PRIVATE FIREARMS STOP CRIME 2.5
MILLION TIMES EACH YEAR, NEW UNIVERSITY
By J. Neil Schulman
In an exclusive interview, Dr. Gary Kleck,
criminologist at Florida State University in Tallahassee and
author of "Point Blank: Guns and Violence in America," a
book widely cited in the national gun-control debate, revealed
some preliminary results of the National Firearms Defensive Use
Survey which he and his colleague Dr. Marc Gertz conducted in
Spring, 1993. Though he stresses that the results of the survey
are preliminary and subject to future revision, the survey's
results confirm to Kleck's satisfaction his analysis of previous
surveys which show that American civilians commonly use their
privately-owned firearms each year to defend themselves against
criminal attacks, and that such defensive uses significantly
outnumber the criminal uses of firearms in America.
The new survey, conducted by random
telephone sampling of 4,978 households in all the states except
Alaska and Hawaii, yield results indicating that American
civilians use their firearms as often as 2.5 million times every
year defending against a confrontation with a criminal, and that
handguns alone account for up to 1.9 million defenses per year.
Previous surveys, in Kleck's analysis, had underrepresented the
extent of private firearms defenses because the questions asked
failed to account for the possibility that a particular respondent
might have had to use his or her firearm more than once.
Dr. Kleck will first present his survey
results at an upcoming meeting of the American Society of
Criminology, but he agreed to discuss his preliminary analysis,
even though it is uncustomary to do so in advance of complete peer
review, because of the great extent which his earlier work is
being quoted in public debates on firearms public policy. The
interview was conducted on September 14, 1993 by J. Neil Schulman,
a novelist, screenwriter, and journalist who has written
extensively on firearms public policy for several years.
SCHULMAN: Dr. Kleck, I understand that
conducted a new survey on firearms usage. Can you tell me
generally what was discovered in this that wasn't previously
KLECK: Well, the survey mostly generated
results pretty consistent with those of a dozen previous surveys
which generally indicates that defensive use of guns is pretty
common and probably more common than criminal uses of guns. This
survey went beyond previous ones in that it provided detail about
how often people who had used a gun had done so. We asked people
was the gun used defensively in the past five years and if so how
many times did that happen and we asked details about what exactly
happened. We nailed down that each use being reported was a bona
fide defensive use against a human being in connection with a
crime where there was an actual confrontation between victim and
offender. Previous surveys were a little hazy on the details of
exactly what was being reported as a defensive gun use. It wasn't,
for example, clear that the respondents weren't reporting
investigating a suspicious noise in their back yard with a gun
where there was, in fact, nobody there. Our results ended up
indicating, depending on which figures you prefer to use, anywhere
from 800,000 on up to 2.4, 2.5 million defensive uses of guns
against human beings -- not against animals -- by civilians each
SCHULMAN: Okay. Let's see if we can pin down
some of these figures. I understand you asked questions having to
do with just the previous one year. Is that correct?
KLECK: That's correct. We asked both for
recollections about the preceding five years and for just what
happened in the previous one year, the idea being that people
would be able to remember more completely what had happened just
in the past year.
SCHULMAN: And your figures reflect this?
KLECK: Yes. The estimates are considerably
higher if they're based on people's presumably more-complete
recollection of just what happened in the previous year.
SCHULMAN: Okay. So you've given us the
definition of what a "defense" is. It has to be an
actual confrontation against a human being attempting a crime? Is
SCHULMAN: And it excludes all police,
security guards, and military personnel?
KLECK: That's correct.
SCHULMAN: Okay. Let's ask the "one
year" question since you say that's based on better
recollections. In the last year how many people who responded to
the questionnaire said that they had used a firearm to defend
themselves against an actual confrontation from a human being
attempting a crime?
KLECK: Well, as a percentage it's 1.33
percent of the respondents. When you extrapolate that to the
general population, it works out to be 2.4 million defensive uses
of guns of some kind -- not just handguns but any kind of a gun --
within that previous year, which would have been roughly from
Spring of 1992 through Spring of 1993.
