The Challenges of Defining and Measuring Defensive Gun Use

Summary: Self-protection is one of the primary reasons many people give for buying or carrying a gun. Estimates of the frequency of defensive gun use vary widely, in part reflecting difficulties in defining and measuring defensive gun use. The personal and social benefits associated with defensive gun use are controversial, and only a few new studies that could clarify these trade-offs have been conducted in the past 15 years.

In the United States, self-protection is a predominant reason that many people choose to own a gun (Masters, 2016). For some gun owners, the self-defense utility they derive from ownership is potential in nature; that is, gun ownership provides them with comfort in knowing that they will be able to defend themselves in the face of some future possible criminal threat. For others, the self-defense utility is realized—they have used their guns defensively in the context of an actual criminal threat. In this essay, we focus on, and provide an overview of, the latter outcome—the realized utility of gun ownership through defensive gun use (DGU).

Unlike other outcomes that we analyze, such as suicide and homicide, DGU is not itself an outcome of interest. Rather, DGU is important because it is a mechanism through which gun owners hope to reduce harms to themselves or others, such as through a reduction in the probability of victimization; the probability of injury, conditional on a crime being committed; or the severity of injury, conditional on both a crime being committed and an injury occurring.

In this essay, our focus is on reviewing the literature that examines the effect of DGU on these outcomes of interest. We note that one overarching challenge in this literature is defining the appropriate counterfactual. When we estimate the effect of DGU on the probability of being a victim of a crime or on the probability of injury or severity of injury, are we interested in the estimate of DGU compared with an alternative outcome resulting from no action by the intended victim, compared with resistance but without any weapon, or compared with resistance but with a different weapon? Differences in counterfactuals are important for understanding differences in results across studies in the effect of DGU. 

A second overarching issue—and one that affects not only the literature examining how DGU affects victimization and injury but also studies on the effect of gun policies on DGU—is determining what is meant by DGU.  Different conceptualizations of DGU abound. Consequently, measures of DGU vary tremendously, depending on the conceptualization being used. Additionally, as in many cases in the literature on gun policy, measurement is complicated and limited by data availability, even for a given DGU definition. 

In this essay, we summarize the literature and evidence on these issues. First, we describe definitional challenges related to DGU. Second, we describe challenges related to measuring DGU. Third, we examine the literature that estimates the effect of DGU on outcomes, such as victimization and injury. The information in this essay was collected from a targeted search of the literature separate from that outlined in the methodology description.

What Is Defensive Gun Use?

It is difficult to start a narrative on the prevalence of DGU without first defining the term, but defining DGU is no simple task. The 2004 National Research Council (NRC) report on firearms and violence explains the difficulties:

Self-defense is an ambiguous term that involves both objective components about ownership and use and subjective features about intent (National Research Council, 1993). Whether one is a defender (of oneself or others) or a perpetrator, for example, may depend on perspective. Some reports of defensive gun use may involve illegal carrying and possession (Kleck and Gertz, 1995; [Kleck, 2001]), and some uses against supposed criminals may legally amount to aggravated assault (Duncan, 2000a, 2000b; [McDowall, Loftin, and Presser, 2000; Hemenway, Azrael, and Miller, 2000]; Hemenway and Azrael, 2000). Likewise, protecting oneself against possible or perceived harm may be different from protecting oneself while being victimized. (NRC, 2004, p. 106)

Understanding the ambiguity is critical because the same factors that complicate defining DGU present difficulties in measuring its prevalence. DGU has primarily been defined in the empirical literature through the use of surveys. Within these surveys, DGUs are often defined as incidents that involve protection against humans (i.e., not animals); gun use by civilians (e.g., not military, police, or security personnel); contact between persons rather than suspicious circumstances only; specific crimes; and actual use of a gun, at least as a visual or verbal threat. There is, of course, some variation even within these parameters. For example, some surveys define DGU only within the context of certain crimes having been committed, while others include a broader set of crimes, as well as suspected and averted crimes. Perceptions about the incident and an individual’s role are important because much of the literature relies on self-reports: The respondent must have perceived there to have been a crime (or, in some surveys, a suspected or averted crime) and must consider himself or herself a victim rather than a mutual combatant. Even such stringent definitions, however, may not be sufficient to determine whether the event was lawful, legitimate, or desirable from a social perspective.

