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Government Continues to Downplay, Distort Data on Defensive Gun Use

Monday, September 11, 2023

Government Continues to Downplay, Distort Data on Defensive Gun Use

In 2021, John R. Lott, Jr., the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center (CPRC) released a paper on the “serious errors” he found in Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reports purporting to track “active shooter incidents” (ASIs). The FBI’s annual or biannual reports – which aim “to provide federal, state and local law enforcement with data so they can better understand how to prevent, prepare for, respond to, and recover from these incidents” – contained, according to Dr. Lott, critical errors. In one instance, the failure to include “many major missed cases” meant that once those cases were accounted for, what the FBI had presented as a drastic increase in ASIs between 2000 and 2013 was actually a “slight, statistically insignificant upward trend over the 38 years from 1977 through 2014,” and one that was, moreover, attributable to high numbers in a single year (2012).

Another error highlighted in the 2021 paper was the FBI’s repeated exclusion of cases where armed citizens intervened in attacks, with the corrected data establishing a significantly more favorable depiction of defensive gun uses. This included Dr. Lott identifying at least six missing cases in 2018-19 in which a concealed handgun permit-holder stopped the attacker. The FBI had reported that, between 2014 and 2019, citizens with permitted concealed handguns stopped an attack in nine out of 145 cases (6.2%); as corrected, the figure more than doubled to over 15 percent. (Further research was required to identify additional concealed carry cases missed by the FBI prior to 2014.)  

Interestingly, the Washington Post’s fact-checker, Glenn Kessler, contacted the FBI for comments regarding the issues Lott raised. “The FBI brushed aside repeated efforts by The Fact Checker to discuss its reports and the questions raised by Lott. ‘We have no additional information to provide other than what is provided within the active shooter reports on our website,’ the agency said in an emailed statement.”

A new article by Dr. Lott maintains that the FBI persists in its unfortunate practice of massively underreporting incidents in which armed civilians have thwarted active shootings. “While the FBI claims that just 4.6 percent of active shootings were stopped by law-abiding citizens carrying guns, the percentage that [the CPRC] found was 35.7 percent. I am more confident that we have identified a higher share of recent cases, and our figure for 2022 was even higher – 41.3 percent.”

The corrected statistics are even more compelling once adjusted for just the locations where armed individuals are permitted to carry. Although the FBI dataset does not break down cases between those occurring in “gun-free” zones and others, the CPRC found that in “places where law-abiding citizens are allowed to carry firearms, the percentage of active shootings that were stopped is 51 percent. For 2022, that figure is a remarkable 63.5 percent” – a stunningly persuasive endorsement on the benefits of lawful carry.  (The specific data used by the CPRC is available at its website, here.)

Another study lends support to the CPRC’s findings, being the results of a national survey analyzing firearm ownership and use released last year by William English (McDonough School of Business, Georgetown University). Admittedly, this doesn’t use the FBI’s metric of “active shooter incident” (which applies only to public places and excludes shootings from gang or drug violence), but nonetheless offers valuable insight into how often firearms are used in defense of self and others. 

The study found that more than 81.4 million Americans aged 18 and over own firearms, with approximately 31.1% (25.3 million) reporting having used a gun to defend themselves or their property, often on more than one occasion. Extrapolating the figures, these “gun owners have been involved in … approximately 50 million defensive incidents. Assuming that defensive uses of firearms are distributed roughly equally across years, this suggests at least 1.67 million defensive uses of firearms per year in which firearms owners have defended themselves or their property through the discharge, display, or mention of a firearm (excluding military service, police work, or work as a security guard).” Footnote 9 clarifies that “this estimate is inherently conservative;” if, for instance, those who do not personally own firearms are included in the estimate, it “could be substantially higher – perhaps as high as 2.8 million per year.”

Lott’s article concedes that data collection and classification mistakes may happen, although this doesn’t explain why the problems with the FBI’s reporting continue even after updated, corrected information is made available. The FBI’s “data on active shootings is missing so many defensive gun uses that it’s hard to believe it isn’t intentional.”

It is, of course, irresponsible to manipulate data to further a preferred political narrative, and it is much more egregiously so if the entity involved is a publicly funded and supposedly nonpartisan government agency whose information is relied on by media, courts, law enforcement, and legislators. President Joe Biden – who has himself been so frequently and consistently caught out making false claims about guns that even CNN has called him on it – is already campaigning on a sweeping new gun control platform. The success of his anti-Second Amendment agenda rests on undermining facts and evidence, and convincing Americans that defensive gun use is a fantasy.

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