Guns for Self-Defense: Myth Versus Reality

shotgunIf you are a gun safety proponent you are probably already familiar with Joe Nocera’s Gun Report in the New York Times. It’s a summary of news stories from around the country detailing gun injuries and deaths. It’s…long. Every day, there are multiple reports. Crimes, for certain. Drug-related shootings, drive by shootings, random violence, mass shootings, and the ever-tragic accidental shootings, so many of which involve children. It’s a litany of heartbreak. Every day, families are losing loved ones to gun violence. Every day.

The National Rifle Association would have us believe that the solution to gun violence is more guns. We must all becomes “good guys with guns” to paraphrase NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre. Or it should be Robert A. Heinlein‘s vision of “an armed society is a polite society.” Because if we all have guns, no one would misuse them for fear of being taken out by a nearby vigilante.

According to the NRA website The Armed Citizen, “Studies indicate that firearms are used over 2 million times a year for personal protection, and that the presence of a firearm, without a shot being fired, prevents crime in many instances.” The site then goes on to give an address for sending stories of times armed civilians stopped crimes. The accompanying blog has six news stories of crimes thwarted by civilian gun use in 2013.

Six. Compared to the 4,838 gun deaths since the Newtown massacre, according to the gun death tracker on

I am willing to concede that attempted crimes are under-reported by the news. I’m even willing to consider that the New York Times is liberal enough to not want to put a lot of resources into tracking guns-as-crime-stopper stories. I am certain there have been more than six incidents of guns used in self-defense in 2013. But in order for that number to reach the purported 2 million annual incidents, people are going to have to be quicker on the draw.

Or perhaps, the NRA needs to admit that they’re exaggerating. An April 2013 paper from the Violence Policy Center called Firearm Justifiable Homicides and  Non-Fatal Self-Defense Gun Use: An Analysis of Federal Bureau of Investigation and  National Crime Victimization Survey Data says:

In 2010, across the nation there were only 230 justifiable homicides involving a private citizen using a firearm reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program as detailed in its Supplementary Homicide Report (SHR) That same year, there were 8,275 criminal gun homicides tallied in the SHR. In 2010, for every justifiable homicide in the United States involving a gun, guns were used in 36 criminal homicides. And this ratio, of course, does not take into account the thousands of lives ended in gun suicides (19,392) or unintentional shootings (606) that year.

The FBI definition of justifiable homicide is the killing of a felon, during the commission of a felony, by a private citizen.

But what about non-lethal use of guns? The kind the NRA is touting?  The same VPC paper finds that over a five-year period, the actual incidence of people using guns in self-defense is actually 235,700, amounting to less than 1% of crimes being stopped by civilian gun use.

Screen Shot 2013-06-09 at 4.19.40 PMGood guys with guns are not stopping bad guys with guns at nearly the rate that gun rights proponents would have us believe.

Now, it appears that good guys with guns do stop bad guys with guns. But I think what we really are learning in this conversation about who has guns is that the fear of the bad guy with the gun overrides a lot of common sense. The fear of the bad guy with a gun is what stands in the way of technologies to lock guns so they can’t be accidentally fired. The fear of a bad guys with a gun is why it’s possible to buy a gun without a background check at a gun show. The fear of the bad guy with the gun is why people want to arm staff at schools.

When you look at the data and see how guns are being used in the U.S., you can see that the bad guy with the gun is far less of a threat to your family than suicide but that bad guy is the myth the gun industry perpetuates to keep people buying weapons for self-defense. Guns, for good guys, are like a national security blanket. They make people feel safe but they don’t actually promote safety.

Rebekah Kuschmider is a DC area mom with an over-developed sense of irreverence, socialist tendencies, a cable news addiction, and a blog. Rebekah has an undergraduate degree in theatre and Master’s in Arts Policy and Administration and a decade of experience managing arts organizations and advocating in the public health sector.  Rebekah also blogs about her life, her thoughts, and her opinions at was voted one of the Top 25 Political Mom Blogs at Circle of Moms. Her work has also been seen at, Redbook online, and the Huffington Post.