What Are the Challenges in Measuring Defensive Gun Use?

The extensive and conflicting literature on the prevalence of DGU was summarized by the NRC (2004) report:

Over the past decade, a number of researchers have conducted studies to measure the prevalence of defensive gun use in the population. However, disagreement over the definition of defensive gun use and uncertainty over the accuracy of survey responses to sensitive questions and the methods of data collection have resulted in estimated prevalence rates that differ by a factor of 20 or more. These differences in the estimated prevalence rates indicate either that each survey is measuring something different or that some or most of them are in error. (pp. 6–7)

The NRC report summarized the major methodological challenges to studying DGU, and these challenges have received limited attention since then. Given the preponderance of survey evidence in this literature, we focus on the major methodological concerns regarding survey-based measurement. We highlight differences between the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS)—a national survey that is administered twice per year by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and that provides among the most-conservative estimates of DGU—and private gun surveys that have been conducted at only one point in time, such as the National Self Defense Survey (NSDS; Kleck and Gertz, 1995) conducted in 1993 or the National Survey of Private Ownership of Firearms (NSPOF; Cook and Ludwig, 1996) conducted in 1994, which provide among the least-conservative estimates. As NRC (2004) describes, definitional differences and survey differences have resulted in wide-ranging estimates. For example, McDowall, Loftin, and Wiersema (1998) estimated that there were 116,000 DGU incidents annually using the NCVS, while Kleck and Gertz (1995) estimated between 2.2 million and 2.5 million DGUs annually, of which between 1.5 million and 1.9 million involved handguns. In this section, we summarize key factors that underlie these large differences in DGU estimates, including the scope of included incidents, survey sample size and response rates, and challenges related to estimating the prevalence of rare events.

Scope of Included Incidents

A major difference between the NCVS and private surveys is the scope of included events. In the NCVS, questions about defensive or self-protective actions are asked only of those who first reported that they had been the victims of certain personal contact crimes—even if those crimes had not been completed. These personal contact crimes include rape, assault, burglary, personal and household larceny, and car theft. As a result, respondents in several other categories are not given the opportunity to report defensive action. Among the potentially excluded respondents are those reporting incidents involving other crimes (e.g., trespassing, commercial crimes), victims of crimes in the included categories but who did not report those crimes earlier in the interview,[1] and those reporting incidents that were not completed crimes (e.g., suspected crimes). Also, it is important to note that the NCVS does not ask directly about gun use. Rather, it simply asks the respondents to indicate what, if anything, they did in response to the crime. By not asking directly about gun use, it is possible that some respondents may fail to report a gun-related event, especially one that did not result in harm. Relatedly, there is concern that the NCVS may undercount individuals involved in criminal or other deviant behaviors—a group that may have higher rates of victimization and DGU (McDowall and Wiersema, 1994).

On the other hand, private gun surveys, such as the NSDS and the NSPOF, generally ask all respondents directly about DGU, which allows the respondents to determine which incidents to report regardless of whether the incident involved a crime or not. This approach may allow for a more comprehensive assessment of the prevalence and nature of DGU but also may count as DGU events that are more ambiguous. For example, respondents may include such events as the use of a weapon (1) while investigating a suspicious noise but not actually seeing an individual or (2) to deter someone suspected of thinking about committing a crime. While the former may be eliminated by specifying in the survey question that the incident must involve contact with another person, the latter is based solely on the perception of the survey respondent.

Survey Samples and Response Rates

The NCVS provides a large sample of the noninstitutionalized U.S. population aged 12 or older (approximately 50,000 households and 100,000 individuals). Private surveys are typically much smaller. By comparison, the NSDS sample comprised 4,977 individuals aged 18 or older.[2] This is a stark difference considering that the NSDS is among the larger private gun surveys. The private NSPOF included 2,568 respondents.

