August 16, 2012

Lies of the Gun Lobby (part 1)

Lie #1: “Law-abiding citizens use guns to defend themselves against criminals as many as 2.5 million times every year—or about 6,850 times a day.”[1]

This number—continually cited by the gun lobby—comes from a telephone survey conducted in the 1990s by criminologists Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz. Kleck and Gertz simply asked respondents if they had used a gun for defensive purposes in the previous year, making no attempt to corroborate their answers.[2]

As Harvard’s David Hemenway has explained, the Kleck-Gertz survey is deeply flawed. For starters, it shares a problem with all surveys, namely, respondents often answer falsely in an attempt to make themselves look better. “Respondents substantially over-report their seat belt use, for example, and inaccurately report whether they voted. Not all people are completely truthful when reporting about such mundane details as their age, height, or weight.” Hemenway points to a 1994 survey in which six percent of respondents claimed they had “personally…been in contact with aliens from another planet.”[3]

Regarding the Kleck-Gertz survey, it seems clear that most all gun owners would feel they would be acting admirably, even heroically, for using a gun in self-defense. As Hemenway explains, “An individual who purchases a gun for self-defense and then uses it successfully to ward off a criminal is displaying the wisdom of his precautions and his capability in protecting himself, his loved ones, and his property. His action is to be commended and admired.”[4]

Many respondents might not have intentionally lied but rather saw themselves as “unconsciously improving on the truth—e.g., on situations in which they were afraid, they retrieved a gun, and nothing bad happened.”[5] Other respondents no doubt mistakenly believed they were acting defensively. In other words, although they genuinely believed they were acting defensively, bystanders would have seen things different. Hemenway describes different groups of criminal law experts who were asked to survey the descriptions of some purportedly defensive gun uses. And each group concluded that in a majority of cases the actions of the gun owners were illegal and socially undesirable.[6]

Some respondents might have answered falsely for strategic reasons. “Some respondents were undoubtedly aware of the debate over the incidence and utility of gun use in self-defense. A few might actually deliberately lie on a telephone survey to help boost the numbers for the sake of their political beliefs concerning the dangers of gun control.”[7]

So it seems clear that at least some of the survey’s respondents falsely claimed to have used a gun in self-defense. Now here’s the kicker. If even a small number of respondents answered falsely, the survey’s overall numbers would drastically change. So, for example, if just 1% of respondents answered falsely, then the rate of annual defensive guns uses would fall from 2.5 million to 613,000. If 1.3% of respondents answered falsely, then the number would fall to 76,000. Hemenway argues that this latter number more closely approximates reality, the reason being that it is close to the figure of 65,000 provided by the much more in-depth National Crime Victimization Surveys.[8], [9], [10]

At this point is must be emphasized that attempts to externally corroborate the surveys findings have failed miserably. For example, 34% of the survey’s respondents claimed that they had used their guns defensively during burglaries. If true, this would mean that guns were used defensively during 845,000 burglaries each year. But in the year of the survey, only around 400,000 burglaries occurred in which (a) the victims were home and (b) the victims didn’t remain sleeping. So, in other words, “the 2.5 million figure requires us to believe that burglary victims used their guns in self-defense more than 100 percent of the time.”[11]

The survey leads to a host of other absurd conclusions. “For example, the number of respondents who claim to have used a gun against rape and robbery attempts suggests that victims of these attempted crimes are more likely to use a gun against the offender than the attackers are to use a gun against the victim—even though the criminal chooses the time and place for the attack, most citizens do not own guns, and very few people carry guns. Similarly, the number of people who claim to use guns in self-defense and report the incident to police (64 percent in the Kleck survey) often exceeds the total number of such crimes reported to police, including all the crimes when the victim did not have a gun.”[12]

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[1] Gun Owners of America, Gun Control Fact-Sheet 2004.

[2] Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz, “Armed Resistance to Crime: The Prevalence and Nature of
Self-Defense with a Gun,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminality, Fall 1995, Volume 86, Issue 1.

[3] David Hemenway, “Survey Research and Self-Defense Gun Use: An Explanation of Extreme Overestimates,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Summer 1997, Volume 87, Issue 4.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Hemenway, Private Guns, Public Health (The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2004), 72-73.

[7] Hemenway, “Survey Research and Self-Defense Gun Use: An Explanation of Extreme Overestimates.”

[8] Ibid.

[9] For more about the math Hemenway employs, see Dave Richeson’s “The danger of false positives,” Division by Zero, October 7, 2011.

[10] Kleck and Gertz claim that the NCVS numbers are lower because their own survey “revealed at least seventeen million adults carrying guns for protection in public, only a small fraction of whom have permits allowing them to do this legally.” They further claim that these respondents would have been less willing to reveal such criminal behavior to the NCVS census workers. Hemenway’s rebuttal here seems entirely persuasive. First, he points out that the NCVS never asks respondents if their gun use was illegal. “Admitting to owning, carrying, or using a gun admits nothing about illegal behavior, just as responding that one was the driver in a car crash admits to no illegal behavior.” Second, “the NCVS responses are confidential; it would be illegal for the interviewers to provide individual information to the authorities, and there is no evidence that interviewers have ever done so.” Third, “much evidence exists that people being surveyed willingly report minor and not-so-minor criminal behavior, even behavior that has little possibility of positive social-desirability bias.” In one survey of 1,000 adult males, “64 percent of respondents effectively admitted to being unarrested felons, having engaged in such activities as grand larceny (13 percent), auto theft (26 percent), assault (49 percent), and burglary (17 percent).” Other studies have found that “well over 70 percent of adolescents aged twelve to nineteen admit to having engaged in delinquent behavior for which they could have been arrested.” Hemenway notes that “[e]ven prisoners willingly report prior illegal behavior” (Hemenway, Private Guns, Public Health, 242).

[11] Ibid., 67.

[12] Ibid., 67.