Image via iStockphoto/Aleksandr Pakhay


  • Jessica

    Honestly, I’m more afraid of the people who insist that we should all carry guns everywhere to protect ourselves from the “bad guys” because they’re the ones I foresee shooting the pizza delivery kid who was given the wrong address for knocking on the wrong door.

    I don’t necessarily think the idea that “bad guys are less likely to go after people who might shoot them back” is without logic. But it presupposes that there are clear-cut good guys and bad guys and ignores the fact that many violent crimes are a rash, in-the-moment decision that happens without planning.

    Also: if we all have guns, how do we tell the good guys from the bad guys?

    • Mike

      “how do we tell the good guys from the bad guys?”

      The way we do now, by their behavior.

      Millions of people carry firearms every day without ever firing having to fire a shot in self defense. 300,000 to 1.5 million, depending upon which government or private study you select, people use a firearm to stop a violent crime each year. Most of those self defense uses don’t result in justifiable homicide, but stop the attack through a show of sufficient force or wounding. At least 10 times the total number of all firearms related deaths where a firearms was used to stop a bad guy.

      The murder rate has been dropping since 1990 and along with it the rate of murders committed with a firearm. We’re at the lowest rate in a generation (about half where we were in the ’90s) and without draconian restrictions that only affect the good guys (what “gun control” law ever affects the bad guys anyway).

      Certainly no one can argue that murder is bad, but there are fewer now than before and some of those were prevented because you or your neighbor could use a firearm to stop one from happening. The fact that so many more are stopped is something that most people aren’t aware of.

      • Nungman

        Even the lowest of those figures, the 300,000, is a complete myth. As confirmed by the DOJ report, it is not based on verified fact or police reports but on subjective impressions.
        For instance: I am a retiree in Arizona. I am fearful of crime so I buy some guns. One night I THINK I hear someone outside my house so I grab a gun and yell out the window “Go away! I’ve got a gun!” Nothing happens. I haven’t seen anyone and never see anyone but I keep a gun next to me all night. The following day I happily report to my favorite gun magazine, or the NRA, that I have stopped a crime by using a gun!

    • Jones

      Why would you shoot a pizza guy for going to the wrong door? That’s murder.

  • cappy hall rearick

    The NRA is missing a big chance to become heroes in the eyes of many Americans. They could assure hunters that nobody will come into their home and seize their precious shotguns. They could assure all the LEGAL gun owners of the same thing. After that, they could make a statement to the effect that shootings are DIFFERENT these days. Perps do not carry one gun into a public place and start shooting, they load up with military style weapons and lots of them. That appears to be the newest terrorist trend. My guess is that many of these shooters have spent way too much time killing stick figures in video games, a fact that becomes evident by the vacant look describe by survivors. It’s as though they become a part of the “game” with the winning result being the most people slaughtered.

    If only the NRA would get a grip. If only that stubborn organization actually cared about people more than the bottom line. They could become real heroes to Americans if they did SOMETHING to thwart bad guys from buying weapons at gun shows. They could use their powerful lobby to outlaw assault weapons instead of using lobbyists to keep legislators in line. Yep. The NRA is missing a great opportunity to be heroes, and they have only themselves to blame.

    • Dave

      The NRA has no interest in becoming another VPC. The NRA is about respecting the 2nd Amendment, not ways to thwart it. The NRA has no interest in banning “assault rifles” because, function-wise, they operate no differently than many hunting weapons. Assault rifles are not machine guns that spray bullets, but rather semi-automatic firearms that fire one shot for every pull of the trigger, no different than the guns I use to hunt game from rabbits to deer with. The vat amounts of ignorance and bias levied by the anti-gun lobby never fails to stun me. One would have to be willfully ignorant to believe the VPC or other anti-gun organizations. If gun control is the answer, why do Washington DC and Chicago…the two cities with the most “gun control” laws…have murder rates that dwarf those of where guns are legal and readily accessible? People don’t want to look at such examples, because it doesn’t fit their agenda, but the truth is, more gun control laws lead to more gun-related violence. Its a correlation that plays itself out throughout the US, and to deny it is simply ignorant to an extreme.