The representativeness of the samples may also differ. The NCVS typically has a very high response rate—up to 95 percent of eligible households. Private gun surveys tend to have lower response rates. For the NSDS, 61 percent of eligible phone numbers answered by a human completed a survey. Lower response rates may influence the representativeness of the sample and the validity of the findings. Because we often do not know very much about the individuals who did not respond, it is difficult to infer how their absence affects the findings. But the higher the response rate, the fewer individuals for whom there is no information and the less likely that there are differences between those who opted to participate in a survey about gun use and those who did not.

It is important to note that all surveys may miss some components of the population and outcomes of interest. An obvious limitation is that surveys exclude those who suffer fatal injuries and thus cannot participate. Therefore, whether fatally injured persons engaged in a DGU and whether that played a role in their deaths cannot be addressed with survey data. That said, omission of those who died after DGU could result only in underestimates of the true rate of DGU.

Inaccuracies in Survey Estimates

There are compelling reasons to suspect that the true number of DGU events are exaggerated in surveys like the NSPOF and the NSDS. There are many implications of the especially high rates of DGU those surveys report that do not appear to be consistent with more-trusted sources of information. For instance, the NSDS estimates suggest that, while using a firearm for self-defense, U.S. residents likely injured or killed an opponent 207,000 times per year, but only about 100,000 people die or are treated for gunshot injuries in hospitals each year, most of whom either shot themselves or were victims of criminal assaults (Hemenway, 1997). Similarly improbable numbers of injuries are implied by self-reports of DGU in the NSPOF survey (Cook, Ludwig, and Hemenway, 1997).

Furthermore, the implied rates of DGU in response to specific crime types appear to be inconsistent with known rates of those crimes. For instance, Hemenway (1997) calculates that the 845,000 DGUs during burglaries implied by the NSDS exceeds the total estimate of burglaries that occurred against victims who owned guns, were home, and were awake when the crime occurred.

Kleck (1999) has defended the high DGU estimates, suggesting that there is greater reason to believe they represent underestimates than overestimates, because of survey respondents’ reluctance to discuss their own potentially illegal behavior. He argued that all apparent inconsistencies are illusory. For instance, he suggests that the NSDS was underpowered for reliable estimates of the number of U.S. residents likely killed or injured and that analysis of such a rare subset of the DGU phenomena will naturally be less reliable than the overall DGU estimates. This is a reasonable argument, but the apparently extreme overestimate of DGU injuries raises the question of whether the confidence intervals for the estimate of 207,000 injuries and deaths could span any plausible values. This cannot, however, be calculated from the information provided in the NSDS report. If the confidence interval does not span plausible figures, this would reinforce the view that the NSDS and NSPOF yield overestimates. Kleck (1999) also argues that many gunshot injury victims avoid hospital treatment because they fear it may expose them to legal jeopardy. If, however, the number of such injuries were 207,000 per year, this would entail an implausibly large number and proportion of all injured parties foregoing medical treatment.

In response to the apparently implausible number of crimes of specific types at which DGUs were reported, Kleck (1999) notes that estimates of the number of burglaries, rapes, and other crimes are known to be underestimates—and sometimes large underestimates, as with sexual assaults and domestic violence. Therefore, because we do not know the true number of burglaries and other crimes, “we cannot possibly know if any given DGU estimate is implausibly large relative to these unknown (and possibly unknowable) quantities” (Kleck, 1999, p. 115). Concluding that the estimated number of DGUs in response to burglaries is implausibly high requires, as Kleck notes, some assumptions about the plausible magnitude of underreporting of burglaries. As with the estimate of 207,000 DGU injuries and deaths, the assumptions required to reconcile the apparent inconsistencies are sufficiently extreme that we take such comparisons as evidence that the NSDS and NSPOF produce overestimates of the prevalence of DGU and associated phenomena, although the magnitude of this overestimate is not clear.

