Do guns make us more safe, or less? Let’s look at the research.

Summary:  The incidence of apparent murders justified under the “stand your ground” laws raises questions about the vast number of claimed “self-defense” gun use.  How many of these were justifications of improper use, not legitimate (and socially prestigious) self-defense? Fortunately there is research on the issue.  Here we look at samples of this research, most of which ruins the narrative created by the NRA.



  1. What stories about guns reveal about us
  2. Do guns in the home make you safer?
  3. How are guns used?
  4. How are guns used by California teenagers?
  5. About studies showing massive rates of self-defense gun use?
  6. Other posts about guns in America

(1)  The big picture:  What stories about guns reveal about us

This essence of The New America, what divides us from the America-That-Once-Was, is our willingness to believe what we’re told — no matter what the evidence — if it suits our prejudices. There’s no longer a reality-based community in this mad superpower.  We’ve examined this in a hundred posts on the FM website, looking at both Left and Right.  Recently we’ve examined inconvenient material about guns and climate, things partisans refuse to see least it ruin their beloved narratives.

When we open our eyes, returning to the skepticism and iconoclasm of our forefathers, then reform will again become possible in America.  How to make that happens might be the greatest challenge of our age for America.  Until then we remain pawns of our leaders, easily manipulated by our fears.

(2) Do guns in the home make you safer?

Risks and Benefits of a Gun in the Home“, David Hemenway, American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, November/December 2011 — Abstract:

This article summarizes the scientific literature on the health risks and benefits of having a gun in the home for the gun owner and his/her family. For most contemporary Americans, scientific studies indicate that the health risk of a gun in the home is greater than the benefit.

The evidence is overwhelming for the fact that a gun in the home is a risk factor for completed suicide and that gun accidents are most likely to occur in homes with guns. There is compelling evidence that a gun in the home is a risk factor for intimidation and for killing women in their homes.


Faith in America: Gods & Guns
Faith in America: Gods & Guns

On the benefit side, there are fewer studies, and there is no credible evidence of a deterrent effect of firearms or that a gun in the home reduces the likelihood or severity of injury during an altercation or break-in. Thus, groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics urge parents not to have guns in the home.

(3)  How are guns used?

(a) In the safety of your own home’: results from a national survey on gun use at home“, Deborah Azrael and David Hemenway, Social Science & Medicine, January 2000 — Abstract:

In the US, guns, particularly handguns, are typically brought into the home for protection. The wisdom of having a firearm in the home, however, is disputed. While guns appear to be a risk factor for family homicide, suicide and unintentional firearm fatality, no evidence has been available about gun use at home to intimidate family members and little about gun use to thwart crimes by intruders, or about the use of other weapons in home self-defense.

Over the past decade, various private surveys have asked questions about the respondent’s use of guns in self-defense. None, however, has asked detailed questions about the use of guns to threaten or intimidate the respondent. This study presents results from a national random digit dial telephone survey of 1,906 US adults conducted in the spring of 1996. Respondents were asked about hostile gun displays and use of guns and other weapons in self-defense at home in the past 5 years. The objective of the survey was to assess the relative frequency and characteristics of weapons-related events at home.

Thirteen respondents reported that a gun was displayed against them at home, 2 reported using a gun in self-defense at home, and 24 reported using another weapon (e.g. knife, baseball bat) in home self-defense. While we do not always know whose weapon was used in these incidents, most gun brandishings were by male intimates against women.

A gun in the home can be used against family members or intruders and can be used not only to kill and wound, but to intimidate and frighten. This small study provides some evidence that guns may be used at least as often by family members to frighten intimates as to thwart crime, and that other weapons are far more commonly used against intruders than are guns.