      • Nungman

        If you need a semi-auto to shoot deer or rabbits with, you have no business to go out hunting as you are a serious danger to other hunters or anyone in the vicinity.
        The military type calibers most assault weapons come in are as useless for any legitimate purpose as is a 30 round magazine. Only good for shooting up a movie theater or a grade school classroom.

  • Beverly Uhlmer

    The “right to keep and bear arms” is not just to protect us from the “bad guys”. It was instituted to protect us from a tyrannical government. Study the history of countries where their government completely repressed the citizens and you will find that those citizens tried to protect themselves from government tyranny by throwing pitch forks and rocks at government troops armed to the teeth. My grandparents left Syria when my father was an infant. How thankful I am to not live there now as the Assad forces massacre my cousins!

  • Dale

    A few thoughts to consider on this topic.

    When a crime is circumvented by a law-abiding citizen it rarely gets reported anywhere for a couple of reasons. The first being how do you report something that didn’t finish happening (ultimately no crime committed as the criminal aborted when confronted with armed resistance) and the second being that few people want the attention drawn to a distressing occurrence, they would much rather just walk away, forget about it, and move on with life.

    Also, the report of “justifiable homicides” is very misleading in terms of self-defense because it doesn’t address the numbers for “self-defense, non-fatal results” which is a far larger category since once a thug/criminal goes down most citizens stop shooting and even call 911 for medical assistance because they don’t actually want to kill anyone, they just wanted to stop the assault or threat.

    • Dale

      Also one additional thought.

      For the average “self-defense” gun owner, firearms are simply another form of safety equipment/insurance policy, much like seat-belts in a car or homeowner’s insurance because personal safety isn’t about “the odds”, it’s about the consequences of being unprepared if you should suddenly draw the low card in the “bad luck lottery”.

      Reasonable precautions don’t make one a bloodthirsty maniac and though the odds of bad things happening are relatively low, it’s far too late to think “I should put on my seat-belt now” when the other car is speeding towards you and the police may be minutes (or a lifetime) away if the sociopath criminal decides YOU are his target of the day.

  • Melanie

    Nice try, Dale. Can you site any of these incidents in which a perpetrator was shot by a gun owner? Names, dates, etc. Hypothetical incidents are not statistics. I can name 11 toddlers who have accidentally shot and killed someone this year. I can name 10 children who shot but did not kill a person this year. It’s only June.

  • Rebekah Kuschmider

    Dale, the study does show statistics on non-lethal gun use as self defense. That accounts for .8% of violent crimes and .1% of property crimes over a five year period. I’m not ignoring those instances. Or are you suggesting under reporting? Such as people being victims of attempted violent crime that they stop by threatening a criminal with a gun but then never file a report about the attempted crime? I suppose that can happen but why on earth would anyone fail to report an attempted crime?

    As for the accidental deaths of children, I don’t have time to find specifics but this is a daily round up of reported gun incidents across the country. It’s not comprehensive – it just deals with news reports. You usually don’t have to read through many days worth before you find an accidental shooting involving a child. In this case, there’s a story in the first post: 6-month old baby killed during a domestic dispute between her parents.

    • Dale

      I am -absolutely- citing under-reporting. There are MANY reasons why people do not report an attempted crime including the stigma currently being pushed HARD against gun owners, an all too common “blame the victim” mentality (especially where rape or attempted rape are concerned), and the previously mentioned powerful mental wish to avoid hassle and just forget that the incident happened. The psychology has very strong parallels to “battered wife syndrome”.

