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Defensive Gun Use Is Not a Myth

Why my critics still have it wrong.
By GARY KLECK February 17, 2015

It's deja vu all over again. In a recent Politico Magazine article, Evan DeFillipis and Devin Hughes resuscitate criticisms of a survey on defensive gun use that I conducted with my colleague Marc Gertz way back in 1993-the National Self-Defense Survey (NSDS). The authors repeat, item for item, speculative criticisms floated by a man named David Hemenway in 1997 and repeated endlessly since. The conclusion these critics drew is that our survey grossly overestimated the frequency of defensive gun use (DGU), a situation in which a crime victim uses a gun to threaten or attack the offender in self-defense. But what DeFillipis and Hughes carefully withheld from readers is the fact that I and my colleague have refuted every one of Hemenway's dubious claims, and those by other critics of the NSDS, first in 1997, and again, even more extensively, in 1998 and 2001. Skeptical readers can check for themselves if we failed to refute them-the 1998 version is publicly available here. More seriously motivated readers could acquire a copy of Armed, a 2001 book by Don Kates and me, and read chapter six.

If DeFillipis and Hughes could refute any of our rebuttals, that would be news worth attending to. They do not, however, identify any problems with our refutations, such as errors in our logic, or superior evidence that contradicts any of our rebuttals. Instead, they just pretend they are not aware of the rebuttals, even though our first systematic dismantling of Hemenway's speculations was published in the exact same issue of the journal that published Hemenway's 1997 critique, on the pages immediately following the Hemenway article.

The authors, a couple of Oklahoma investment counselors with no graduate degrees, do not claim to have had any training in survey research methods. Like Hemenway (who is also untrained in survey methods), they believe that it's perfectly plausible that surveys generate enormous over-estimates of crime-related experiences, as if this were the most commonplace thing in the world. The reality that survey experts are familiar with, however, is that surveys of the general public simply do not overestimate crime-related experiences.

In order for a survey respondent to report a typical DGU, she or he must be willing to report all three of the following elements of the event: (1) a crime victimization experience, (2) his or her possession of a gun, and (3) his or her own commission of a crime. The last element is relevant because most DGUs occur away from the user's home, and only about 1 percent of the population in 1993, when we conducted our survey, had a permit that allowed them to legally carry a gun through public spaces. Thus, although survey-reported defensive gun uses themselves rarely involve criminal behavior (that is, the defender did not use the gun to commit a criminal assault or other offense), most (at least back in 1993) involved unlawful possession of a gun in a public place by the defender.

So what does research on the flaws in surveys of crime-related behaviors tell us? It consistently indicates that survey respondents underreport (1) crime victimization experiences, (2) gun ownership and (3) their own illegal behavior. While it is true that a few respondents overstate their crime-related experiences, they are greatly outnumbered by those who understate them, i.e. those who falsely deny having the experience when in fact they did. In sum, research tells us that surveys underestimate the frequency of crime victimizations, gun possession and self-reported illegal behavior. Yet DeFillipis and Hughes somehow manage to conclude that defensive gun uses-incidents that always involve the first two of those elements, and usually the third as well-are overestimated in surveys.


Gary Kleck is the David J. Bordua professor of criminology and criminal justice at Florida State University.

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