Guns and Self-Defense

Monday, February 6th, 2012

A new Cato study finds 5,000 incidents from 2003-2008 in which a gun was used in self defense. But the authors point out that even that figure likely low-balls the real number.

The data set supporting this paper is derived from a collection of news stories published betweenOctober 2003 and November 2011.

There is a selection bias problem withthe method of gathering news stories. Many defensive gun uses never make the news.Sometimes that is because the person us-ing a gun in self-defense saw no need to callthe police—he or she scared off the bad guy.In some cases, the victim might not wantto explain to the police that he has a gun,perhaps because he is a felon, or perhapsbecause he lives in a jurisdiction with very restrictive gun control laws. Sometimes thepolice do get called, but the officers do notfind the circumstances sufficiently impor-tant to issue a press release. After all, “ManScares away Burglar, No Shots Fired” is notparticularly newsworthy, unless you live in a  very small town.

I found this part interesting.

For a very long time, gun control propo-nents would insist that having a gun was a mistake, because many people (especially women) would not be willing to shoot a person who was attacking them—and thecriminal would then take away the victim’sgun and use it on the victim. Oddly enough,while the authors have recorded a large num-ber of incidents where someone has their guntaken away from them, it is usually the otherway around. In 227 incidents, a criminal’sgun was taken away from him by the victim.This does not necessarily mean that the victim shot the criminal, but it does mean thatthe victim successfully disarmed the crimi-nal and then threatened the criminal withit in order to make him leave, or make himremain on the scene until the police could arrive. Often, these were situations where the victim, at the start of the attack, did not have a gun . .

. . . By comparison, the data set contains only 11 stories out of 4,699 where a criminal tooka gun away from a defender; the reverse, aswe have seen, was reported more than 20times more often.

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31 Responses to “Guns and Self-Defense”

  1. #1 |  Dave Krueger | 

    Given the government’s propensity to criminalize non-criminal behavior, there is a need to disarm the non-criminal population in order to make it easier for cops to arrest them (presumably by breaking down their door, shooting their pets, beating the shit out of them, and otherwise terrorizing them).

  2. #2 |  Marty | 

    this is a nice wrinkle in the discussion.

  3. #3 |  Peter Ramins | 

    Looking at the data, I conclude that all we need to do is tell people to take an armed assailant’s gun away from him.

    But don’t go out and buy one of your own, that would just be silly.

  4. #4 |  Brian Moore | 

    I agree with #3! We should give handguns to all criminals, and then mandate martial-arts-movie-style gun disarm training for all non-criminals. That way, both sides will be happy.

    Gun control advocates could now happily order the arrest of anyone carrying a gun, confident in their criminal status, and gun control opponents would be confident that any time a criminal threatened a citizen, a gun would always be available for self defense.

  5. #5 |  Corneliusm | 

    I wonder if there are any statistics on victims getting shot after failing to disarm their attacker(s).

    I think the odds are still very much in favor of carrying your own weapon. But that won’t stop the Brady bunch from arguing in favor of dumb ideas (see #3 and 4).

    I’m glad to see that Cato’s still heavily focused on the 2A. Because of Heller and McDonald, I’ve been sending their way what would’ve otherwise been my yearly NRA membership dues…

  6. #6 |  SJE | 

    Hooray for data!

  7. #7 |  Velcro Bootstraps | 

    #5, I used to be an NRA member, too. Glad to see other people have realized that they really don’t care about your rights.

  8. #8 |  Whim | 

    The NRA monthly magazine, “The American Rifleman”, has a section each month called “The Armed Citizen” where incidents of citizens using a firearm to defend themselves from attack, home invasion, burglary, carjacking, etc., is recited. The incidents recited do not usually involve taking a firearm away from an intruder. It does sometimes include an exchange of gunfire. Usually, merely brandishing the firearm is enough to deter the attack.

  9. #9 |  Brian Moore | 

    Dear #5 Cornelius, I see that my desire for strong 2nd amendment protections exceeds my capacity for making jokes.

