After every shooting and in every discussion of gun violence in America, the gun lobby will eventually roll out the same talking point. They’ll claim that guns save lives.
They are lying.
The claims they make fall into one of two varieties: it’s either “there are millions of defensive gun uses which save lives every year” or “more guns, less crime.” The later of these is a false claim based almost exclusively on the “research” of John Lott, an admitted liar who still cannot reproduce the data set he used after conveniently losing it. Lott and his false claims have been dealt with by sources far more qualified than us, and his ideas have been consistently shown to be out of touch with the vast majority of the research on topics he concerns himself with (Lott claims this is because researchers have a “bias against guns;” the truth is really far simpler and Lott is just wrong). You can find more information on Lott and his bad data here, here, and here.
The other claim, the “millions of defensive gun uses,” is usually left unchallenged. It’s a lie too.
The basis of that claim is a survey done 20 years ago. In that survey, researchers spoke to about 5000 people. They asked them a number of questions about habits and behaviors, and gun ownership and use. They also asked for basic demographic information.
And then they asked the question which matters here: have you, or anyone in your household, used a gun, in any way, to protect yourself or your property, in the past five years? Unsurprisingly, some folks said yes. In fact, 172 folks said that they, or someone in their household, had done just that. They then asked those people if the incident had happened in the past year; 68 people said it had. So far so good.
The results so far don’t tell us much of anything, but there is nothing really wrong with them either. Really all it says so far is that some people sometimes uses guns in a defensive way, which isn’t really a claim anyone would contest. Here’s the first place where the survey gets questionable. The surveyors took a weighted percentage of people (without telling us how they are weighing it) who they interviewed who said they, or someone in their household, used a gun defensively and applied it to the total number of US households. That’s where the “millions of defensive guns uses” number comes from. And it’s simply not a valid way to reach that conclusion.
But it isn’t even the biggest problem with basing the claim that guns save “millions of lives” on the survey. That problem is far simpler: the survey makes almost no attempt to verify the stories they are being told. They don’t ask for police records, crime reports, news stories, or other information which shows that any of the reported incidents actually happened. They simply rely on their own assumptions about the truth of the stories they are being told.
And even that isn’t the biggest problem! Even if we assume that every single person surveyed told the truth, the survey didn’t ask about objective circumstances; it asked people to self-report based on their own bias-influenced feelings and desires. It’s results don’t show the percentage of people who objectively used a firearm in defense of something; they show the number of people who feel as if they used a firearm in defense of something, regardless of if that is what objectively occurred.
And yet again, that’s not even the biggest problem! See, the survey doesn’t ask if people saved lives or defended their health and life or that of someone else; it asks if they used a gun to defend life or property. And the majority of people who responded that they had defended something said they defended property. In at least 60% of the defensive gun uses which the survey claims have happened, there is no evidence of any threat to the life or health of anyone. There’s no evidence, even if we wrongly assume that every single defensive gun use reported to surveyors necessarily occurred and that their multiplication and weighting methods are valid, that most defensive gun uses protect anyone’s life, or save anyone’s life. In fact, the survey asked about threats and attacks; almost half of those who said respondents who claimed to have used a gun defensively also reported that they faced no threat and were not attack, and a further third reported only threats. And more than half of the people who answered that they had used a gun defensively also said that it was unlikely or improbable that someone would have been killed had they not used the gun. Heck, 15% of the people who reported using a gun defensively also reported being the first person in incident to use or threaten to use force!
And even that’s not the end of the problems with the survey! See, the surveyors didn’t just ask people if they used a gun, but also how they used it. In 57% of the cases, people yelled “I have a gun!” or something similar. In almost a quarter of cases, they didn’t show, draw, or physically display a gun at all. That means that 25% of the cases which the survey calls “defensive gun uses” are actually “defensive yelling” or something similar; there is no compelling reason to think that the actual presence of the gun played any meaningful role in those incidents where the only evidence of a gun was yelling about one (or, in other words, there’s no reason to believe that just yelling about a gun, even without having one, would have shown any different results).
