Defensive gun uses are very common, but data issues keep them hidden

Basically, the media rarely reports on them, the main federal survey screens out too many by only asking for people who were victims of a crime, and the data archive used by reporters only includes events reported in the media:

Americans who look only at the daily headlines would be surprised to learn that, according to academic estimates, defensive gun uses — including instances when guns are simply shown to deter a crime — are four to five times more common than gun crimes, and far more frequent than the roughly 20,000 murders or fewer each year, with or without a gun. But even when they prevent mass public shootings, defensive uses rarely get national news coverage. Those living in major news markets such as New York City, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles are unlikely to hear of such stories.

As of Aug. 10, America’s five largest newspapers — the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal — have published a combined total of 10 news stories this year reporting a civilian  using a gun to successfully stop a crime, according to a search of the Nexis database of news stories. By contrast, those same newspapers had a total of 1,743 news stories containing the keywords “murder” or “murdered” or “murders” and “gunfire,” “shot,” or “shots.” Including articles with the word “wounded,” the total rises to 2,764.


The U.S. Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey indicates that around 100,000 defensive gun uses occur each year -- an estimate that, though it may seem like a lot, is actually much lower than 17 other surveys. They find between 760,000 defensive handgun uses and 3.6 million defensive uses of any type of gun per year, with an average of about 2 million.

The difference between these surveys arises from the screening questions. The National Crime Victimization Survey first asks a person if they have been a victim of a crime. Only respondents who answer “yes” are asked if they have ever used a gun defensively.

In contrast, the other surveys screen respondents by asking if they have been threatened with violence. That produces more self-acknowledged defensive gun users, since someone who successfully brandished a gun is less likely to self-characterize as a crime victim. Survey data indicate that in 95% of cases when people use guns defensively, they merely show the gun to make the criminal back off. Such defensive gun uses rarely make the news, though a few do.


They are also underplayed because of a distorting feedback loop involving news organizations. Many leading outfits use data from the Gun Violence Archive to track firearm use. The GVA, however, relies primarily on news reports, creating literally an unvirtuous circle. This media coverage focuses on the most extreme cases, which academic research suggests is actually a minority of gun uses.


But even dramatic cases that get local news coverage -- cases in which mass public shootings were prevented --  don’t receive national news coverage. Consider a few  compiled by the Crime Prevention Research Center over the last year, involving people legally carrying concealed handguns:

  • A man upset because of a medical condition walked into a Weslaco, Texas, Walmart, last fall with an AK-47 bent on shooting people. A legal gun owner intervened and, according to the local TV station, “his actions led to the man putting down the gun.” As the “hero” recounted: “He was totally surprised. Got him to put the AK-47 down. He was very upset because I had destroyed his plans.”
  • In Brownsburg, Ind., in July 2020, a man opened fire on workers at a cemetery and continued the attack on a nearby street. A concealed-carry permit holder fatally shot the attacker. “‘This tragic event could have been much more disastrous,” said police Capt. Jennifer Barrett.
  • In Hummels Wharf, Pa., that same month, an attacker opened fire in restaurant parking lot, killing two people. A man in the restaurant with a permitted concealed handgun wounded the attacker. “Thankfully, he helped prevent further bloodshed,” the local prosecutor said. In Dallas, also in July 2020, a man “just started spraying” a sports bar with an “assault-style weapon” at full-capacity. But the shooter fled when he was “confronted by armed patrons” who shot back at him.
There are dozens of such cases from the last few years, but it is unlikely that many have heard of them since they attracted only local media coverage.

By Stephen

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Professor and quant guy. Libertarian turned populist Republican. Trying to learn Japanese and play Spanish Baroque music on the ukulele.

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