The Second Amendment says, "A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." It mentions nothing about self-defense. In modern American politics, however, much of the gun rights debate has centered on the aspect of using guns for defense of life and property. The D.C. handgun case and the Chicago gun ban challenge saw plaintiffs use self-defense as an effective argument for overturning gun bans.
Today, several states have enacted often-controversial “stand your ground” or “Castle Doctrine” laws permitting, within specific legal parameters, the use of deadly force in acts of self-defense against actual or reasonably perceived threats of bodily harm.
In February 2012, the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin by Sanford, Florida neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman propelled state stand your ground laws squarely into the spotlight of the gun control debate.
Exact numbers for the impact of firearms on crime are difficult to come by. Much of the research into the impact of guns as a crime deterrent comes from the work of Dr. Gary Kleck, a Florida State University criminologist.
Guns in Self-Defense
Kleck released a study in 1993 showing that guns are used in defense of crime 2.5 million times each year, an average of once every 13 seconds. Kleck's survey concluded that guns are used in defense of crime three-to-four times more often than they're used in the commission of a crime.
Surveys conducted prior to Kleck's found that incidents of gun use in self-defense ranged from 800,000 to 2.5 million each year. A U.S. Department of Justice Survey released in 1994, “Guns in America,” estimated 1.5 million defensive gun uses each year.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice report, Firearm Violence, 1993-2011, about 1% of nonfatal violent crime victims nationwide used a firearm in self-defense. From 2007 to 2011, there were 235,700 confrontations in which the victim used a firearm to threaten or attack an offender. This amounted to approximately 1% of all nonfatal violent victimizations in the 5-year period.
Guns as a Deterrent
Studies by Kleck and the Department of Justice concluded that guns are frequently used to protect crime victims. But do they serve as a deterrent to crime? Findings are mixed.
A study by professors James D. Wright and Peter Rossi surveyed nearly 2,000 incarcerated felons and concluded that criminals are more worried about running into armed victims than law enforcement.
According to the Wright-Rossi survey, 34% of the felons responding from state prisons said that they had been “scared off, shot at, wounded or captured” by a victim armed with a firearm. The same percentage said they worried about being fired upon by armed victims, while 57% said they were more concerned with encountering an armed victim than encountering law enforcement officers.
Avoiding Armed Robberies
America's liberal gun laws are often criticized as a contributor to the U.S.'s relatively high rates of violent crime. Homicide rates in the U.S. are among the highest in the world, exceeding homicide rates in some nations that have clamped down on civilian gun ownership.
However, Kleck studied crime rates from Great Britain and the Netherlands, two nations with much stricter gun ownership laws than the U.S., and concluded that the risk of armed robbery is lower in America because of loose gun laws.
The rate of burglaries at occupied homes (“hot” burglaries) in Great Britain and the Netherlands is 45%, compared to a rate of 13% in the U.S. Comparing those rates to the percentage of hot burglaries in which the homeowner is threatened or attacked (30%), Kleck concluded that there would be an additional 450,000 burglaries in the U.S. in which homeowners are threatened or attacked if the rate of hot burglaries in the U.S. was similar to the rate in Great Britain. The lower rate in the U.S. is attributed to widespread gun ownership.
Updated by Robert Longley
Kleck, Gary, and Marc Gertz. "Armed Resistance to Crime: The Prevalence and Nature of Self-Defense with a Gun." Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology Fall, 1995, //scholarlycommons.law.northwestern.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=6853&context=jclc.
Planty, Michael, and Jennifer L. Truman. “Firearm Violence, 1993-2011.” Bureau of Justice Statistics, May 2013, www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/fv9311.pdf.
Wright, James D., and Peter H. Rossi. “PUBLICATIONS.” NCJRS Abstract - National Criminal Justice Reference Service, 1994, www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=155885.