      I have worked in/with law enforcement for years and seen far too many times where an overworked officer rolls their eyes in such an instance and says “what do you want me to report, there was no crime”. Sad and inappropriate but it happens all the time.

      Ultimately though the real issue you are trying to address isn’t GUN-violence, it is simply Violence and I think it’s a little strange that you want to hold the law-abiding responsible but use criminal examples to try and justify your attitude.

      The real conversation isn’t about hardware and it’s not about the law abiding. The real conversation is about those who would do harm, those who do not believe in our implied social contracts, and how we will never make more than minimal progress on this subject until we dig down to the root causes of violence.

      In the meanwhile, disarming the law-abiding to stop the criminal seems to make about as much sense as me taking away your keys because an intoxicated person ran over my mailbox.

  • Rebekah Kuschmider

    Dale, under reporting, then, is a problem gun owners need to fix. There needs to be a mechanism for accurate reporting of self0-defense use of firearms because right now, it doesn’t look compelling. You are failing to make your case by hiding the evidence. The stats as they exist now – and I have minimal evidence to refute them – show that gun ownership is more likely to result in a suicide or accident than in stopping a crime. The stats may be wrong but that is not my fault – that is the fault of gun users who hide their gun use. The numbers here don’t lie but you make it sounds like gun owners do, at least by omission.

    If you read carefully, you’ll see I did NOT suggest disarming anyone. I’ve read the Second Amendment and am resigned to its impact on my society. I am promoting gun safety – trigger locks, biometric keying of guns to owners, safe storage. A gun that can’t be accessed or fired by an unauthorized individual is a gun that won’t accidentally kill a toddler. The argument against such safety mechanisms is always “How will I stop a bad guy if my gun has limits on use?”. I’m making the case that you probably won’t have to stop a bad guy. It’s not as common as people think. But suicide and firearms accidents are common and safe storage will prevent them. It makes more sense to me to take steps to keep guns away from kids who are in the home every day than to make a gun easily accessible in case a bad guy makes a once in a lifetime appearance.

    • Dale

      The real statistics of harmful vs not-harmful are that there are roughly 313 Million Americans and the FBI estimates that they own about 200 Million guns. That means that a gun in the house is quite literally hundreds of millions of times more likely to be used for absolutely nothing, or for something beneficial, than it is to be misused for any purpose.

      Lest I sound too antagonistic let me be clear here that I fully support safety. I am a certified firearms safety instructor and have spent YEARS of my time and a great deal of my own pocket money working hard with many hundreds of people to improve the safe ownership and handling of firearms. Accidents with firearms (especially where children are concerned) are nearly always a preventable tragedy but the very existence of firearms has been so demonized at this point that trying to get something sensible like the NRA “Eddy Eagle don’t touch” program run in a school is simply impossible. I know, I’ve tried!

      Finally, I understand your point about the low odds of being in a self-defense scenario, really I do, but if you follow that same line of logic you shouldn’t bother with home fire insurance or seatbelts either since your odds of either are actually pretty minor. We don’t buy insurance and safety equipment because of the odds, we do it because the consequences of being unprepared are unacceptable.

      I personally find consequences like the Petit family home invasion murders or the whole Ariel Castro horror in Cleveland to be pretty unacceptable and so I advocate a little extra personal preparedness against such possibilities while strongly advocating safety training to go with it and in such situations some meeting ground has to be found between safe-storage and accessibility or the whole point is moot.

  • Tao Sun

    “McDowall et al. (1998), using the data from 1992 and 1994 waves of the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), found roughly 116,000 defensive gun uses per year”

    “Kleck and Gertz (1995), using data from the 1993 National Self-Defense Survey (NSDS), found around 2.5 million defensive gun uses each year.” (High estimate.)

    “Using the original National Crime Survey, McDowall and Wiersema (1994) estimate 64,615 annual incidents from 1987 to 1990.” (Low estimate.)

    The validity of these surveys is an open question, however, which the report I linked to goes into detail over.

