The effectiveness and safety of guns used for personal defense is debated. Studies place the instances of guns used in personal defense as low as 65 thousand times per year, and as high as 2.5 million times per year. Under President Clinton, the Department of Justice conducted a survey in 1994 that placed the usage rate of guns used in personal defense at 1.5 million times per year.
Between 1987 and 1990, McDowall found that guns were used in defense during a crime incident 64,615 times annually (258,460 times total over the whole period). This equated to two times out of 1,000 incidents (0.2%) that occurred in this period. For violent crimes, assault, robbery, and rape, guns were used 0.83% of the time in self-defense. Of the times that guns were used in self-defense, 71% of the crimes were committed by strangers, with the rest of the incidents evenly divided between offenders that were acquaintances or persons well known to the victim. In 28% of incidents where a gun was used for self-defense, victims fired the gun at the offender. In 20% of the self-defense incidents, the guns were used by police officers. During this same period, 1987 to 1990, there were 46,319 gun homicides, and the National Crime Victimization Survey estimated that 2,628,532 nonfatal crimes involving guns occurred.
McDowall's study for the American Journal of Public Health contrasted with the 1993 study by Kleck, who found that 2.45 million crimes were thwarted each year in the United States by guns, and in most cases, the potential victim never fired a shot. The results of the Kleck studies have been cited many times in scholarly and popular media.
McDowall cited methodological issues with the Kleck studies: (1) Kleck used a very small sample size and (2) did not confine the definition of self-defense to attempted victimizations where physical attacks had already commenced. Kleck and Gertz said they used an anonymous random digit dialed telephone survey, and did not know the identities of the 4,977 interviewed. They said the quality of sampling procedures was well above the level common in national surveys, using a large, nationally representative survey. A study of gun use in the 1990s by Hemenway at the Harvard Injury Control Research Center found that criminal use of guns was far more common than self-defense use. According to the Kleck study most successful preventions of victimization were accomplished without a shot being fired, which are not counted as a self-defense firearm usage by either the Hemenway or McDowall studies. Hemenway considered that the Kleck figure was inconsistent with other known statistics for crime, citing that Kleck's figures apparently showed that guns were used many times more often for self-defense in burglaries than there were reported incidents of burglaries of premises whose occupants were awake and armed with firearms. Hemenway concluded that under reasonable assumptions of random errors in sampling, because of the rarity of the event, the 2.5 million figure should be considered only as the top end of a 0-2.5 million confidence interval, suggesting a highly unreliable result that is probably a gross overestimate, with the true figure one tenth that amount or less. Alternative explanations could be that many more burglaries occurred than were reported to police, and/or people overreported their use of their guns for self-defense in burglaries.
States in the highest quartile for gun ownership had homicide rates 114% higher than states in the lowest quartile of gun ownership. Non-gun-related homicide rates were not significantly associated with rates of firearm ownership.
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