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Radical Anti-Gun Group Claims Guns “Rarely” Used for Self-Defense

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

In June 2015, several anti-gun activists known as the Violence Policy Center (VPC) claimed, among other things, that “Guns are rarely used to kill criminals or stop crimes.”1 

Other gun control supporters, hoping to create the impression that the claim were factual, were quick to repeat it. For example, Christopher Ingraham wrote that the VPC had demonstrated that “guns are used far more often for killing then (sic) self-defense.”2 Hoping to convince people that a good person wouldn’t have been able to use a gun to defend against the abominable attack against members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015, Ingraham added, “As a result, it’s (sic) may be (sic) thinking twice about arguments for more guns in schools, churches and other public places.”

Points to consider in evaluating VPC’s claims:

  • Consider the source. The VPC is the most radical gun control activist group in the country. It was created by a former communications director for the National Coalition to Ban Handguns who still advocates banning handguns.3 Its niche in the gun control debate is to crank out propaganda attacking guns and various aspects of gun ownership, tasks for which it is very lavishly funded by the Joyce Foundation.4
  • Gun control supporters try to undermine the defensive use of firearms because self-defense is the primary reason that people own guns, thus the main obstacle to gun control/prohibition.5 In addition to pretending that guns are rarely used for defense, VPC also supports a ban on handguns, semi-automatic rifles, and ammunition magazines designed for defensive purposes, and undermines laws which provide for concealed firearm carrying permits to be issued to qualified applicants.6
  • As gun control laws have gone in the direction opposite of what VPC advocates, violent crime has decreased. Handguns are the type of firearm most often kept and carried for self-defense, and in the last 20 years, the number of privately owned handguns has risen by over 50 million,the percentage of the U.S. population living in states that have Right-to-Carry concealed handgun laws has risen from 29 percent to 74 percent, and the nation’s violent crime rate has decreased 48 percent, to a 43-year low.7
  • VPC undercounts defensive homicides by using unreliable data. VPC says that there were only 259 justifiable homicides with firearms in 2012. However, this claim is based upon data reported by the FBI, which reflect only law enforcement agency reports and not the final disposition of cases by the criminal justice system. Criminologist Gary Kleck has noted that, “for a variety of reasons, the FBI counts of civilian justifiable homicides represent only a minority of all civilian legal defensive homicides.8 It has also been reported that the FBI vastly undercounts homicides by law enforcement officers. 9
  • The value of guns for self-defense isn’t measured in the number of criminals killed, but in the number of violent crime victimizations prevented. See below.
  • Fatal shootings of criminals account for only a fraction of all defensive gun uses. Kleck notes that criminals are killed or non-fatally wounded in less than one percent of defensive gun uses.10
  • VPC drastically undercounts defensive gun uses in which criminals are not shot by relying upon outlier data obtained by the National Crime Victimization Survey. VPC says the survey is “the most accurate survey of self-defense gun use” extant. However, Kleck has noted, while the NVCS is “a favorite of academic gun control supporters” because it produces lower numbers than other studies, “There are now at least fifteen other independent estimates of the frequency of DGUs [defensive gun uses] and every one of them is enormously larger than the NCVS estimate. Unanimity is rare in studies of crime, but this is one of those rare cases. . . . That the NCVS survey estimate [of defensive gun uses] is radically wrong is now beyond serious dispute.”11
  • VPC ignores the fact that widespread gun ownership deters some crimes from occurring in the first place. A study of imprisoned criminals found that 40 percent had decided not to commit one or more crimes for fear their prospective victims were armed.12 Also, the rate of “hot burglaries”—home invasions while the residents are at home—is much lower in the United States, where residents with guns are common, than in England, where guns are almost entirely outlawed.13

