Juliet Lapidos at Taking Note reported yesterday on Defensive Gun Use. In it, she wrote about a new study from the Violence Policy Center (VPC) that counters the claim by the NRA that there are over 2 million defensive uses of guns every year. The VPC finds that there are less than 70,000.
The NRA number (actually 2.4 million) comes from a 1995 journal article by Gary Kleck & Marc Gertz, “Armed Resistance to Crime: the Prevalence and Nature of Self-Defense with a Gun.” Here are the basics: it is based on 5,000 telephone surveys. And that seems reasonably solid. On the other hand, Kleck seems to have an ax to grind. We see this on this faculty page and his Wikipedia page. The Wikipedia page is a good example of why we can’t have nice things when it comes to gun research. The page presents criticism of the study with an almost point by point refutation of these criticisms. Then there is a whole long section on Kleck’s responses to the criticisms. I tend to think (as I’ve seen elsewhere on Wikipedia) that the NRA crowd is gaming the page.
The main problem with the study seems to be that it has sampling bias. All the other similar studies have found the number to be more in the range of one million. A good example of this is found in Table 1 of the paper where respondents are asked how likely their use of a gun was to have stopped a murder. Of the respondents, 15.7% said “almost certainly would have.” That means without these defensive gun uses, there would have been almost 400,000 murders in any given year. If we include “probably would have,” the number goes up to almost three-quart million. This is not credible. This is not even close to credible. And I have to add that the gun nuts I’ve known, have been paranoid and highly likely to think there are threats everywhere when they are usually nowhere.
In fairness, however, Kleck and Gertz admit that their number is is likely an upper limit. But that doesn’t stop Kleck from going around the country calling for more guns (I heard him in a debate about 10 years ago). Nor does it stop him from claiming on his faculty page, “Other recent research has found that higher general gun ownership rates reduce homicide rates, probably because the violence-reducing effects of guns among noncriminal victims and prospective victims outweigh the violence-increasing effects of guns among criminals.”
The biggest refutation of Kleck and Gertz was done by David Hemenway of Harvard in his book, Private Guns, Public Health. If you are interested in the subject, you ought to read it. I’ve requested it, but who knows when I’ll get it.
The VPC research paper (pdf) is based upon the National Crime Victimization Survey which has data going back to 1973. They looked at the data from 2007 through 2011. Using these data, they find their very small number of defensive gun uses. But they back this up with an interesting statistic. In the period they studied, there were 1,031 justifiable homicides. There were 45,328 criminal homicides in that time. That’s 2.2% justified homicides. Given the roughly 9,000 criminal homicides each year, what are the odds there are huge numbers of murders stopped by just waving a gun around?
Let me be clear: I don’t accept the 2.4 million number at all. But I’m not convinced about the 70,000 number either. I think that the mere presence of a gun can prevent crime—especially property crime. I’d like to see more studies on this stuff. In general, I don’t think a well armed society is a safe or polite society. But I am open to discussion. Because I’m a liberal. And I think that is one of the worst things about political debate: conservatives are not open to discussion. In fact, my experience with conservatives is that they think if they can just explain what they think, I (and everyone else) will agree with them. Normally, they find that I do not because they have not thought very deeply about their opinions. And then they go off and don’t talk to me again, for the same reasons that Christian fundamentalists don’t talk to me twice: I erode their certainty.
But here’s the thing. It used to be reported that 40% of all gun purchases in America are made without background checks. I heard that this is an old number and that now it is only 20%. I haven’t checked, but I assume the 20% number is correct. I don’t go around quoting the 40% number because I am no longer think it is right. The truth matters to me. And it ought to matter to everyone. But if I’ve learned anything over the last couple of years, it is that the truth only seems to matter to liberals—be it in politics or religion.
Are we as a society safer because of all of our guns? I don’t think so, but I don’t know. The problem is that the pro-gun crowd is certain, and I doubt that a mountain of evidence would ever convince them.