  10. #10 |  qwints | 

    I think second amendment rights are very important, but I also think it’s a mistake to try to justify that freedom in practical terms. The people’s right to keep and bear arms does not nor should depend on whether an individual who owns/carries/uses a gun legally is better off in either an anecdotal or statistical sense. I personally think, given my temprament and the statistics I’ve seen, that is not a good idea for me to keep a gun in the house or carry a concealed weapon. I similarly think there is good evidence that individuals who do so are probably worse off as a matter of personal safety – the risk of an a bad outcome (accident, misuse or theft) is significantly higher than the risk that owning a gun prevents.

    That said, outside of a few basic safety measures – I am strongly opposed to gun control. The 2nd amendment was ratified and has not been repealed because there are enormous benefits to society from an armed populace.

  11. #11 |  Goober | 

    These discussions piss me off so much. The arguments against allowing citizens to have guns always come down to the same old “lowest common denominator” arguments that make me so angry. An example of an LCD argument would be that a lot of people use a certain wilderness area, and that some of the people who use it dump garbage there. Not all. Not even that many of the vast number of people who use it. However, because fo the garbage dumping the wilderness area gets closed to everyone, even the ones who used it ethically and enjoyed it so much. This just happened to me in an area that I loved to go and went all the time – closed. I’ll never be able to legally go there again because of (probably) 5 to ten people who couldn’t be trusted to not dump their shit there.

    Yeah, gun hand wringers, I’ll accept that some people are not responsible enough to own a gun. They won’t store it properly and their kids will get it and maybe accidentally shoot someone. They’ll try to clean it when it is loaded and shoot themselves. They might be afraid to use it when their attacker is bearing down on them and possibly get it taken away from them and get shot, themselves.

    However, until you can prove that I will do any of these things, you have no fuggin right whatsoever to talk about restricting me from owning, carrying, or using a gun. I won’t back down. I won’t be afraid to shoot. I know how to use my guns and use them all the time at the range and hunting and so forth. I enjoy the hell out of them. The fact that some people can’t be trusted with them is sad, but it has nothing to do with me, so take your nanny “save me from myself” BS and go shove it up your arse.

  12. #12 |  Herr Morgenholz | 

    Define “used a gun in self defense”…..

    Does it count a couple Sundays ago when we returned home from Church to find our front door wide open and I retrieved a handgun to search the house before the wife and kids could come in?

    I think it does. I would NOT have walked into that house without a firearm. While it turns out that it was a neighbor kid known for not knocking, the danger was very real. If you include such “undramatic” instances, I’d venture that the “use of firearms in self-defense” would number in the millions.

  13. #13 |  Corneliusm | 

    @Brian, I know your post (as well as the one before it) were tongue-in-cheek. But believe it or not, I’ve heard of much more ridiculous alternatives to private firearm ownership from the anti-2A camp. It’d be funny if it weren’t true.

  14. #14 |  el coronado | 

    @Goober, #11 –

    Nice rant. I quite liked it & agree w/ it. You could also use that same rant, pretty much word-for-word, just substituting the word “drugs” for “guns” and it would apply to the Drug War, too.

    There was once a time when the government took the attitude that ‘the people are responsible for their own welfare’. And then somewhere along about 1905, say, that started to morph into ‘the government must look out for the people’. Such a wonderful, lovely notion! What could possibly go wrong?

  15. #15 |  Wiregeek | 

    #12: I would also count, for example, the presence of a gun in my van while I was camping this last weekend. I never needed to draw it, but it was quite comforting to be in an unfamiliar area sleeping with a weapon within reach.

  16. #16 |  BamBam | 

    @10, “I personally think, given my temprament and the statistics I’ve seen, that is not a good idea for me to keep a gun in the house or carry a concealed weapon.”

    So long as you don’t try to use the government as a proxy to force others to behave in a way that you don’t want to behave.

  17. #17 |  Mario | 

    quints @ #10

    The risk of an a bad outcome (accident, misuse or theft) is significantly higher than the risk that owning a gun prevents.

    Care to provide a citation for that?