SCHULMAN: And if you focus solely on
KLECK: It's about 1.9 million, based on
personal, individual recollections.
SCHULMAN: And what percentage of the
respondents is that? Just handguns?
KLECK: That would be 1.03 percent.
SCHULMAN: How many respondents did you have
KLECK: We had a total of 4,978 completed
interviews, that is, where we had a response on the key question
of whether or not there had been a defensive gun use.
SCHULMAN: So roughly 50 people out of 5000
responded that in the last year they had had to use their firearms
in an actual confrontation against a human being attempting a
KLECK: Handguns, yes.
SCHULMAN: Had used a handgun. And slightly
more than that had used any gun.
SCHULMAN: So that would be maybe 55, 56
KLECK: Something like that, yeah.
SCHULMAN: Okay. I can just hear critics
saying that 50 or 55 people responding that they used their gun
and you're projecting it out to figures of around 2 million, 2-1/2
million gun defenses. Why is that statistically valid?
KLECK: Well, that's one reason why we also
had a five-year recollection period. We get a much larger raw
number of people saying, "Yes, I had a defensive use."
It doesn't work out to be as many per year because people are
presumably not remembering as completely, but the raw numbers of
people who remember some kind of defensive use over the previous
five years, that worked out to be on the order of 200 sample
cases. So it's really a small raw number only if you limit your
attention to those who are reporting an incident just in the
previous year. Statistically, it's strictly the raw numbers that
are relevant to the issue.
SCHULMAN: So if between 1 percent to 1-1/3
percent of your respondents are saying that they defended
themselves with a gun, how does this compare, for example, to the
number of people who would respond that they had suffered from a
crime during that period?
KLECK: I really couldn't say. We didn't ask
that and I don't think there are really any comparable figures.
You could look at the National Crime Surveys for relatively recent
years and I guess you could take the share of the population that
had been the victims of some kind of violent crime because most of
these apparently are responses to violent crimes. Ummm, let's see.
The latest year for which I have any data, 1991, would be about 9
percent of the population had suffered a personal crime -- that's
a crime with personal contact. And so, to say that 1 percent of
the population had defended themselves with a handgun is obviously
still well within what you would expect based on the share of the
population that had suffered a personal crime of some kind. Plus a
number of these defensive uses were against burglars, which isn't
considered a personal crime according to the National Crime
Survey. But you can add in maybe another 5 percent who'd been a
victim of a household burglary.
SCHULMAN: Let's break down some of these gun
defenses if we can. How many are against armed robbers? How many
are against burglars? How many are against people committing a
rape or an assault?
KLECK: About 8 percent of the defensive uses
involved a sexual crime such as an attempted sexual assault. About
29 percent involved some sort of assault other than sexual
assault. Thirty-three percent involved a burglary or some other
theft at home. Twenty-two percent involved robbery. Sixteen
percent involved trespassing.
SCHULMAN: Do you have a breakdown of how
many occurred on somebody's property and how many occurred, let's
say, off somebody's property where somebody would have had to have
been carrying a gun with them on their person or in their car?
KLECK: Yes. We asked where the incident took
place. Seventy-two percent took place in or near the home, where
the gun wouldn't have to be "carried" in a legal sense.
And then some of the remainder, maybe another 4 percent, occurred
in a friend's home where that might not necessarily involve
carrying. Also, some of these incidents may have occurred in a
vehicle in a parking lot and that's another 4 percent or so. So
some of those incidents may have involved a less-regulated kind of
carrying. In many states, for example, it doesn't require a
license to carry a gun in your vehicle so I'd say that the share
that involved carrying in a legal sense is probably less than a
quarter of the incidents. I won't commit myself to anything more
than that because we don't have the specifics of whether or not
some of these away-from-home incidents occurred while a person was
in a car.