DGUs are rare events. In the NSDS sample of 4,977 individuals, which oversampled those most likely to be involved in DGU (e.g., men in southern and western states), 222 respondents reported DGU during the five-year recall and 66 during the past year. When events are rare, small errors in reporting can be problematic. Even a small false positive response rate can substantially influence prevalence measures. Moreover, for relatively rare events, equivalent rates of false negatives do not cancel out the inflationary effect of the false positives. For instance, if the true prevalence is 1 percent, and 1 percent of those who either experienced or did not experience a DGU incorrectly report their DGU experience, the resulting estimate will suggest that DGUs occur with twice the true prevalence.[3] The fact that private gun surveys tend to ask everyone (rather than just crime victims, as in the NCVS) about DGU may cause such errors to be magnified (e.g., Ludwig, 2000). Indeed, some authors caution against extrapolating prevalence estimates from their own survey results because small reporting errors can lead to very large errors in prevalence estimates (e.g., Hemenway, Azrael, and Miller, 2000). Because private gun surveys question respondents only once, they can contribute to false positives due to telescoping—that is, individuals may report incidents that do not fall within the appropriate recall period (e.g., 12 months). Telescoping may substantially inflate the number of events (Andersen, Frankel, and Kasper, 1979; Cantor, 1989; Lehnen and Skogan, 1984). The NCVS, on the other hand, interviews the same individuals every six months, which is a strategy to guard against telescoping because responses are checked against the individuals’ previous responses to avoid the same event being reported multiple times.

In response to concerns about false positives, some have argued that false negatives in the NCVS are also a concern. The NCVS is conducted face to face by someone working for a government agency rather than via the anonymous random digit–dialing used by many private survey firms. The NCVS approach could yield more-accurate responses if individuals are less likely to exaggerate events that they believe are socially desirable in a nonanonymous, face-to-face interview (Ludwig, 2000; Hemenway, 1997). On the other hand, this approach may lead to underreporting if respondents are concerned about the legitimacy or legality of their gun use and the lack of anonymity. Indeed, there is evidence that a substantial share of those reporting DGU did not own a legal gun or have one in the household at the time of the incident, and many DGU incidents occurred outside the home, thereby implying gun-carrying. Furthermore, judicial review suggests that many DGU incidents may be illegal or socially undesirable (even if the individual was permitted or licensed and the incident truthfully reported) (see, for example, Kleck and Gertz, 1995; Cook and Ludwig, 1996, 1997, 1998; Hemenway, Azrael, and Miller, 2000).

As noted earlier, however, there are also good reasons to suspect that the NCVS underestimates the true number of DGUs. The NCVS provides an opportunity for respondents to describe DGUs only in the context of certain types of crimes. DGUs resulting from crimes not covered by the NCVS will likely be undercounted. DGUs may occur in the context of suspected crimes that respondents on the NCVS might not judge to qualify as events in which they were a victim of a crime, in which case those DGUs would be undercounted. At the time research on DGUs was being conducted, the NCVS did not explicitly ask crime victims whether they used a firearm to defend themselves. Thus, some DGUs might go uncounted if respondents choose not to volunteer their use of a gun when asked whether they attempted to resist the perpetrator (Kleck, 1999). Finally, NCVS respondents victimized while engaging in illegal activity may not volunteer these experiences, meaning any associated DGUs would not be counted (McDowall and Wiersema, 1994).

NCVS and NSDS estimates of the prevalence of DGU differ by an order of magnitude. In an effort to understand these differences, McDowall, Loftin, and Presser (2000) fielded both surveys in an experimental design to determine whether “survey methods account for the divergent results” or “the questions cover unrelated activities.” The goal was to compare across surveys rather than provide prevalence estimates, so the authors selected individuals to contact from commercial gun lists. Half the sample (n = 1,522) responded to the NCVS first and then the NSDS, while the other half (n = 1,484) completed the surveys in reverse order. Certain questions were standardized between surveys (e.g., one-year recall, specific question about gun use, only self-reports versus household reports) to eliminate them as sources of diverging results.

The conclusion was that the NCVS measures a particular dimension of DGU (self-protective behaviors in response to crime) while the NSDS measures a wider array of behaviors, which may include preemptive action in response to what may or may not have been an intended crime. DGU cases were more common in the NSDS even after excluding items that were clearly not self-defense (e.g., practice for self-defense). The NCVS identified 24 cases, and the NSDS identified between 48 and 72 cases (with 24 cases defined as ambiguous[4]). Regression analyses suggested that, even after standardizing some questions across surveys, the differences were not entirely attributable to their different scope but that other methods also contributed. Interviews with individuals who differed in their reports between surveys indicated that questions were not well understood, respondents were not clear on why they did not report an incident, or the incident did not involve serious harm.