  18. #18 |  cks | 

    This reminds me of an anecdote. A buddy of mine, when he travels cross country, has often utilized rest areas to nap at night. He pulls the self-made curtains closed in his hatchback or suv and sleeps. When his (very elderly and very liberal) mom and older sister heard he was doing this they absolutely flipped! “How can you do this?”, “Oh my God that is so dangerous!”, “What would you do if someone accosted you?” “Well”, he answered, “the one time I did have a couple of punks try to get in my rig I just peeled back the curtain and tapped on the window with my 9mm, and they ran off.” The ladies were aghast. “You’re traveling around with a handgun?!?”. “Of course”, he says, “I’m sleeping in rest areas and they can be dangerous places at night.”
    There are some people who just have it stuck in their heads that if there is trouble, you call the police. Others consider personal defense an individual’s responsibility first, society’s responsibility a distant second.

  19. #19 |  Lorin Rivers | 

    I am a gun owner. That said, if you look at the data, the risk to the gun owner and to their family and friends FAR outweighs the benefit. If the Cato institute can only find 5,000 incidents where a firearm prevented a crime in that time period, how does that compare to 150,000 plus deaths by firearms for the same period? In other words, for every crime “prevented” by a firearm in the US, there are 30 deaths. It’s just something to think about. If you want to look at the raw data yourself, it’s here:

  20. #20 |  Jeff Goldman | 

    A new Gunno study finds 5,000,000 incidents from 2003-2008 in which a gun was used in an act of aggression. But the authors point out that even that figure likely low-balls the real number.

    The data set supporting this paper is derived from a collection of news stories published between October 2003 and November 2011.

    There is a selection bias problem with the method of gathering news stories. Many aggressive gun uses never make the news. Sometimes that is because the person who was a victim of aggression by a gun saw no need to call the police—the bad guys were scared off by something before the situation escalated. In some cases, the victim might not want to explain to the police where he was at a given point in time, perhaps because he is on parole the conditions of which did not allow him to be at that particular location, or perhaps because he is a white male and was afraid that biased prosecutors would blame him for the incident. Sometimes the police do get called, but the officers do not find the circumstances sufficiently important to issue a press release. After all, “Man Attempts Burglary, Scared off by House Alarm” is not particularly newsworthy, unless you live in a very small town.

  21. #21 |  Matt I. | 

    #10. YES

    Sometimes we get into these nuances so much that we start to become politicians.

    I personally don’t care how many times someone was shot with their own weapon. Once you go down that path you invariably find yourself in endless argument. How many shootings made it to the news? How many didn’t? What are the motivations of the people writing the articles? Did they ignore data they didn’t like? It’s this endless loop where there’s supposed to be a ‘correct’ outcome that should be imposed on everyone. But it’s the idea that other people know what’s best for you that is the problem here.

    YOU should be allowed to decide what’s best for you.

    If you don’t want a weapon, don’t get one. If you decide you need one, you should be able to get one. If you were in one group then switched to the other, that’s fine too.

  22. #22 |  freedomfan | 

    I agree with the sentiment of the study, but a census of newspaper reporting is more a measure of what newspaper reporters and editors consider newsworthy than it is a measure of gun incidents where the gun was never fired. It would be like scouring newspapers to determine the number of times swim lessons kept kids from drowning in their backyard pools: It may happen all the time, but it isn’t going to make the papers. Looking through newspapers for this sort of thing is tempting because of a certain if-it-made-the-newspaper,-it-must-be-legitimate reasoning, but whether or not the reporting of a particular incident is accurate (certainly not a given), newspaper reports still aren’t representative data. Though hardly flawless, the kind of research Gary Kleck did is more meaningful.

