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Defensive gun use can be offensive

January 24th, 2003

In the course of following up the work of John Lott, I came across some interesting points about defensive gun use (DGU). There has been a dispute between estimates based on surveys of crime victims, such as that of Hemenway et al, which show very low rates of DGU (less than 100 000 per year for the US) and others such as that of Kleck et al, which show as many as 2 million DGU’s per year. I came across an interesting piece by Tom Smith, which attempted a reconciliation between the two estimates. Among other things the the crime victimisation surveys exclude such crimes as “trespassing, vandalism, and malicious mischief”. By including these cases, Smith adds as much as 40 per cent to the derived from the crime victims survey, though this still doesn’t get him anywhere near the Kleck estimates.

It struck me that, even on the most generous definition of reasonable force, shooting or threatening to shoot a trespasser or vandal would be a crime more serious than the original offence, so I emailed Dr Smith to ask him about this. His response:

I’m no expert on American law, but such uses do meet the criminological definition of DGUs that has been used in the research literature. That literature also states that not all DGUs are necessarily legal or appropriate, just that the gun is used in response to a crime/threat in the mind of the user.

From this definition, it’s pretty clear that the kind of person who brandishes or even fires a gun in the course of, say, a dispute between neighbours over fence lines, could correctly record this as a DGU. The same goes for this case, where the outcome was more tragic (the killer was acquitted of a manslaughter charge, but that says more about Louisiana juries than anything else). Even the use of a gun in a street brawl would qualify, assuming that the shooter felt threatened.

On Smith’s estimates, such criminal misuse of guns constitutes as much as a third of all DGUs. The rate would be higher for the much more frequent use estimated by Kleck et al.

In summary, it appears that, if the Kleck estimates have any validity, they represent an epidemic of unrecorded gun crime.

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