(b) Medical Care Solicitation by Criminals with Gunshot Wound Injuries: A Survey of Washington, DC, Jail Detainees“, John P. May, David Hemenway, Roger Oen, and Khalid R Pitts, Journal of Trauma-Injury Infection & Critical Care, January 2000 — Ungated copy here. Abstract:

Background:  The best estimates of nonfatal gunshot wounds in the United States come from hospital emergency room data and may miss, among other things, wounded individuals who do not seek medical treatment. Criminals may be those least likely to rely on professional care for their wounds. This study provides evidence of whether medical care is solicited by criminals after gunshot wounds. In addition, the circumstances of the injury events are described.

Methods:  A case series of 79 detainees at a Washington, DC, jail who had previously been shot in 93 separate incidents were interviewed using a standardized questionnaire. Data were obtained concerning the age and race of the victim, the location of the wound, and the length of hospital stay.

Results:  In 92% of the incidents, respondents reported going to the hospital; one-third of those shot were hospitalized for more than 1 week. More than half (54%) had been hit in the head or torso, and 40% had a current disability attributable to the wound.

Conclusion:  Among these criminals, the vast majority reported that they obtained professional care for their gunshot wounds. Such evidence suggests that individuals previously thought unlikely to enter the medical care system after a firearm injury usually do so. Statistics on medically treated nonfatal gunshot wounds probably do not substantially underestimate the actual number of nonfatal shootings. …

(c) The Relative Frequency of Offensive and Defensive Gun Uses: Results From a National Survey“, David Hemenway and Deborah Azrael, Violence and Victims, 2000 #3 — Abstract:

Some controversy exists about the relative frequency of criminal and self-defense gun use in the United States. Using data from a national random-digit-dial telephone survey of over 1,900 adults conducted in 1996, we find that criminal gun use is far more common than self-defense gun use.

This result is consistent with findings from other private surveys and the National Crime Victimization Surveys. In this survey, all reported cases of criminal gun use and many cases of self-defense gun use appear to be socially undesirable. There are many instances of gun use, often for intimidation, that are not reported to the police and may not appear in official crime statistics.

(d) Gun use in the United States: results from two national surveys“, David Hemenway, Deborah Azrael, and Mathew Miller, Injury Prevention, December 2000:

Objectives:  To determine the relative incidence of gun victimization versus self defense gun use by civilians in the United States, and the circumstances and probable legality of the self defense uses.

Methods:  National random digit dial telephone surveys of the adult population were conducted in 1996 and 1999. The Harvard surveys appear unique among private surveys in two respects: asking

  • open ended questions about defensive gun use incidents and
  • detailed questions about both gun victimization and self defense gun use. Five criminal court judges were asked to assess whether the self reported defensive gun uses were likely to have been legal.

Results:  Even after excluding many reported firearm victimizations, far more survey respondents report having been threatened or intimidated with a gun than having used a gun to protect themselves. A majority of the reported self defense gun uses were rated as probably illegal by a majority of judges. This was so even under the assumption that the respondent had a permit to own and carry the gun, and that the respondent had described the event honestly.

Conclusions:  Guns are used to threaten and intimidate far more often than they are used in self defense. Most self reported self defense gun uses may well be illegal and against the interests of society.

(4)  How are guns used by California teenagers?

Gun Threats Against and Self-defense Gun Use by California Adolescents“, David Hemenway and Matthew Miller, JAMA Pediatrics, April 2004:

Objective:  To assess hostile gun use against and self-defense gun use by adolescents.

Design, Setting, and Participants:  We use random-digit-dial telephone survey data collected from approximately 5,800 California adolescents, aged 12 through 17 years, between November 1, 2000, and October 31, 2001.

Main Outcome Measures:  The prevalence and correlates of reported hostile gun use against and self-defense gun use by adolescents, as well as qualitative information about these 2 types of gun uses. Correlates include age, sex, ethnicity, smoking, alcoholic binge drinking, threatening others, parents knowing their adolescent’s whereabouts in the afternoon after school, attending school, area urbanization and poverty level, and living in a household with a gun.

