/Bloomberg via Getty Images

As the country reels from a pair of devastating mass shootings, the gun lobby has doubled down on the notion that “a good guy with a gun” is the only thing that can stop “a bad guy with a gun.” That maxim is central to the National Rifle Association’s decades-long mission to relax gun laws and increase gun sales. Right-leaning media outlets have amplified that message in recent years by reporting that instances of self-defense by law-abiding owners actually outnumber gun crimes. 

But is it true? 

A reader asks, Are there more instances of defensive gun use than gun crimes, and where does the claim come from?

The reality is that estimates of defensive gun use are so squishy that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in May removed all figures from its website. But below we do our best to separate fact from fiction.

What is defensive gun use? 

It’s typically defined as using a firearm to protect yourself, your family, or other people from a crime. The gun could be fired or simply brandished. Examples include shooting an attacker in mid-assault or displaying a gun to discourage a burglar. 

How many instances of defensive gun use are there each year?

The number of DGUs, as these incidents are commonly known, is hard to pin down. Law enforcement agencies don’t typically classify DGUs as a standalone category. The FBI tracks justifiable homicides, but states aren’t required to submit those figures, so the data is incomplete. And the FBI figures omit defensive assaults, in which someone fights off an attack, and brandishings.

This ambiguity has opened the door to a fierce debate between gun violence researchers and pro-gun advocates, who tend to cite different sets of data. Academics largely rely on the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), a twice-yearly poll of crime victims conducted by the federal government, while gun rights activists point to a series of telephone surveys conducted in the early 1990s by a criminologist and self-described “gun control skeptic” named Gary Kleck.

The NCVS identifies far fewer instances of defensive gun use. According to the most recent firearms violence report, published in April, 2 percent of victims of nonfatal violent crime — that includes rape, sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault — and 1 percent of property crime victims use guns in self-defense. According to the survey, firearms were used defensively in 166,900 nonfatal violent crimes between 2014 and 2018, which works out to an average of 33,380 per year. Over the same period, defensive gun use was reported in 183,300 property crimes, or an average of 36,660 per year.