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A 1997 Justice Department report estimated that people used guns to protect themselves or their property 1.5 million times a year.
The report was silent on whether those incidents saved any lives.
The report’s authors argued that the 1.5 million represented a large overcount of defensive gun use, but there is debate over the best way to measure this.
House Democrats are moving forward with a bill that would enact new restrictions on guns. During a recent hearing, Republican Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona said the bill would fail to reduce crime or make the U.S. safer.
"Millions of Americans safely and responsibly own and use guns," Biggs said in the June 2 hearing. "The Department of Justice under Democratic administrations have done their studies and conservatively estimated that guns are used 1.5 million times per year to save lives."
We contacted Biggs’ office to get the source behind that figure of 1.5 million lives saved by guns and did not hear back. The figure matches one used in a 2008 blog post by the group Gun Owners of America. That post linked to 1997 research published by the department’s National Institute of Justice.
The research doesn’t say what Biggs presented.
It talks about the defensive use of firearms, but it is silent about any lives saved. In many cases, lives were never at risk.
The department’s research was based on a 1994 national telephone survey on gun ownership. If someone said they owned a gun, they were asked, "Within the past 12 months, have you yourself used a gun, even if it was not fired, to protect yourself or someone else, or for the protection of property at home, work, or elsewhere?"
If they said they had, then they were asked up to 30 additional questions to determine the circumstances around the incident, such as where the incident took place, or if they had seen the person who they felt was a threat.
Out of about 2,500 people reached, 45 people said they had used a gun for protection. After filtering out those who could not name the specific criminal threat they faced or had not seen the person they thought was a threat, 19 responses remained. Applying that fraction to the entire U.S. adult population, researchers estimated that guns were used defensively 1.5 million times a year.
There’s a hot debate over whether that number is too high or too low, and what it might be today. Before we examine that, there’s one point on which independent researchers agree: The number does not represent the number of lives saved.
Philip Cook, professor emeritus of public policy studies at Duke University and co-author of the Justice Department’s research article, said he was confident "that there were not 1.5 million lives saved in 1994 through defensive gun uses."
"Many of the crimes being defended against would not have been fatal even without gun defense," Cook said.
The people who study this area of gun use say that in the surveys, it’s impossible to know what would have happened if someone had not had a firearm.
That’s why researchers wrestle with understanding the circumstances when people have used guns for protection. In a 2000 report, a group of researchers interviewed people who, in a random survey, reported using a gun defensively. They did not find examples when a gun saved someone’s life.
In one case, a man said, "My alarm at my business went off so I went there to shut it off. Two men were outside my building, so from my car I shot at the ground near them."
Another told researchers, "Someone broke in; I woke up to the sound. I got my gun from the safe (loaded it) and went downstairs. The person left and I called the police." This person didn’t know if the burglar had a weapon.
The burglar could have been armed, and the resident could have avoided a potentially deadly encounter. But the data doesn’t reveal the answer.
Around the same time as Cook’s research, Gary Kleck, now professor emeritus of criminology at Florida State University, conducted his own survey, asking very similar questions. Kleck estimated that guns were used defensively about 2.5 million times a year. But Kleck distinguished that from saving lives.
"I am not aware of any scientifically based estimates of lives saved," Kleck said.
This said, stories appear in the news about people who have stopped shooters. To take a recent example, in late May 2022, a woman in Charleston, West Virginia, shot and killed a man who began firing an AR-15-style rifle into a crowd. It doesn’t take much of a leap of faith to conclude that the woman’s actions saved lives.
The latest survey of gun owners and their use of firearms estimated that in 2021, guns were used 1.67 million times to protect people or property. That is consistent with the Justice Department study from 25 years ago.
But it doesn’t prove that each use saved lives.
In 2018, researchers at Rand Corp., a nonprofit consulting group, explored the studies that had been done on guns and self-protection and found a field rife with challenges.
"We conclude that the existing evidence for any causal effect of defensive gun use on reducing harm to individuals or society is inconclusive," the authors wrote.
One issue was a reliance on self-reporting, with no opportunity for independent confirmation. Surveys try to reduce this problem by including questions to ferret out inconsistent responses, but it’s not perfect.
There is a running dispute over whether surveys aimed at detecting the defensive use of firearms over or undercount the actual events. The Rand group came down on the side of those who said that these surveys exaggerate defensive gun use. They also said that another widely cited survey, the annual National Crime Victimization Survey, might undercount defensive gun use. That survey suggested that guns were used about 116,000 a year.
Biggs said that the Justice Department "conservatively estimated that guns are used 1.5 million times per year to save lives."
The Justice Department published a report with the 1.5 million figure, but that was an estimate of the number of times people used guns to protect themselves, their families or their property. The author said the research did not find that the use was to save lives.
Another prominent gun researcher said he knows of no "scientifically based estimates of lives saved." A review of this kind of gun research concluded that there is no conclusive evidence that defensive gun use reduces harm to people.
The Justice Department’s article did not say what Biggs stated.
We rate this claim False.
U.S. House Judiciary Committee, Markup: H.R. 7910, the "Protecting Our Kids Act", June 2, 2022
Gun Owners of America, Fact Sheet: Guns Save Lives, Sept. 29, 2008
National Institute of Justice, Guns in America: National survey on private ownership and use of firearms, May 1997
American Journal of Public Health, Investigating the link between gun possession and gun assault, November 2009
Rand Corp., The challenges of defining and measuring defensive gun use, March 2, 2018
Journal on Firearms, Degrading scientific standards to get the defensive gun use estimate down, accessed June 2, 2022
Injury Prevention, Gun use in the United States: results from two national surveys, 2000
American Journal of Criminal Justice, What do CDC’s surveys say about the prevalence of defensive gun use?, August 2020
Pew Research, Why own a gun? Protection is now top reason, March 12, 2013
Georgetown McDonough School of Business, 2021 National Firearms Survey, July 14, 2021
CBS Pittsburgh, Police: Woman killed man who fired rifle into party crowd in West Virginia, May 27, 2022
PolitiFact, Trump-backed ex-pitcher Curt Schilling misleads saying self-defense gun use stops 2.5 million crimes, Aug. 14, 2019
Email exchange, Gary Kleck, professor emeritus of criminology, Florida State University, June 2, 2022
Email exchange, Philip Cook, professor emeritus of public policy studies, Duke University, June 2, 2022
Email exchange, William English, assistant professor, McDonough School of Business, Georgetown University, June 3, 2022
Email exchange, David Hemenway, professor of health policy, Harvard School of Public Health, June 2, 2022
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