    The bigger issue is that basing 2nd Amendment discussions on whether people effectively use guns as defense against mundane crimes or use guns to hunt or to target shoot is kind of missing the point. I support defensive use of force, legitimate hunting, target shooting, et cetera. But, they aren’t directly pertinent to 2A discussions because none of those are the reason the founders expressly forbade their new government from infringing on the right to keep and bear arms. It’s very easy to forget that the founders were revolutionaries who had taken up arms against their government, to win liberty from what they saw as tyranny. They understood that their cause would have been lost if the government they had rebelled against was facing rebels wielding pitchforks and stones. Frankly, I think forgetting the revolutionary context of the Bill of Rights is why so many people who instinctively look to government as the solution to most problems have such a hard time conceiving of a time when government was the problem and it was time to oust it. The people who did so were damn glad they were armed and sought to ensure that their descendents would also have sufficient means to overcome a tyrannical government.

  23. #23 |  JOR | 

    #21, Well yes, they were revolutionaries, but like many other revolutionaries they were more concerned with preserving the new regime than making sure they were accountable to the people. The second amendment’s express purpose is to ensure the citizens are familiar and proficient with firearms in case the government needs to mobilize them for military purposes. Thomas Jefferson made some noises to the effect of what you’re saying, but the constitution was a compromise document, and the language in the second amendment is pretty plain. You’re right that self-defense has nothing to do with the second amendment, of course; the sort of situations people use handguns for today were handled sometimes with pistols, but more often with knives, sticks, canes, or even swords, none of which, not even pistols, had any use for a ‘well-regulated militia’.

  24. #24 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    The core issue for me is that the right to own weapons is the second amendment to the Constitution. Maybe that was a good idea, and maybe it wasn’t. If it wasn’t, there is a method for amending the Constitution in the Constitution. Trying to do an end run around that is the act of elitist swine who think they “know better” than the voters. Such people are a major reason that the bill of rights was written in the first place.

    If you favor gun control, write an amendment to the Constitution. Then we’ll talk. Until you are willing to do that, I have no time for you.

    And a government that will not be bound by the limits of its Constitution is a government the people should be arming against.

  25. #25 |  bearing | 

    Schofield: Bravo.

    I wish more people could get behind that sentiment when it comes to constitutional rights that make them feel squidgy.

  26. #26 |  TJ | 

    #11 Goober, I’m with you 100%… the only thing I would add is that it only takes ONE fuggin loser to screw the rest of society. There is always some over the top whiny liberal taking up “a cause”. All they are doing is taking away our rights and freedoms.

  27. #27 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    if you look at the data, the risk to the gun owner and to their family and friends FAR outweighs the benefit.

    Several factors swing the equation back to benefiting gun owners…and those factors are basically “don’t be an idiot”. No need to make a gun safety list here, and I am still not in favor of outlawing steak because babies don’t have teeth.

  28. #28 |  qwints | 

    @Mario, no I don’t really feel like doing the research. And I don’t really need to since I’m not advocating that the government prevent people from owning guns.

  29. #29 |  Goober | 

    We just need to stop catering to the lowest common denominator.

    I’m not making meth with my pseudoephedrine – I’m treating the symptoms of my cold. So don’t treat me like a criminal because some people make meth with it.

    I’ve never shot anything with any of my guns that I didn’t fully intend to shoot, and I’ve never broken the law using them, either, so don’t insinuate that I’m likely to break the law with my guns or treat me like I’m too stupid to own them because some people would be or are.

    I’ve never dumped garbage in the wilderness and never plan to, so don’t fence me out of there because some people choose to.

    I am perfectly safe and courteous when I run my jet boat on local rivers. Don’t ban motorized use on the river simply because a few jet boaters are.

    Do I need to go on?

    The fact is, if we started running the show to where we didn’t cater to the lowest common denominator but just started putting a little effort into catching them doing the stuff that they do, we’d all be a hell of a lot more free. Instead, we just blanket ban everything that has anything to do with the LCD activities, and then everyone gets screwed.

  30. #30 |  stupidamerkin | 

    This will sum it up,

  31. #31 |  Goldbug36 | 

    My husband and I used to go gold prospecting a lot in the Motherlode of CA. One day, a couple of scruffy looking guys sauntered up and joined alongside us as we hiked up a hill. They asked if we had found any gold .. my husband reached into his backpack and brandished his .41 magnum. Those guys quickly lost interest in gold and took off like they were late for supper.