American gun owners are far more likely to injure themselves or someone else with their firearm than to stop a criminal, a new study confirms, adding to an extensive line of research documenting the statistical rarity of using guns for self-defense.
The latest study, released Wednesday by the Violence Policy Center, found that there were only 258 justifiable homicides involving civilians using firearms in 2012, compared with 8,342 murders by gun. Put another way, for every justifiable homicide involving a gun, 32 criminal firearm homicides were carried out. And that does not take into account “tens of thousands” of gun-related suicides and unintentional shootings, the report says, which would bring that ratio to about one justifiable firearm homicide for every 100-120 criminal homicides, suicides, or accidental deaths at the hands of a gun.
Moreover, even if a criminal isn’t shot down, the study found that civilians rarely use guns to protect themselves. Over a five-year period, “intended victims of property crimes engaged in self-protective behavior with a firearm” only 0.1 percent of the times they were targeted by a crook, the researchers found.
The report, titled “Firearm Justifiable Homicides and Non-Fatal Self-Defense Gun Use” compiled data from the FBI and the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics to compare the frequency of self-defense firearm use versus criminal firearm use. The findings are consistent with previous estimates, the researchers said, disproving the premise of arguments by the National Rifle Association that more guns in the hands of regular people will reduce crime.
“NRA has staked its entire agenda on the claim that guns are necessary for self-defense, but this gun industry propaganda has no basis in fact,” the group’s executive director, Josh Sugarmann, said in a statement. “Guns are far more likely to be used in a homicide than in a justifiable homicide by a private citizen. In fact, a gun is far more likely to be stolen than used in self-defense.”
Pro-gun advocates, however, have long armed themselves with contrarian statistics, saying people are safer thanks to the Second Amendment.
The Gun Owners of America, for instance, maintains a section on its website “just for skeptics” that cites reports that Americans each year use guns 2.5 million times in self-defense. Similarly, the Heartland Institute, a right-wing think tank, published an anti-gun-control report arguing that guns are used defensively “over 2 million times every year—five times more frequently than the 430,000 times guns were used to commit crimes.”
However, these claims have been disproven numerous times through large-scale epidemiological studies and in-depth forensic investigations. Research shows that most self-reported cases of self-defense gun use are illegal and against the interests of society — for example, drawing a gun during a minor verbal altercation. Statistics cited by pro-gun groups don’t take this into account, nor do they consider the criminal nature of the situation — so by the gun lobby’s count, a drug dealer who pulls a gun on another armed drug dealer during a dispute is acting in “self-defense.” When these invalid “self-defense” gun uses are excluded from the tally, the data clearly show that “guns are used to threaten and intimidate far more often than they are used in self defense,” according to a nationally representative study of gun use conducted by Harvard researchers.
The scientific literature is rich with similar studies disputing claims of frequent defensive gun-use. In a 2004 study published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, researchers found that adolescents in California were more than 10 times more likely to have a gun used against them than to use a gun in self-defense. “Self-defense gun use is rare,” the researchers concluded, “[and] many of the reported self-defense gun uses seem to be armed confrontations” rather than defensive uses. Another 2004 study, published in the journal Injury Prevention, used newspaper reports and police and court records to identify legitimate defensive gun uses and “provide a reality check on previous estimates of the rate of defensive gun-use,” which have typically relied on self-report data. When using the objective accounts provided in newspapers and official records, actual rates of defensive gun use were found to be ten times lower than estimates based on self-reported data. And that doesn’t even take into account factors such as the underestimation of accidental gun deaths and the pervasive underreporting of criminal gun uses, including the frequent use of firearms to threaten family members and intimate partners.
“Purchasing a gun may help enrich the firearms industry, but the facts show it is unlikely to increase your personal safety,” Sugarmann concluded. “In fact, in a nation of more than 300 million firearms, it is striking how rarely guns are used in self-defense.”