1. Firearm Justifiable Homicides and Non-Fatal Self-Defense Gun Use, June 2015, p. 1.
2. Guns in America: For every criminal killed in self-defense, 34 innocent people die,” June 19. In two WashingtonPost.com blogs the preceding day, Ingraham said of an image of a newspaper cover story on the murders committed at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015, “This photo captures America’s relationship with guns,” and said that the United States has the highest firearm-related murder rate among 31 countries, but excluded Mexico, other Latin American countries, and countries overseas that have higher murder rates.
3. Josh Sugarmann, author of Every Handgun is Aimed at You: The Case for Banning Handguns(March 2001). Sugarmann founded his group in 1988 as the New Right Watch, presumably reflecting his intention to keep “watch” on conservatives inspired by the Reagan Revolution. In 1988 or 1989, he changed the name of the group to the Violence Policy Center. Similarly, the National Coalition to Ban Handguns renamed itself the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence in 1989, and another handgun-prohibition group, the National Council to Control Handguns, after renaming itself Handgun Control, Inc., in 1979, renamed itself the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence in 2001. The groups renamed themselves as they realized that their efforts to get handguns banned had failed and they thus needed to shift and expand their focus. In the same time frame, they began referring to gun control as “gun safety,” because focus group studies determined that people are turned off by the term “control.”
4. As examples, in 2013, $250,000; 2012, $450,000; 2011, $500,000; 2010, $500,000; 2008, $700,000; 2007, $700,000; 2006, $700,000; 2005, $450,000; 2004, $500,000; 2003, $500,000 and $20,000; 2002, $800,000; and 2000, $1,000,000 and $20,000.
5. See Gallup, Personal Safety Top Reason Americans Own Guns Today, survey of October 2013, and Pew Research Center, Growing Public Support for Gun Rights, December 2014, which found that majorities among most demographic groups believe that gun ownership helps protect people from crime, and that gun ownership is more important than gun control.
6. In 1988, the group suggested that gun control supporters temporarily stop trying to get handguns banned, in favor of a campaign against a “new topic” to “strengthen the handgun restriction lobby”: “assault weapons.” (New Right Watch/VPC, “Assault Weapons and Accessories in America,” Conclusion, 1988.) The Crime Prevention Research Center has detailed massive errors in VPC’s “Concealed Carry Killers” attack against Right-to-Carry laws.
7. Handgun use for self-defense, see Supreme Court of the United States, District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), pp. 57-58 and Crime Prevention Research Center, Concealed Carry Permit Holders Across the United States, July 19, 2014.  Guns: Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Firearms Commerce in the United States. Right-to-Carry: NRA-ILA Right-to-Carry Fact Sheet (Click “more.” See footnote 9 for dates of RTC law adoption, and use state population data available from the FBI UCR Data Tool. Crime: FBI UCR Data Tool.
8. Kleck, Targeting Guns, Aldine de Gruyter, 1997, p. 163.
9. Rob Barry and Coulter Jones, Hundreds of Police Killings Are Uncounted in Federal Stats: FBI Data Differs (sic) From Local Counts on Justifiable Homicides, Wall St. Journal, Dec. 3, 2014.
10. Note 8, p. 164. Kleck notes, “Combining the defensive killings and reported nonfatal woundings [accounts for] less than 1% of DGUs [defensive gun uses]. The vast majority of DGUs, then, involve neither killings nor woundings but rather misses, warning shots fired, or guns used to threaten, by pointing them or be verbally referring to them.”
11. Kleck notes seven reasons for the NCVS’ unreliability, relating to the survey’s screener questions, underreporting of certain crimes, and the disinclination of respondents to provide certain information to federal employees conducting the survey. See note 8, pp. 152-153.
12. James D. Wright and Peter H. Rossi, Armed and Considered Dangerous: A Survey of Felons and Their Firearms, Aldine de Gruyter, 1986, p. 155.
13. Note 8, p. 183. Kleck cites a 1993 study which found that “43 percent of burglaries in Great Britain were committed with someone at home,” and notes, by comparison, that such was the case in only 13 percent of burglaries in the United States.

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