Conclusions

Estimates for the prevalence of DGU span wide ranges and include high-end estimates—for instance, 2.5 million DGUs per year—that are not plausible given other information that is more trustworthy, such as the total number of U.S. residents who are injured or killed by guns each year. At the other extreme, the NCVS estimate of 116,000 DGU incidents per year almost certainly underestimates the true number. There have been few substantive advances in measuring prevalence counts or rates since the NRC (2004) report. The fundamental issues of how to define DGU and what method for obtaining and assessing those measurements is the most unbiased have not been resolved. As a result, there is still considerable uncertainty about the prevalence of DGU. Efforts to resolve the uncertainty provide insight into some, but not all, aspects of DGU measurement, which may drive the large differences in prevalence estimates. The difficulties of defining and measuring DGU have implications for understanding not only the prevalence of DGU but also the relationship between DGU and outcomes of interest, such as the probability of victimization and injury. We turn to the evidence on this question in the next section.

Does Defensive Gun Use Reduce Harm?

In theory, DGU provides individuals with additional means to protect themselves, their families, their property, and others from crimes. Police officers are issued firearms because society believes that they will be able to use those weapons effectively to produce similar defensive and protective benefits. The extent to which DGU actually reduces harm for individuals or society is controversial. NRC (2004) summarized what was known then about the effects of DGU:

The results suggest interesting associations: victims who use guns defensively are less likely to be harmed than those using other forms of self-protection. Whether these findings reflect underlying causal relationships or spurious correlations remains uncertain. Much of the existing evidence reports simple bivariate correlations, without controlling for any confounding factors. Kleck and DeLone (1993) rely on multivariate linear regression methods that implicitly assume that firearms use, conditional on observed factors, is statistically independent of the unobserved factors influencing the outcomes, as would be the case in a classical randomized experiment. Is this exogenous selection assumption reasonable? Arguably, the decisions to own, carry, and use a firearm for self-defense are very complex, involving both individual and environmental factors that are related to whether a crime is attempted, as well as the outcomes of interest. The ability of a person to defend himself or herself, attitudes toward violence and crime, emotional well-being, and neighborhood characteristics may all influence whether a person uses a firearm and the resulting injury and crime. Thus, in general, it is difficult to be confident that the control variables account for the numerous confounding factors that may result in spurious correlations. Furthermore, the committee is not aware of any research that considers whether the finding is robust to a variety of methodological adjustments. Without an established body of research assessing whether the findings are robust to the choice of covariates, functional form, and other modeling assumptions, it is difficult to assess the credibility of the research to date.

Similar to the literature on the prevalence of DGU (see earlier discussion), there has been little additional work on this question since the NRC (2004) report.

Methods

When researching this topic, we included studies that provided an empirical estimate of whether DGU reduces harm, which is operationalized as perceptions of whether DGU affected crime completion, injury, level of injury, or property loss.

Findings

Using multivariate logistic regression with extensive controls to analyze the NCVS, Kleck and DeLone (1993) found that self-defense was associated with a lower probability of robbery completion and victim injury. However, the results were not always statistically significantly different from other forms of resistance. The results also indicated that victim resistance was significantly and negatively associated with the offender's choice of weapon. Offender gun use reduced the likelihood of the victims engaging in resistance (of any kind), which raises concerns that the decision to resist may not be independent. That is, the apparent relationship between DGU and improved outcomes may reflect the fact that DGUs are more likely to occur when offenders are not using guns, rather than because DGUs themselves produce better outcomes.

Examining robberies and assaults in NCVS data from 1992 to 1999, Schnebly (2002) used multinomial logit regression to examine whether DGU influences the likelihood of being injured and the severity of injury. DGU was associated with significantly lower odds of severe injury (odds ratio [OR] = 0.61; p < 0.05) and mild injury (OR = 0.49; p < 0.05) but not significantly associated with severe versus mild injury. The benefits of DGU were primarily found among men, in urban settings, and among higher-income respondents. However, the analyses did not account for the specifics of other action taken by comparing DGU with no action or any other action combined, did not differentiate whether the injury occurred before or after the DGU, and could not control for other factors that might influence the decision to use a gun defensively. Moreover, assaults might be considered somewhat controversial in that they may involve mutual combat (albeit the respondent may perceive himself or herself to be the victim), whereas robberies have more clearly defined roles.

