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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.

Like Hemenway, DeFillipis and Hughes fail to understand the most fundamental logical issue regarding whether surveys under or overestimate the frequency of defensive gun use. The point at issue is not whether there are "false positive" responses, i.e. respondents saying "yes, they used their gun defensively" when the correct answer was "no." No one has ever disputed that there are some false positives in these surveys. But this by itself can tell us nothing about whether DGU estimates are too high or too low overall. Even if false positives were numerous, false negatives (when a respondent falsely denies a DGU that actually occurred) could be (and, according to extensive research, are) even more common. In that case, survey estimates of DGU frequency would be too low, not the enormous overestimate that DeFillipis and Hughes believe in. Since neither of those authors nor Hemenway-nor any other critics for that matter-have ever made the slightest effort to estimate the number of false negatives, they cannot possibly know whether false positives outnumber false negatives and therefore have no logical foundation whatsoever for their claims that erroneous responses to DGU questions result in an overestimate of DGU frequency.

The authors' discussion of possible flaws in survey estimates of DGU frequency is conspicuously one-sided, addressing only supposed flaws that could make the estimates too high-but none that could make the estimates too low. As mentioned above, they say nothing about the well-documented failure of many survey respondents to report criminal victimization, gun ownership or their own crimes. Likewise, they do not mention that our estimates did not include any DGUs by adolescent crime victims, even though adolescents are more likely to be crime victims than adults, and just as likely to carry guns, albeit illegally.

To summarize, notwithstanding DeFillipis and Hughes' one-sided cherry-picking of the research evidence, surveys do not overestimate the number of DGUs (or anything else crime-related), and at least 18 national surveys have consistently confirmed that DGUs are very common, probably more common than criminal uses of guns.

As to DeFillipis and Hughes' motives for working so long and hard to get the DGU estimate down, I believe the most likely explanation is that they hope that total gun prohibition will one day be politically achievable, and they recognize that high numbers of DGUs each year would present an enormous obstacle to persuading Americans that disarming noncriminals would be without serious costs. No one who supported only moderate controls but who opposed total prohibition would care about high estimates of DGUs by noncriminals, since they would be unaffected by moderate controls that do not disarm noncriminals, such as background checks.

If DeFillipis and Hughes do indeed hope to see gun prohibition someday, perhaps they should be more honest with their readers as to their motives, forthrightly embracing the prohibitionist position. On the other hand, if they are not trying to advance the cause of prohibition, what could possibly justify a 2000-plus word screed pushing the long-discredited claim that Americans rarely use guns for self-protection?

Since DeFillipis and Hughes have not offered any new criticisms beyond those that Hemenway peddled back in 1997, I can do no better than to repeat the conclusions of the first refutation that I and my colleague Marc Gertz published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology in 1997. They are especially noteworthy for our remarkably accurate prophecy regarding how Hemenway's claims would be exploited by people like DeFillipis and Hughes: "Hemenway has failed to cast even mild doubt on the accuracy of our estimates. The claim that there are huge numbers of defensive uses of guns each year in the United States has been repeatedly confirmed, and remains one of the most consistently supported assertions in the guns-violence research area. Given H's purposes, however, it is politically inconsequential that we can easily rebut all of his claims. We can be confident that ideologues will cite his series of one-sided speculations as authoritative proof that our estimates has been "discredited," while pro-control academics who fancy themselves moderates will conclude that although maybe H was wrong on some points, he has nevertheless somehow "cast doubt" on the estimates or "raised serious questions" about them. Left unmentioned will be one simple fact: in all of H's commentary, he does not once cite the one thing that could legitimately cast doubt on our estimates-better empirical evidence."

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

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