  • Mongo_the_Magnificent

    “The stats as they exist now – and I have minimal evidence to refute them – show that gun ownership is more likely to result in a suicide or accident than in stopping a crime.”

    I have not a clue where the anti’s get this oft repeated and flat-out wrong statement. If the above were true there would be 80 million extra dead people as that is the approximate number of people who own firearms in the US.

    If you’d like some light reading on the subject there is a paper issued by the CATO Institute titled: Tough Targets: When Criminals Face Armed Resistance from Citizens by Clayton Cramer and David Burnett

    Their research reinforces what Dale points out above. Somewhere more than 2 million times a year people use firearms to successfully defend themselves. Most of the time not one shot is even fired. The mere presence of a firearm nearly always stops the act.

    Just because a thwarted crime is not reported does not make the facts any less so. And I’d hardly consider the source for your comments (VPC or a NY Times column) non-biased.

    Nobody is saying the deaths of people, especially children is not tragic. It is. But also keep in mind that more kids die from accidental poisonings, drowning, falls and child abuse than firearms.

    Folks, we have a violence problem. Not a gun problem. If you take away all the guns people will still hurt other people. It’s the way it is.

    • Danielle Elwood

      @Mongo – We have more than just a violence problem. There is a very clear cut gun problem in our country. You can choose to ignore it if you would like but after living through a good friend being gunned down in her CLASSROOM while simply trying to teach her first grade class, something needs to be done. And shame on ANYONE and EVERYONE who doesn’t see the DEEP problem it has caused in our country.

      • cappy hall rearick

        You are absolutely right, Danielle. I feel bad for you that you have had to deal so personally with gun violence. There are ways to defend oneself other than with a gun. It is up to us to stop the growing use of guns, but will we? Too many are too attached to weapons, too lazy to take defense approaches, and too set on having the last word and always being right. Our country used to be known for our humanity, but not any more. Sad.

      • Dale

        I think it’s pretty clear that we have a criminal problem. If you want to blame inanimate objects there is nothing I can do to stop you but I’ve never seen a firearm take action on it’s own, there is -always- someone behind the trigger.

        When that -someone- is a murderer, a sociopath, then that is the source we need to be addressing.

        Take away the tools and the criminal finds or builds more. Take away the criminal and the problem stops.

      • HKGuns

        Funny that you attribute that problem to an inanimate object. Did that gun walk into the classroom and pull its own trigger? Last I knew it that wasn’t possible. Personal accountability, perhaps a new concept for you.

        I also find it disturbing how so many are so quick to throw our Constitution away and turn things over to the obviously incompetent ruling class dunderheads of this Country continue to elect through nothing more than name recognition popularity contests.

        • Danielle Elwood

          @HKGuns – When the constitution was drafted, the guns shot one bullet, then took the minimum of a MINUTE to re-load the next shot. Our founding fathers didn’t set out for this kind of gun freedom, that is for sure. They are rolling over in their graves watching so many gun supporters distort their intentions.

          • Dale

            “Being a smart, well-trained, gun owner is essential.”

            Well, actually it isn’t. Being smart and well trained are immeasurably good ideas, but not essential.

            Don’t misunderstand me, as stated previously I advocate safety training in a big way but there are a whole lot of cases where someone with little or no training successfully uses a firearm to defend themselves or others.

  • Optimus Prime

    Ms. K, are you actually serious? As a US citizen first, but also as a woman, why would you ever be so eager to relinquish your right to self-defense? If you’re not familiar with firearms, and you don’t care to familiarize yourself, then by all means choose to not arm yourself. No problem.
    But why would you ever argue to remove the best means for other citizens and other women to protect themselves? That’s the beauty of a constitutional right; you may choose to exercise it or not, totally your call. But don’t argue against the rest of us.
    My family will not cause any crimes, my family will not be the source of any robberies or murders or drug deals; but neither will my family be victims.

