For years, it has been an article of faith among gun control supporters that using a gun to ward off a criminal is both rare and dangerous. But that view was severely tested when prominent researcher Gary Kleck produced evidence that guns are used about 2.5 million times per year in the United States and that these defensive gun uses -- or DGUs -- help thwart many attempted crimes and only rarely result in injury to the gun user.
Gun control opponents quickly seized on the finding by Florida State University criminologists Kleck and Mark Gertz, touting the statistical conclusion in fact sheets and legislative testimony. Conversely, gun control groups harshly criticized the research as unsupported and unbelievable, pointing instead to an earlier study for the Justice Department suggesting fewer than 100,000 DGUs per year.
This year, the statistical debate took another unusual turn when two pro-gun control researchers produced a report for the gun control-minded Police Foundation suggesting a figure somewhat comparable to Kleck's and then -- within the same report -- debunked their own finding.
Criminologist Philip J. Cook of Duke University and political scientist Jens Ludwig of Georgetown University said their estimate “is subject to a large positive bias and should not be taken seriously.” “The rather frustrating conclusion,” they add, “is that the available survey data leave considerable uncertainty about the 'true' number of DGUs.”
The statistical debate over the results of two telephone surveys conducted about a year apart has now turned into one of academic honesty as well. Cook and Ludwig, while acknowledging Kleck's methodology as “respectable,” nonetheless criticize his 2.5 million estimate as “a mythical number.” “”
Kleck described his research, conducted in early 1993, as the first survey ever exclusively on the question of armed self-defense. Out of nearly 5,000 people surveyed randomly by telephone, some 222 reported civilian defensive use of a gun against a human within the previous year -- for a projected annual figure of about 2.5 million instances per year.
In most of the reported instances, the “defender” merely brandished the weapon; One-fourth said they fired the gun, and 8 percent said they wounded or killed the attacker. But only 5.5 percent of the defenders said they were attacked and injured after a defensive gun use, and only 11 percent said they suffered a property loss.
While conceding the number of affirmative responses was fairly small, Kleck nonetheless concluded that defensive gun uses by the “non-criminal majority” had “saved lives, prevented injuries, thwarted rape attempts, driven off burglars and helped victims save property.”
Kleck also speculated that his figure was, if anything, low, because some people might be reluctant to report questionable use of a gun. And he strongly assailed the figures produced in the government's earlier National Crime Victimization Survey, saying that the technique used -- face-to-face questioning by government employees -- would have led many people not to mention having used a gun in the past.
In the Police Foundation study, Cook and Ludwig report that their telephone survey of about 2,500 people found 45 instances of defensive gun use within the past year -- projected to be about 1.5 million instances. They call that result “comparable” to Kleck's.
Unlike Kleck, however, Cook and Ludwig argue that respondents probably exaggerated the number of defensive gun uses. Some respondents, they said, may have just been trying to “look good.” Others may have been confused about their experiences. And still others, the researchers suggested, may have been “gun advocates” who “know that the number of DGUs is relevant and may be tempted to enhance that estimate through their own response to the survey.”
Cook acknowledges that it was “unusual” for researchers to question the findings of their own survey. For his part, Kleck says Cook and Ludwig engaged in “very one-sided speculation about what might lead to errors in such a survey, and only about errors that might lead to overreporting rather than underreporting.”
Whatever the number, Cook and Ludwig end by questioning the value of using a gun to ward off a criminal. Access to firearms, they say, “may encourage some people to be less prudent about avoiding confrontations” or to be “less vigilant in avoiding unsafe situations.” And they warn that readiness to use guns can lead to fatal accidents -- though they cite no statistics on the point.
Kleck insists, however, that the evidence clearly shows that defensive gun use is common and strongly suggests that it is effective. “To disarm non-criminals in the hope that this might indirectly help reduce access to guns among criminals is a very high-stakes gamble,” Kleck concludes, “and the risks will not be reduced by pretending that crime victims rarely use guns for self-defense.”