The trial of George Zimmerman over the shooting of Trayvon Martin has stirred national debate on race relations and on guns and violence in America. President Obama, who by many accounts has lost politically in his push for tighter gun control, has exploited the incident stating after the not-guilty verdict that “We should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis.”
Anecdotal stories are interesting because they’re relatable; they help us see the human side of things by putting names and faces to what can otherwise be boring information. But no serious scientist, researcher, or analyst will rely on anecdotes because for every one that makes a certain conclusion seem right, there’s another that makes a conflicting conclusion seem right. In many ways, coverage of the Zimmerman trial is about moving one agenda or narrative forward, and the gun control narrative is no different; but the facts demonstrate that citizens plus guns is not bad for society. In fact, it’s quite the opposite – both anecdotes as well as the substantial body of hard data demonstrate that the Zimmerman narrative of reckless gun use is the aberration, not the model, of defensive gun use
In contrast to the anecdote evidence that guns embolden overzealous neighborhood watch members to harm innocent people, consider this: In January this year, Melinda Herman shot Paul Ali Slater, an ex-con, while defending herself and her two 9-year old children in their Loganville, Georgia home. Though she shot at him six times, striking him five times, he survived. CNN reported that “Walton County Sheriff Joe Chapman — whose office responded to the shooting at the Hermans’ home — said he believes the mother and her two children were in a life-and-death situation and she had no choice but to exercise her constitutional right to self-defense.”
In Magnolia, Texas, Erin (who asked to be identified only by her first name), a mother of a 6-year old boy, Kaden, defended herself against three home invaders with a gun. She shot one and the other two fled the scene. She told local Houston news reporters she believes that having a gun, “saved my life.” These anecdotes were all in the context of being at home, but what about outside of one’s home?
In July this year in Philadelphia, police say an armed man turned the tables on three gunmen who tried to rob him. The would-be victim shot at his three attackers, wounding one, and causing them to flee the scene. Investigators say two of the suspects dropped the wounded attacker of at a local hospital before also fleeing from the hospital. The local Philadelphia NBC news channel reported the wounded suspect would be charged.
The Associated Press reported in June, an armed man trying to rob customers outside an Atlanta shoe store was fatally shot by one of the patrons waiting in line to buy LeBron James sneakers. Witnesses told police a man armed with a gun tried to rob people standing outside the store when another customer drew his own handgun and shot the robber, who died after fleeing just a few yards. Atlanta police officer John Chafee says the shooter won’t be charged because investigators determined he fired in self-defense.
These stories didn’t garner the national attention the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case did, but they do illustrate the point that real life people use guns for legitimate self-defense and allow us to ask how we would feel in a similar situation.
Anecdotes can help us to relate the overall data to, but what does the data says about how often Americans defend their lives with guns? Research shows that defensive gun use is a common occurrence—a fact that’s even acknowledged by those typically opposed to gun rights. For example, gun control advocates tend to favor David Hemenway, a skeptic of gun ownership. That reliance is misplaced. Hemenway’s methodology has come under attack for among other things, refusing to release the data behind his studies, and his conclusions have even been rejected by the 7th Circuit . However, even Hemenway’s study in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology suggests that defensive gun use (DGU) occurs more than 152,000 times annually. That means that even according to a leading gun skeptic with bias against gun ownership and questionable methodology, private citizens used guns to protect their lives and the lives of others in over 152,000 individual cases. And from most accounts, Hemenway drastically underestimates the number of defensive gun use.
Other researchers have found defensive gun use is more widespread. Another study in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, contends that the correct number of DGU is between 256,000-373,000. A Department of Justice study conducted by Philip J. Cook and Jens Ludwig found 1.5 million “genuine” instances of DGU. Cook and Ludwig’s study was done in contrast to the classic Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology study by Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz, which found 2.5 million annual instances of DGU. Presumably because of how large the number of DGU in Kleck and Gertz’ study, it is widely dismissed by gun control advocates as though Kleck and Gertz were on the NRA payroll. However the study was commissioned by President Clinton and Kleck is a liberal Democrat.
A July 2013 report “Priorities for Research to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence” from the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which was ordered by President Obama, states “Defensive uses of guns by crime victims is a common occurrence, although the exact number remains disputed. Almost all national survey estimates indicate that defensive gun uses by victims are at least as common as offensive uses by criminals, with estimates of annual uses ranging from about 500,000 to more than 3 million per year, in the context of about 300,000 violent crimes involving firearms.”
Moreover, the data demonstrates that firearms are used only in small portion of violent crimes. FBI Uniform Crime Reports show that approximately 9,000 homicides per year that involve firearms. There were a total of 1.2 million violent crimes in 2011, of which homicides is one type of violent crime. However, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), a Department of Justice agency, reports “less than 10% of all nonfatal violent crime from 1993 to 2011” involved a firearm. This means less than 1 out of every 10 violent crimes is committed with a firearm, and the vast majority of violent crimes – more than 9 out of 10 – is committed without any firearm.
What does this all mean? With the number of firearm homicides approximately 9,000 and less than 10% of non-fatal violent crime involving guns, the fact that research shows the number of defensive gun uses from “almost all annual survey[s]…rang[es] from 500,000 to 3 million” is significant. Even at 152,000, it’s significant. Gun control advocates would like to exploit the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case to argue that guns make us less safe, but the stories of Melinda Herman, Erin a mother of a 6-year old, a Philadelphia man accosted by three armed assailants while walking alone, and attempted armed robbery while waiting in line to buy shoes tell a different story. We can imagine what if would feel like if we were in those situations with our children, shopping, or walking alone. Against the national backdrop of crime statistics and defensive gun use, these stories – not the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman one – paint the more realistic picture that guns are often used for legitimate self-defense and saving lives.
Matt MacBradaigh is a husband, father, Christian, patriot, and Conservative, who lives in the Pacific Northwest, outside of Seattle. He has written on Second Amendment issues for both The Brenner Brief and PolicyMic.