    • AnnaPaul Morczki-Salish

      I’m pretty certain her article is serious. And where did she say she wants to relinquish any right to self-defense? You’re assuming too much. I am female, and have personally chosen other methods to protect myself that have worked for me several times in my travels throughout the world. And, no, it’s not martial arts. It’s my brain. The problem is: if I wake up to find a gun pointed at my head, or a knife at my neck, having a gun locked in the nightstand next to me isn’t going to save my life unless the criminal is willing to wait while I unlock the drawer to get it out and remove the safety. So, I choose other methods, but am happy to allow you to have an entire arsenal if you so desire. Don’t assume that everyone is trying to snatch your gun away from you. I don’t care how many you have.

  • Chuck

    The town I live in has low violent crime. Gun ownership is higher than the national average. I just want to know how you can make a statistic out of a criminal deciding in his head that it’s not worth the risk breaking into someones home here because more than likely he will be met with a gun.

    I personally think criminals here either decide not to be a criminal or move on to greener (safer) pastures in gun free zones.

    • AnnaPaul Morczki-Salish

      the town I live in also has very low violent crime, and gun ownership is lower than the national average. It’s absurd to suggest that criminals pack up and move to other cities or states simply because of the number of gun owners. I doubt they bother to find gunownership statistics in deciding whether to stay in their hometown.

  • Concealed Carry Girl

    Unless a person is confident that in that specific situation they can safely use their gun, then whether or not the “good guy” has a gun is irrelevant.

    Being a smart, well-trained, gun owner is essential. We who choose to carry concealed weapons can, and do, deter crime and save lives. That does not mean we should be brandishing our weapons at every opportunity.

  • J J Mullally

    First, thanks to all for the level of civil discourse here. In a firearms discussion, it is rare. I have always wondered why there is no move or recall all to ban or restrict automobiles, considering our annual slaughter.
    Thanks for the opportunity. John

    • AnnaPaul Morczki-Salish

      I believe it’s because automobiles are intended to be used for transport, whereas guns are intended to harm or kill. And both have primarily fulfilled those intentions.

  • Steve Rogers

    A big element here that is being disregarded is the word “reported”. I would venture a common sense guess that while the vast majority of violent crimes do get reported, the polar opposite would be true for crimes that were deterred by brandishing or simply saying to a would be attacker “I have a gun”. Using the number of self defense that only ended in killing the bad guy is completely irrelevant. The assumption being made is that the only time a gun is used in self defense is when it’s killing someone. Which thankfully, is not how most attacks end. If an attacker approaches a person only for that person to pull a gun and the attacker runs off, there is no crime to report. No crime to report means no number to add to your stat. Wildly skewing this questionable conclusion that guns do more harm than good.
    Also, with the stats used in this article alone, I could easily make the case that if more people armed themselves responsibly and carried daily, more crimes would be stopped. All that this evidence shows is that people who were armed were able to end a threat and people who weren’t armed….were not.
    Dangerous things sadly kill people every day. Steak knives, baseball bats, cars, pills, food…etc. On Sep 11, a razor knife enabled the senseless death of almost 3000 innocent people. I’ve yet to see the article advocating the ban of knives, bats, razor blades or medication. Because we all understand that while these things are dangerous, in the hands of responsible owners they can be overwhelmingly positive. I argue that firearms fall into this same category. If you disagree, thats fine. You don’t have to buy one. I support your right to not like guns. But know this, if your thought is that the gun is dangerous, you should also be advocating disarming the police. And if your view is that only guns in the hands of civilians are dangerous, know that you are advocating sending men with guns and armored vehicles to my home to apprehend them. Which, ironically, would make you very pro gun.
    Whatever you view, I love you. I am a father, husband and a gun owner and I have charged myself with the responsibility of protecting my young daughter and wife from a threat that I hope to God I never encounter. I do so safely and with the utmost respect for these dangerous tools. I will stand for your right to disagree. Will you stand for mine?

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