A later study by Tark and Kleck (2004) examined the association between DGU and property loss and between DGU and injury using NCVS data from 1992 to 2001. Multivariate logistic regression models found that when the victim attacked the offender with a gun, there was a lower risk of property loss for robberies, and when the victim threatened the offender with a gun, there was a lower risk of property loss for all included property crimes. These associations were generally not statistically significantly different from those of some other protective actions, such as the victim attacking or threatening the offender with a nongun weapon.

Tark and Kleck (2004) found that crime victims who resist attackers by any means are rarely injured after they initiate some form of active resistance. Considering just those confrontations in which victims initiate resistance before having been injured, the authors found no statistically significant reduction in injuries among those who threatened or attacked the assailant with a gun compared with those who called the police. Indeed, the only form of resistance that was significantly better than calling the police was running or hiding. There were no significant differences in victim injuries and whether victims threatened with or attacked with a gun.

There may be important differences between crimes in which victims are able to resist or resist before being injured and those in which they are not. Similarly, crimes in which victims are armed may differ systematically from those in which they are not. These differences raise questions about what causal effects of resistance, armed or otherwise, can be drawn from Tark and Kleck (2004)’s models. The authors acknowledged these challenges and responded by including a host of controls describing the offender, victim, and incident,[5] but they acknowledged that the results could not necessarily be interpreted causally because of the lack of clear insight into how the decisions to resist and means of resistance were made, including the decisions on whether to own and to carry a gun.

Most recently, Hemenway and Solnick (2015b) provided additional evidence using NCVS data from 2007 to 2011. Among personal contact crimes, DGU was not uniquely beneficial in reducing injury or property loss, implying that it did not necessarily improve outcomes over other forms of resistance. With respect to injury, cross-tabulations indicated that victims who engaged in DGU were less likely to be injured (10.9 percent) relative to other self-protective action, but injury rates were similar to those who took no self-protective action (11 percent). And multivariate analyses controlling for a host of covariates indicated that DGU did not significantly improve the odds of no injury overall (OR = 0.67; not significant) relative to all incidents. Further, taking advantage of the chronology of results suggests that DGU did not improve the odds of no injury after self-protective action (OR = 1.28; not significant) relative to all incidents involving self-protective action.[6] These findings suggest that DGU incidents may be intrinsically different from incidents that do not involve DGUs; for example, the incidents with DGU may involve escalating violence so that the defender has a greater opportunity to respond with a gun or is more aware or more able to respond quickly. With respect to property loss, individuals who took action were less likely to experience loss.[7] DGU improved the odds of no property loss in robbery, larceny, and personal contact larceny relative to not taking that defensive action (OR range = 0.26 to 0.30; significant) but not necessarily relative to other defensive action.[8] While this work is a recent and substantive contribution to the literature, there remain concerns about relying on self-reports and the difficulty of assessing situational differences between events that involved DGU and those that did not.

An important concern with survey reports is that the assessment of the outcome is provided by the same respondent who decided to engage in a particular action. Another fundamental concern is that the individuals who suffered the most harm are, by definition, excluded; that is, those who were fatally injured cannot self-report, so the extent to which DGU or other actions played a role cannot be explored.