Results:  Approximately 4% of the adolescents reported ever having been threatened with a gun; only 0.3% reported using a gun in self-defense. Boys, smokers, adolescents who threatened others, and adolescents whose parents knew little about their whereabouts in the afternoon after school were more likely to report being threatened with a gun. Most episodes of self-defense gun use seem to be hostile interactions between adolescents with weapons.

Conclusions:  Far more California adolescents are threatened with a gun than use a gun in self-defense. Self-defense gun use is rare; many of the reported self-defense gun uses seem to be armed confrontations.

(5)  What about the studies showing massive rates of self-defense gun use?

(a) Survey research and self-defense gun use: an explanation of extreme overestimates“, David Hemenway, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (Northwestern), Summer 1997

Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz conducted a survey of civilian defensive gun use in 1992. In 1993, Kleck began publicizing the estimate that civilians use guns in self-defense against offenders up to 2.5 million times each year. This figure has been widely used by the National Rifle Association and by gun advocates. It is also often cited in the media and even in Congress. The Kleck and Gertz (K-G) paper has now been published. It is clear, however, that its conclusions cannot be accepted as valid.

Two aspects of the K-G survey combine to create severe misestimation. The first is the likelihood of positive social desirability response, sometimes referred to as personal presentation bias. An individual who purchases a gun for self-defense and then uses it successfully to ward off a criminal is displaying the wisdom of his precautions and his capability in protecting himself, his loved ones, and his property. His action is to be commended and admired.

Some positive social desirability response bias, by itself, might not lead to serious overestimation. However, combined with a second aspect of the survey– the attempt to estimate a very rare event — it does. The search for a “needle in a haystack” has major methodological dangers, especially where researchers try to extrapolate the findings to society as a whole.

Until the K-G study, no one had estimated that even as many as 1% of adult civilians had used a gun in self-defense in the past year. Nevertheless, assume that the actual incidence is 1%. On average, for every 100 individuals asked a “Yes/No” question about the event, ninety-nine respondents will have a chance to be misclassified as a false positive. In 99 answers there is the possibility of positive social desirability response bias. However, on average only one respondent — the one who actually did use a gun in self defense — could possibly be misclassified as a false negative (e.g., if she forgot about the event). Even if the chance of forgetting is high, as long as there is any possibility of positive response bias, it is very likely that the survey finding will be an overestimate.

The fact that the survey is trying to estimate a low probability event also means that a small percentage bias, when extrapolated, can lead to extreme overestimates. Consider a survey finding which contains a 1% overestimate of positive responses. If the true incidence of the event is 60%, estimating it at 61% would not be a problem. But if the true incidence is 1%, measuring it as 2% would be a doubling of the true rate; and if the true incidence is 0.1%, measuring it at 1.1% would be an eleven-fold overestimate.

The K-G survey design contains a huge overestimation bias. The authors do little to reduce the bias or to validate their findings by external measures. All checks for external validity of the Kleck-Gertz finding confirm that their estimate is highly exaggerated.

(b) Also see “The Gun Debate’s New Mythical Number: How Many Defensive Uses Per Year?“, Philip J. Cook, Jens Ludwig and David Hemenway, Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Summer 1997

(6)  Other posts about guns in America

  1. The Founders talk to us about guns for a well-regulated militia,24 July 2012
  2. Yet another mass killing in America. Watch the reactions on the Right, and learn., 17 December 2012
  3. “The right to shoot tyrants, not deer”, 11 January 2013
  4. But Hitler confiscated guns, leaving Germans helpless!, 11 January 2013
  5. Guns do not make us safer. Why is this not obvious?, 14 January 2013
  6. Let’s look at the Second Amendment, cutting through the myths and spin, 15 January 2015
  7. Myth-busting about gun use in the Wild West, 16 January 2013
  8. Second amendment scholarship (using money to reshape America), 19 January 2013
  9. Do guns make us more safe, or less? Let’s look at the research., 23 January 2013
  10. Guns in the wild west: regulated, with no fears about ripping the Constitution, 25 January 2013





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