SCHULMAN: All right. Well, does that mean
that approximately a half million times a year somebody carrying a
gun away from home uses it to defend himself or herself?
KLECK: That's what it would imply, yes.
SCHULMAN: All right. As many as one-half
million times every year somebody carrying a gun away from home
defends himself or herself.
KLECK: Yes, about that. It could be as high
as that. I have many different estimates and some of the estimates
are deliberately more conservative in that they exclude from our
sample any cases where it was not absolutely clear that there was
a genuine defensive gun use being reported.
SCHULMAN: Were any of these gun uses done by
anyone under the age of 21 or under the age of 18?
KLECK: Well we don't have any coverage of
persons under the age of 18. Like most national surveys we cover
only adults age 18 and up.
SCHULMAN: Did you have any between the ages
of 18 and 21?
KLECK: I haven't analyzed the cross
tabulation of age with defensive gun use so I couldn't say at this
SCHULMAN: Okay. Was this survey
representative just of Florida or is it representative of the
entire United States?
KLECK: It's representative of the lower 48
SCHULMAN: And that means that there was
calling throughout all the different states?
KLECK: Yes, except Alaska and Hawaii, and
that's also standard practice for national surveys; because of the
expense they usually aren't contacted.
SCHULMAN: How do these surveys make their
choices, for example, between high-crime urban areas and
less-crime rural areas?
KLECK: Well, there isn't a choice made in
that sense. It's a telephone survey and the telephone numbers are
randomly chosen by computer so that it works out that every
residential telephone number in the lower 48 states had an equal
chance of being picked, except that we deliberately oversampled
from the South and the West and then adjusted after the fact for
that overrepresentation. It results in no biasing. The results are
representative of the entire United States, but it yields a larger
number of sample cases of defensive gun uses. They are, however,
weighted back down so that they properly represent the correct
percent of the population that's had a defensive gun use.
SCHULMAN: Why is it that the results of your
survey are so counter-intuitive compared to police experience?
KLECK: For starters, there are substantial
reasons for people not to report defensive gun uses to the police
or, for that matter, even to interviewers working for researchers
like me -- the reason simply being that a lot of the times people
either don't know whether their defensive act was legal or even if
they think that was legal, they're not sure that possessing a gun
at that particular place and time was legal. They may have a gun
that's supposed to be registered and it's not or maybe it's
totally legally owned but they're not supposed to be walking
around on the streets with it.
SCHULMAN: Did your survey ask the question
of whether people carrying guns had licenses to do so?
KLECK: No, we did not. We thought that would
be way too sensitive a question to ask people.
SCHULMAN: Okay. Let's talk about how the
guns were actually used in order to accomplish the defense. How
many people, for example, had to merely show the gun, as opposed
to how many had to fire a warning shot, as to how many actually
had to attempt to shoot or shoot their attacker?
KLECK: We got all of the details about
everything that people could have done with a gun from as mild an
action as merely verbally referring to the gun on up to actually
SCHULMAN: Could you give me the percentages?
KLECK: Yes. You have to keep in mind that
it's quite possible for people to have done more than one of these
things since they could obviously both verbally refer to the gun
and point it at somebody or even shoot it.
KLECK: Fifty-four percent of the defensive
gun uses involved somebody verbally referring to the gun.
Forty-seven percent involved the gun being pointed at the
criminal. Twenty-two percent involved the gun being fired.
Fourteen percent involved the gun being fired at somebody, meaning
it wasn't just a warning shot; the defender was trying to shoot.
Whether they succeeded or not is another matter but they were
trying to shoot a criminal. And then in 8 percent they actually
did wound or kill the offender.
SCHULMAN: In 8 percent, wounded or killed.
You don't have it broken down beyond that?
KLECK: Wound versus kill? No. Again that was
thought to be too sensitive a question. Although we did have, I
think, two people who freely offered the information that they
had, indeed, killed someone.
