5 The Use of Firearms to Defend Against Criminals

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While a large body of research has considered the effects of firearms on

injury, crime, and suicide, far less attention has been devoted to understanding

their defensive and deterrent effects. Firearms are used to

defend against criminals. For example, the presence of a gun may frighten a

criminal away, thereby reducing the likelihood of loss of property, injury,

or death.

In this chapter, we consider what is known about the extent and nature

of defensive gun use (DGU). Over the past decade, researchers have attempted

to measure the prevalence of defensive gun use in the population.

This measurement problem has proved to be quite complex, with some

estimates suggesting just over 100,000 defensive gun uses per year and

others suggesting 2.5 million or more defensive gun uses per year.

A primary cause of this uncertainty is the disagreement over the definition

of defensive gun use—in particular, whether it should be defined as a

response to victimization or as a means to prevent victimization from occurring

in the first place. There is also uncertainty regarding the accuracy of

survey responses to sensitive questions and the related problems of how to

effectively measure defensive gun use, the types of questions that should be

asked, and the methods of data collection. These disagreements over definition

and measurement have resulted in prevalence rates that differ by a

factor of 22 or more. While even the smallest of the estimates indicates that

there are hundreds of defensive uses every day, there is much contention

over the magnitude and the details.

Since answers to this debate precede any serious investigation into

other related questions, we focus our attention on summarizing and evaluUSE

ating the DGU estimates from the various gun use surveys. We find that

fundamental problems in defining what is meant by defensive gun use may

be a primary impediment to accurate measurement. Finally, after reviewing

the literature that attempts to count the annual number of defensive gun

uses in the United States, we then consider the small set of studies that

evaluate the effectiveness of firearms for defense.