Branas et al. (2009) took an entirely different approach to assessing the perceived benefits of DGU. They considered whether gun possession increased the likelihood that an individual was shot or killed in an assault. They assessed the circumstances surrounding 677 individuals shot in Philadelphia. The police determined that, in 6 percent of these cases, the victims had a gun in their possession at the time they were shot. The authors compared these cases with controls recruited by a survey firm via random digit–dialing and asked about gun possession at the time when matched cases had been shot; about 7 percent of controls had a gun in their possession. Comparing cases and controls, Branas et al. (2009) found that when victims had a gun in their possession, they had 4.46 times higher odds of being shot compared with victims who had no gun. The authors’ second set of results incorporated whether victims had a chance to defend themselves. Among those who had the opportunity to resist, those with a gun were even more likely to be shot than those without a gun. The authors noted, “Case participants with at least some chance to resist were typically either 2-sided, mutual combat situations precipitated by a prior argument or 1-sided attacks where a victim was face-to-face with an offender who had targeted him or her for money, drugs, or property.” That is, an opportunity to resist does not necessarily mean that it was not mutual combat (versus defensive only).

The results suggest that gun possession may not be an effective way to ensure safety. But the decision to carry a gun is not random, which raises similar concerns about inferring causality as are present with survey-based studies: Individuals who decide to carry at a particular time or to use a gun within a specific circumstance may have considered themselves at greater risk for reasons that may be unobservable to the researcher.

Hemenway, Azrael, and Miller (2000) broadened the assessment of the benefits of DGU incidents by examining whether they represent legal and socially desirable events. The authors summarized DGU incidents in the Harvard Injury Control Research Center surveys and then sent these descriptions to five criminal court judges from California, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. Approximately half of the incidents were deemed potentially illegal and contrary to interests of society, even under the assumptions that the individual had a permit to own and carry and had characterized the situation honestly. Given that survey reports are already one-sided (e.g., incidents may involve mutual combat even though the individual perceives himself or herself as the victim) and that additional DGU incidents could not be summarized and evaluated because respondents refused details, the authors concluded that the majority of reported DGUs were likely illegal and contrary to society’s interests.

Conclusions

There has been little empirical work since the NRC (2004) report, so the serious limitations in the literature remain largely unresolved. At first glance, individuals engaged in DGU appear less likely to lose property and suffer injury and more likely to report that their action helped the outcome. However, several important caveats emerge. First, it is not clear that DGU is uniquely beneficial relative to other actions. Second, given that the literature is largely based on cross-tabulations and relatively basic multivariate analyses, when associations are found between DGU and reduced injury, for instance, it is not clear whether this is due to a causal effect of the DGUs on reduced injury or whether the circumstances that make a DGU possible also make injury less likely. In the latter case, it may not be DGUs that reduce the likelihood of injury but rather unique features of the circumstances in which DGUs occur. For instance, individuals may be more likely to defend themselves with a weapon when they feel that they have a greater opportunity to be successful in that defense, which may bias estimates toward a beneficial impact of gun use. Statistical models designed to identify the causal effect of DGUs on various outcomes have not yet been reported.

Survey-based analyses of the effects of DGU suffer from more-general limitations. For example, individuals reporting the outcomes were also the ones who made the decision to engage in DGU, which may influence their assessment. Furthermore, survey data cannot be used to assess the relationship between DGU and fatalities, because those killed during incidents cannot be included. And more broadly, it is unclear whether this literature, which rests largely on the NCVS, suffers from the limited generalizability of DGU events within its scope. It has been widely noted that DGUs not involving an included crime category are less likely to be captured by the NCVS. To the extent that these incidents have different outcomes or different characteristics, NCVS-based findings may not be generalizable. Efforts to use other sources of data, however, have encountered similar limitations regarding the size and representativeness of samples and the ability to identify the causal effects of DGU.

Finally, even if DGUs have a positive causal effect on such outcomes as injuries and property loss, it may still be the case that DGUs do not provide net societal benefits if many or most involve illegal use of firearms. Whether any net societal harms outweigh the benefits to those individuals who succeed with legitimate or just DGU in protecting their own or others’ well-being is a value judgment that society must make. Having better data on the frequency of legitimate and illegitimate DGU, and on the magnitude of harms and benefits associated with those events, would assist in making that judgment.

For these reasons, we conclude that the existing evidence for any causal effect of DGU on reducing harm to individuals or society is inconclusive.

