Since 1996, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has kept under wraps its own survey data confirming so-called “high-end” estimates of annual defensive gun uses (DGUs). That’s the upshot of a paper by criminologist Gary Kleck of Florida State University, which came to my attention thanks to an article at Reason.com by Brian Doherty. DGUs occur any time a person uses a gun or threatens to use it in self-defense. DGU’s have been a controversial aspect of the gun debate, primarily because the anti-gun faction refuses to acknowledge that DGUs are significant. There is no official count of DGUs, just as there is no official count of crimes deterred by would-be criminals’ fears of armed would-be victims. The only DGUs that can conceivably be counted are those in which a crime prompting a DGU is reported, and even those incidents might not be counted.
The CDC survey data discovered by Kleck is from the agency’s nationwide surveys from 1996-1998. In those years, the survey asked a question of individuals who had reported owning a gun earlier in the survey, but excluded those whose jobs required them to carry a gun:
“During the last 12 months, have you confronted another person with a firearm, even if you did not fire it, to protect yourself, your property, or someone else?”
The survey responses imply total annual DGUs of about 2.46 million for the period in question, according to Kleck. He makes two adjustments to arrive at that figure: one upward adjustment because his own work suggests that non-owners of guns account for about 20% of all DGUs, so they would be undercounted by the survey; and one downward adjustment to discount for the absence of information from CDC’s survey on the exact circumstances of reported DGUs.
The number of DGU’s implied by CDC’s survey data is roughly in line with Kleck’s 1995 estimate if 2.5 million. It is likely that DGUs have declined since then along with declines in gun violence. But there is no reason to suspect that DGUs have declined relative to gun violence. Most importantly, these estimates of DGUs far outweigh incidents of gun violence reported by the FBI.
Kleck suspects that the DGU question on CDC’s survey was prompted by his earlier results. Whether that is true or not, it’s curious that the CDC never published the results. It’s even more curious because the CDC has issued at least one report with commentary on DGU estimates. And as Doherty reports, while the CDC was prohibited from conducting research in support of gun control (President Obama reportedly lifted that restriction), it was never restricted from objective reporting on gun safety issues and gun violence.
The Second Amendment is predicated on the right to defend oneself, among other things. The DGU estimates suggest that it is a right exercised with some frequency. In a nation that promotes gun violence through policies like drug prohibition, the right of self defense is critical. Gun rights supporters should not allow anti-gun activists to easily dismiss or ignore the CDC’s survey results on DGUs.