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How Do We Know Guns Save Lives?

December 22, 2013
Red w pistol

Image by Oleg Volk

I know it is the Holidays, but put on your detective hat for a second.  How do we know guns save lives?  We know a gun was used when the criminal was shot by the victim.  Evidence is pretty obvious in that case.  There is even evidence if the victim shoots and misses.  Then there are the other cases where, ideally, the criminal sees that the victim is armed and stops before shots are fired.  Obviously there is no physical evidence of the psychological decision to break off the attack.  That explains why the self-defense statistics are inconsistent from report to report.  We can’t even define what we mean by using a gun in self-defense.  It doesn’t leave evidence at the crime scene.  Do guns stop crime or not?  Well, Sherlock, what do you think?  Here are some recent examples to test you.


-In one case, a contractor was working on an empty house.  A criminal walked in, picked up a crowbar, and threatened the contractor.  The contractor presented his licensed handgun and the criminal fled.  The police called it an attempted robbery.  The contractor thinks it is a defensive gun use (DGU), even though he didn’t pull the trigger.  The criminal knows exactly why he changed his mind and ran.  What do you deduce?

-In another case, a store owner was struck over the head and threatened with a handgun during a robbery.  The store owner pushed the thieves out of his store and locked the doors.  A Good Samaritan walked by the store and saw the armed thieves beating on the store windows and doors.  The Samaritan drew his own weapon and the thieves ran.  Both the Samaritan and the store owner think the Good Samaritan’s firearm made the thieves break off their attack.

-A man was sitting in his car when a thief jumped in and attempted to carjack him.  The driver had his legally carried gun against the carjackers head before the car moved.  The police arrested the thief and charged him with attempted theft of the automobile.  I call this a defensive gun use.  Would you still call it a DGU if the thief had run away and not been captured?  Maybe the police will ask him.

Each week I report on cases where guns are successfully used in self-defense.  Sometimes shots are fired, but often the intended victims defend themselves without pulling the trigger.  Stopping the attack without firing a shot is the best possible outcome, yet somehow we ignore this outcome in our crime statistics.  I guess we should pass a law requiring criminals to stick around and answer research questions.

The National Research Council surveyed many crime reports that use very different definitions of defensive gun use. The results show that guns are used in self-defense between two times and ten times more often than they are used in crime. Take their data with a grain of salt.  Scholars will argue about how much and how often, but the good news is law abiding gun owners continue to save lives.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. pappad permalink
    December 22, 2013 12:17 pm

    There’s no question about it. Guns DO save lives. The most comprehensive study done so far was STILL unable to put a figure to how many times, though–because (1) the police don’t keep accurate statistics about such DGUes and (2) oftentimes, the person USING a gun to prevent other violence simply doesn’t make an issue of it and even report it happening, sometimes because he doesn’t want his gun taken away from him BY the police because he (a) doesn’t have a “permit” issued by the government or (b) we’ve seen too many cases where guns were taken as “evidence” in an investigation and disappeared into a black hole. Guns are expensive and I have no desire to “give” mine to some cop while they “investigate” an alleged crime.


    • December 22, 2013 1:10 pm

      Those are good reasons. I was working on the ambiguity of the definition of DGU.


      • December 26, 2013 10:43 am

        A difficult concept, to be sure. I’ve pulled my gun out of its holster twice when not on the range or just cleaning it. In one instance, I’m POSITIVE that my doing so prevented my being robbed, though the guy simply shied away from me when he saw me draw and went another direction. In the other instance, I pointed the gun at a drunken aggressor and he held up his hands, backed away and simply turned and ran away. Neither of those instances were reported to the authorities…primarily because I don’t believe in “permits” to exercise my 2nd Amendment rights and didn’t want to be arrested for carrying simply by calling the cops. Had I SHOT someone, I would have called the police, of course and then taken my chances.


      • December 26, 2013 11:23 am

        This is a knowledge base which will rely heavily on anecdotal evidence. Stats can be reliable within a set of dimensions, but anecdotal lends itself to closer examination. Stats are a sum of inferences already made and finalized.

        The post of the two instances of this DGU clarify that. As for me, I augment anecdotal with stats to get a better picture of the smaller details.


      • December 26, 2013 11:33 am

        Which isn’t “bad”. My stories were to illustrate WHY I think DGU statistics are unreliable.


      • December 26, 2013 12:39 pm

        Well, the stats are probably reliable — about as reliable as the rough data they gather. We all know that the input information collected reflects only what people are willing to report; little wrong with that, I think, pappad. I wouldn’t report a lot myself; sort of keeping my head down, if you know what I mean.

        What we do about it is rely on the anecdotes as you just turned two in.

        Merry Christmas Rob, and continued success!! Hope everyone has a safe, memorable and merry Christmas and a prosperous new year.


  2. December 23, 2013 7:30 am

    If it affects the outcome, it is a DGU. Picture a set of conditions which suddenly goes bad: without playing your role in protecting yourself, the conditions will prevail. On the other hand, playing your role to the best of your ability affects the outcome for the better.

    Every single response which affects the outcome for the better must be a finding of public policy and public interest; anything else is a challenge to our authority as supreme (which is what is happening) and must be held as such.

    Every witness, reporter or reader who learns of a DGU must support the use of the weapon as successful, irrespective of whether the defender fired.

    We often say that it is the aggressor who will decide whether they will be shot, and it might be worth repeating this to sum up the topic for lay education if not to begin the discussion.


    • December 23, 2013 8:22 am

      Good point, John. It is better for the aggressor to change their behavior than to physically disable the aggressor.


      • December 23, 2013 8:31 am

        You’re right, Rob, and this is what we’re all driving at in educating the laity, only it is essentially understated. It must be part of every single discussion; stating ‘self-defense’ is far from enough in educating the people. All they picture is a shooting which may be unrighteous. What they need to understand is how being armed (their being armed) can de-escalate a dangerous situation by having the upper hand in lethal force, legal authority to act, and good judgment in taking the situation in hand.

        If all they can see is a possible shooting as their only action – and their having pulled the trigger – too many will decline to learn anything further.

        It is at this juncture where they need to learn how this kind of DGU we are talking about saves more lives and protects them better than any gun control ever will.


  3. December 23, 2013 10:16 am

    Like the format you use Rob for the examples. The only one that could have been a close on call would be the guy pulling on the guys outside the store pounding on the doors. He did not know at the time the owner had been attacked. But, if the guys had turned on him could have escalated to lethal level. Jury would have had to make hard call. Good article for thought though. In criminal Paralegal classes we would do scenarios like these. Thanks


  4. December 23, 2013 12:10 pm

    Thank you John and Rach for your comments.

    Good thinking, Rach. These are real events we discussed this month. There are more details that made the Samaritan case more clear cut, but clarity was not the point of this post. The real world ambiguity is reflected in the widely varying statistics shown in the literature.



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