Thursday, June 23, 2016

How Often Are Guns Used in Self-Defense?

This is a recurring claim of the mainstream media: that gun murders so far outnumber justifiable homicides that gun ownership is a net loss.  This is a statement that is technically accurate but misleading.

This would be an interesting argument if the FBI’s justifiable homicide statistics included all defensive killings by civilians.  But it does not.  The FBI’s manual on reporting data to the Uniform Crime Reports system is very clear as to what deaths may be reported as “justifiable homicides”:

Justifiable homicide, by definition, occurs in conjunction with other offenses. Therefore, the crime being committed when the justifiable homicide took place must be reported as a separate offense. Reporting agencies should take care to ensure that they do not classify a killing as justifiable or excusable solely on the claims of self-defense or on the action of a coroner, prosecutor, grand jury, or court. [emphasis added]
So if the police, prosecutor, judge or jury decide that a killing was legally valid self-defense, it isn’t included in the FBI’s justifiable homicide statistics.  Also, only defensive killings “in conjunction with other offenses” are included.  Obviously if you kill someone engaged in robbery or attempted murder it gets included, but many states allow deadly force under circumstances that may not involve such.   To use an example from California law: “committed by accident and misfortune, or in doing any other lawful act by lawful means, with usual and ordinary caution, and without any unlawful intent” or the excusable homicide category “When committed by accident and misfortune, in the heat of passion, upon any sudden and sufficient provocation, or upon a sudden combat, when no undue advantage is taken, nor any dangerous weapon used, and when the killing is not done in a cruel or unusual manner.”

These “sudden combat” excusable homicide deaths are not in a technical sense “justifiable homicide” and so don’t show up in the FBI’s statistics.  Studies of such deaths suggest that civilians kill in self-defense far more commonly than the police of the FBI’s “justifiable homicide” statistics sugest.  The noted criminologist Gary Kleck has concluded, based on these studies, that the number of CLDHs with guns per year is typically 7.1% to 12.9% of the murder rate (at least five times the FBI’s “justifiable homicide with a gun” figures).  So the FBI’s “justifiable homicide” statistics grossly understate civilian defensive uses of guns that cause criminal deaths.

There’s a deeper problem here as well: many civilian defensive uses of guns cause no deaths at all.  Bad guys suddenly remember an urgent appointment elsewhere when confronted.  How often?  For 2003-2011, my associates and OI gathered new media and official agency reports of such uses.  As of today, we have more than 4400 such uses that were considered important enough to report.  Doubtless, there were many others never reported.

Summary: the FBI’s justifiable homicide statistics are a very incomplete measure of civilians using guns for self-defense and any sort of cost/benefit analysis based on comparing gun murders to justifiable homicides is grossly misleading.  A more formal version of this will be appearing in the University of Florida Journal of Law & Public Policy soon.  PDF of this is here.
Clayton E. Cramer teaches history at College of Western Idaho as needed.

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