How many legal defensive uses?

Wright & Rossi's survey of criminals showed that the main
reason why criminals carry guns is self-defence, so a large number of
the 500,000 gun assaults may be illegal self-defence uses.

Rick Bressler said:

I have a problem with confusing an assault with a defense. The two are
mutually exclusive. At least under US law, an assault is a crime, a
defense is not....

There are two meanings to the term "self-defence" in my dictionary:
1. the act of defending one's own person, reputation, etc
2. (Law) the use of reasonable force against an attacker, constituting
a defence in criminal law and tort.

You seem to want to use meaning 2. Under meaning 1, illegal
self-defence is perfectly possible. Consider, for example, a burglar
using a gun to ward off an angry victim. We both agree that the
burglar is guilty of assault, but he is also acting to protect

Which meaning (1 or 2) is intended we have to work out from the
context. Kleck's estimate of defensive uses is based on a question
asking people if they had used a handgun for self-protection (i.e.
meaning 1). Kleck makes the error of interpreting this as the
narrower legal meaning (meaning 2).

The key assumption in this estimate is that the death rate from police
uses is the same as that from legal civilian defensive uses. It seems
unlikely that it would be. Indeed, the death rate from police

Why? Are you admitting that civilians tend to be that much better of a
shot than the police? If they are 10 times better at killing in self
defense than police, it would be a pretty good argument for getting rid
of the police! Or are you saying that civilian firearms are somehow
more deadly than police firearms? Or are you saying that civilians tend
to use them in less justified circumstances than police?

No to all of all your questions. The objective of gun self-defence is
not to shoot or kill the attacker, but to stop the attack. So if one
group kills more than the other, it doesn't mean that that group is
better at self-defence.

I would think that the big differences between police uses and
civilian uses were that the police are given more latitude to use
their weapons, and that their uses are much more often in defence of

Because police have more latitude, the typical civilian use is likely
to be in a much more dangerous situation, and hence more likely to
involve actually shooting someone. Uses in defence of others are also
less likely to involve shooting, since the attacker is less likely to
force the issue in the face of two opponents.

In many of the cases where police can handle the situation with less
deadly force, a citizen has little choice but to shoot.

Which is another reason why civilian uses are more likely to be fatal.

It may be that private citizens don't kill at a significantly
higher rate than police, in which case legal defensive uses may be
as high as 2000/.001=2,000,000 per year, quite a bit higher than any
other estimate I've seen. Even if for reasons mentioned above,
citizens are forced to kill at 10 times the rate, that is still
200,000 legal uses per year. The truth probably lies somewhere in
between the two extremes. In fact Kleck's number is almost right in
the middle.....

These calculations are based on guesses for the fatality rate for
civilian uses. I think it is better to use a real estimate -- 13,000
uses of guns to defend against robbery, 25% of civilian legal
homicides associated with robberies, so the fatality rate is
(500/13,000) = 4%. (Numbers from Kleck's paper.) For assaults we get
(1300/55,000) = 2%.

800,000 crimes and 11,000 homicides. A policy that reduced criminal
use, even if it did also reduce honest use, could well be a net plus.

Ah, but this brings us back to the old question: How do you remove
firearms from the criminals? Disarming the honest citizens isn't going
to do it! It will however worsen the ratio of defensive uses vs
assault,criminal uses.

You are making an assumption that simply reducing the number of legally
owned guns will reduce the number of illegally owned guns. I have seen
no indication that this is the case.

Firstly, a significant number of crimes are committed with legally
owned weapons. (I understand that in the US, about 50% of homicides
are committed by people without prior convictions.) A general
reduction in legal guns would have a direct effect on these crimes.

Secondly, there are three ways that reducing the number of legal guns
would affect illegal guns.

  1. Reducing the main source of supply (stealing legal guns and illegal

  2. According to Wright and Rossi's study, the main reason criminals
    acquire guns is "self-defence". They would have less reason to
    acquire guns if there were fewer legal guns to defend against.

  3. An important factor distinguishing W&R's gun criminals from non-gun
    criminals was exposure to firearms while young. (Please note that I
    am not saying that this causes criminal behaviour --- I would imagine
    that it has no effect.) Fewer legal guns would mean that fewer
    criminals would be comfortable using them.

Furthermore, it is not necessary to reduce the numbers of all legally
held guns. Targeting certain groups is more likely to be
cost-effective. An example is in the new NSW gun laws. In NSW,
guns are used in 20% of stranger homicides, and 50% of domestic
homicides. In country areas, with twice the level of gun ownership as
in the city, the gun homicide rate and the domestic homicide rate is
twice as high as in the city.

While 80-90% of stranger killers have criminal records,
the majority of domestic killers do not. What is present in the
majority of cases is a history of domestic violence (reports, not
convictions). Hence, the new laws require police to remove any guns
from a house where a domestic dispute involving violence has occurred,
and to confiscate the weapons of someone subject to an Apprehended
Violence Order.

There is no denying that
there are in fact honest people alive now in our (and probably even in
OZ) society, that are alive only because of firearms. How many of these
innocent people do you feel should have been sentenced to death? Can
you weigh the individual against the whole of the population and make
such a judgment? These are very hairy philosophical questions that
have been debated for thousands of years. Does the end justify the
Seems like nobody is really interested in debating the philosophical

Maybe they don't want to be involved in a thread that will continue
for thousands of years.

Can we adopt a policy that will save lives overall, but causes some
people to lose their lives? Well, it happens all the time, so it is
not as if guns are being singled out for special treatment.


More like this

Jon Buck said: NCS didn't do a very good job of asking; they only asked about defensive weapon use after the respondent answered positively to having been a victim of a crime. Right, so cases where someone whipped out a gun without being threatened with violence weren't counted. Kleck makes this…
John Briggs writes: [Calculation of number of justifiable shootings deleted] This would suggest 15,000 to 20,000 civilian justifiable woundings or 17,500 to 22,500 incidents in which a civilian shot and hit an assailant. Kleck does a similar calculation in "Point Blank" to get an estimate of 10,…
Matthew Yglesias and Mark Kleiman have both written about the Assault Weapons Ban. I agree with Yglesias that the ban doesn't make sense since it bans weapons by name rather than by some characteristic that makes them dangerous. I've criticized the ban in Australia on semi-automatic…
A large number of criminal shootings are "drive-bys" --- fired from long range and more likely to hit an extremity than a self-defence shooting at close range. These factors suggest that defensive shootings would be more lethal than criminal ones. John Briggs writes: Any data on the proportions…