So here is where we are at: even if you (wrongly) believe the survey’s reports of “millions of defensive gun uses,” there is no evidence that anywhere near a majority of those involved saving or protecting life. In some cases, they just prevented trespassing. That’s hardly the same thing.
When you account for the other issues with the survey and how it defines and reports defensive gun uses, it becomes clear that, even in the study gun lobbyists cite most often for their claims and which is most friendly to their beliefs, there’s no evidence for the number “millions” of actual defensive gun uses, or that a preponderance of those involve saving lives.
How about, instead of relying on a questionable survey, we look at some real-world evidence to look at defensive gun uses. The folks at Gun Violence Archive have been collecting data on verifiable incidents for years; between 2014 and 2017, they found verifiable evidence of 6975 defensive gun uses. But wait, you say, they must be biased! Ok, well, Guns Save Lives, a blog which crowd sources similar information and has a decidedly pro-gun bias, collected fewer than 1500 stories between 2010 and 2017. When a decidedly gun lobby friendly (and extra gross) Breitbart columnist decided to look at the issue late, he was only able to publish evidence of 24 incidents over 40 days; even if we give him the benefit of a doubt and assume that there is an incident every day and he just missed some, his numbers would still only provide evidence for a few hundred incidents a year, far fewer than the folks at Gun Violence Archive have documented.
We’ll just go with the Gun Violence Archive numbers. You might say that they defensive gun uses must go under reported. Fair enough. Now conveniently here, the same survey the gun lobby uses to claim that “millions of defensive gun uses” (and lives saved), research which they clearly believe is valid, only about 65% of people who said they used a gun defensively also said they reported the incident. Just to give them the greatest possible benefit, let’s say that the gun guys are right. Let’s say that “defensive gun uses” are under-reported. And let’s even say that they are under reported at a rate greater than the is reported by a survey the gun lobby loves. Let’s say that instead of the survey’s 65%, that only half of “defensive gun uses” are reported.
That puts us at 13,950 verifiable “defensive gun uses” over a four year period, or about 3500 per year. Hardly the “millions” claimed by the gun guys.
But let’s move on. Using the number from the same survey, in the same way those surveyors used the numbers, we can extrapolate how many lives “were saved by guns” in those 3500 yearly incidents. Remember that before we discovered that, in the survey, there is only evidence of a threat to life or health in about 40% of defensive gun uses. We’re down to about 1400 “lives saved.” And we learned that, in about a quarter of cases, the person “using a gun defensively” only yelled; if we assume that those are equally distributed across all cases (because there is no evidence that they aren’t), we’re suddenly down to only about 1250 “lives saved” per year. And let’s do the same with the 15% of cases in which folks who “used a gun defensively” were actually the first to use or threaten force; again assuming equal distribution, we’re now at fewer than 1200 “lives saved” per year. And let’s do the same in the 18% or so of cases where the offender also had a gun (at best, the presence of guns is neutral in those circumstances); again assuming equal distribution, that leaves us with about 1125 “lives saved by defensive gun uses” each year.
We could keep going, but 1125 “lives saved” is a good stopping point.
Let’s compare that to some other numbers.
There are about 12,000 intentional firearm homicides in America every year. In an average year, about 650 people are unintentionally shot and die as a result. Overall, there are about 33,000 gun deaths in America every year.
Here’s a craven math equation: for a claim that guns save lives to be valid, there must be verifiable evidence of a number “defensive gun uses” in circumstances where there was a clear and objective threat to life which exceeds the number of gun deaths in the same year. By our count, using the data and evidence which is most friendly to the gun lobby position, the gun guys are going to need to find at least 31,876 more examples for any given year. Until they find those (which they won’t), there’s no good reason to believe a word they say about how “guns save lives.”