Notes

  1. There is some evidence that the NCVS underestimates the count of rapes, certain types of assaults, and even gunshot woundings (Cook, 1985; Loftin and MacKenzie, 1990; McDowall and Wiersema, 1994; NRC, 2014). Return to content
  2. The NSDS is a random digit–dialing survey and, hence, limited to individuals with phones. Return to content
  3. If true prevalence is t and the error rate is e, then the estimated prevalence will be the true prevalence minus the false negatives, plus the false positives: tet + e(1−t). If t = 0.01 and e = 0.01, estimated prevalence will be 1.98 times, or approximately twice, the true prevalence. Return to content
  4. Ambiguous cases included incidents in which the respondent failed to provide sufficient details. Return to content
  5. Covariates included 16 self-protective actions, proxies for power differences (number of offenders, male offender, offender aged 15–29 while victim is under age 15 or over age 30, offender weapon [gun, knife, sharp object], and whether offender attacked victim), victim characteristics (owned the house, had a job last week or for two weeks in the past six months, aged 65 or older, married, high school diploma or higher, black, Asian, Hispanic, and number of victimizations in the past six months), offender characteristics (gang member, substance at time of incident, sexual partner of victim, acquaintance of victim, work acquaintance of victim, black, white, and repeat offender), and incident characteristics (urban, home, near home, public place [may have security], and others present). Return to content
  6. Control variables included defender (age, gender, urban/rural), incident (at home/away), and offender (male, had gun) characteristics. Return to content
  7. The chronology of events was not available for property loss. Return to content
  8. Some non-DGU protective actions produced similar and significant ORs, suggesting that DGU is not uniquely beneficial. Return to content

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  • FBI—See Federal Bureau of Investigation.
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  • Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Crime in the United States 2015: Expanded Homicide Data Table 15,” webpage, 2016c. As of May 9, 2017: https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2015/crime-in-the-u.s.-2015/tables/expanded_homicide_data_table_15_justifiable_homicide_by_weapon_private_citizen_2011-2015.xls
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Crime in the United States 2015: Expanded Homicide Data Table 28,” webpage, 2016d. As of May 9, 2017: https://ucr.fbi.gov/leoka/2015/tables/table_28_leos_fk_type_of_weapon_2006-2015.xls
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Crime in the United States 2015: Violent Crime,” U.S. Department of Justice, 2016e. As of May 8, 2017: https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2015/crime-in-the-u.s.-2015/offenses-known-to-law-enforcement/violent-crime/violentcrimemain_final.pdf
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  • Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Table 1: Crime in the United States, by Volume and Rate per 100,000 Inhabitants, 1998–2017,” webpage, Crime in the United States 2017, 2018d. As of August 1, 2019: https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2017/crime-in-the-u.s.-2017/tables/table-1
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  • Federal Bureau of Investigation, 30 Questions and Answers About NIBRS Transition, October 2018f.
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  • Zeoli, April M., and Jennifer K. Paruk, “Potential to Prevent Mass Shootings Through Domestic Violence Firearm Restrictions,” Criminology and Public Policy, Vol. 19, No. 1, 2020.
  • Zeoli, April M., Jennifer Paruk, Charles C. Branas, Patrick M. Carter, Rebecca Cunningham, Justin Heinze, and Daniel W. Webster, “Use of Extreme Risk Protection Orders to Reduce Gun Violence in Oregon,” Criminology and Public Policy, Vol. 20, No. 2, May 2021.
  • Zeoli, A. M., and D. W. Webster, “Effects of Domestic Violence Policies, Alcohol Taxes and Police Staffing Levels on Intimate Partner Homicide in Large U.S. Cities,” Injury Prevention, Vol. 16, No. 2, 2010.
  • Zimmerman, Paul R., “The Deterrence of Crime Through Private Security Efforts: Theory and Evidence,” International Review of Law and Economics, Vol. 37, 2014.
  • Zimring, Franklin E., “Firearms and Federal Law: The Gun Control Act of 1968,” Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1975.
  • Zimring, Franklin E., When Police Kill, Harvard University Press, 2017.
  • Zuckerman, Ethan, J. Nathan Matias, Rahul Bhargava, Fernando Bermejo, and Allan Ko, “Whose Death Matters? A Quantitative Analysis of Media Attention to Deaths of Black Americans in Police Confrontations, 2013–2016,” International Journal of Communication, Vol. 13, 2019.

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