SCHULMAN: Did anybody respond to a question
asking whether they had used the gun and it was found afterward to
KLECK: We did not ask them that question
although we did ask them what crime they thought was being
committed. So in each case the only incidents we were accepting as
bona fide defensive gun uses were ones where the defender believed
that, indeed, a crime had been committed against them.
SCHULMAN: Did you ask any follow-up
questions about how many people had been arrested or captured as a
result of their actions?
SCHULMAN: Did you ask any questions about
aid in law enforcement, such as somebody helps a police officer
who's not themselves an officer?
KLECK: No. I imagine that would be far too
rare an incident to get any meaningful information out of it.
Highly unlikely that any significant share of these involved
assisting law enforcement.
SCHULMAN: The question which this all comes
down to is that we already have some idea, for example from
surveys on CCW license holders, how rare it is for a CCW holder to
misuse their gun in a way to injure somebody improperly. But does
this give us any idea of what the percentages are of a person who
carries a gun having to use it in order to defend himself or
herself? In other words, comparing the percentage of defending
yourself to the percentage of being attacked, does this tell us
KLECK: We asked them whether they carried
guns at any time but we didn't directly ask them if they were
carrying guns, in the legal sense, at the time they had used their
gun defensively. So we can probably say what fraction of gun
carriers in our sample had used a gun defensively but we can't say
whether they did it while carrying. They may, for example, have
been people who at least occasionally carried a gun for protection
but they used a gun defensively in their own home.
SCHULMAN: So what percentage of gun carriers
used it defensively?
KLECK: I haven't calculated it yet so I
SCHULMAN: So if we assume, let's say, that
every year approximately 9 percent of people are going to be
attacked, and approximately every year that 1 percent of
respondents used their guns to defend against an attack, is it
fair to say that around one out of nine people attacked used their
guns to defend themselves?
KLECK: That "risk of being
attacked" shouldn't be phrased that way. It's the risk of
being the victim of a personal crime. In other words, it involved
interpersonal contact. That could be something like a nonviolent
crime like purse snatching or pickpocketing as well. The fact that
personal contact is involved means there's an opportunity to
defend against it using a gun; it doesn't necessarily mean there
was an attack on the victim.
SCHULMAN: Did you get any data on how the
attackers were armed during these incidents?
KLECK: Yes. We also asked whether the
offender was armed. The offender was armed in 47.2 percent of the
cases and they had a handgun in about 13.6 percent of all the
cases and some other kind of gun in 4.5 percent of all the cases.
SCHULMAN: So in other words, in about a
sixth of the cases, the person attacking was armed with a firearm.
KLECK: That's correct.
SCHULMAN: Okay. And the remainder?
KLECK: Armed with a knife: 18.1 percent, 2
percent with some other sharp object, 10.1 percent with a blunt
object, and 6 percent with some other weapon. Keep in mind when
adding this up that offenders could have had more than one weapon.
SCHULMAN: So in approximately five sixths of
the cases somebody carrying a gun for defensive reasons would find
themselves defending themselves either against an unarmed attacker
or an attacker with a lesser weapon?
KLECK: Right. About five-sixths of the time.
SCHULMAN: And about one-sixth of the time
they would find themselves up against somebody who's armed with a
KLECK: Well, certainly in this sample of
incidents that was the case.
SCHULMAN: Which you believe is
KLECK: It's representative of what's
happened in the last five years. Whether or not it would be true
in the future we couldn't say for sure.
SCHULMAN: Are there any other results coming
out of this which are surprising to you?
KLECK: About the only thing which was
surprising is how often people had actually fired their gun in the
incident. Previous surveys didn't have very many sample cases so
you couldn't get into the details much but they had suggested that
a relatively small share of incidents involved the gun being fired
so it was surprising to me that quite so many defenders had used a
gun that way.
SCHULMAN: Dr. Kleck, is there anything else
you'd like to say at this time about the results of your survey
and your continuing analysis of them?
SCHULMAN: Then thank you very much.
KLECK: You're welcome.