On April 13, 2023, 16-year-old Ralph Yarl was sent to pick up his younger twin brothers from a friend’s home when an address mix-up nearly cost him his life. After confusing Northeast 115th Street for Northeast 115th Terrace, located one block away, Ralph mistakenly rang the doorbell of an armed 84-year-old man. The homeowner instantly opened fire on the teen through a glass door, shooting him once in the forehead and again in the arm. Ralph was forced to flee for his life as an irresponsible gun owner decided he would become the judge, jury, and executioner of a teenager who arrived at the wrong home.

Every day, 327 people are shot in the United States. Of those, an estimated 117 die, while the other 210 deal with lifelong injuries. Yet despite the harsh realities of gun violence, roughly half of Americans believe firearms increase safety by allowing law-abiding citizens to protect themselves. This conviction is so widespread that 2023 survey data found that 72 percent of gun owners cite personal protection as a “major reason” for gun ownership, notwithstanding overwhelming evidence demonstrating that firearms are not an effective means of self-defense.6 Just as alarming, the “guns keep us safe” belief is a growing sentiment: In 2013, 48 percent of gun owners cited protection as a major factor for gun ownership, compared with just 26 percent of gun owners in 1999. And today, 50 percent more Americans report owning a gun for personal protection than 10 years ago. This dramatic uptick is no accident.

In need of a messaging campaign strong enough to counter the horrors of everyday gun violence in America, the gun lobby masterfully constructed a narrative based on the myth of a “good guy with a gun” using their weapon defensively to stop an armed assailant before harm can be done. This messaging stands in stark contrast to the reality of many victims, including Ralph Yarl, whose lives were permanently changed by an irresponsible gun owner who used deadly force in response to a nonthreatening situation. In this way, defensive gun use (DGU) has become the central marketing strategy of gun manufacturers and lobbyists.

Contrary to what the NRA would have the public believe, more permissive gun laws are making people less safe.

Summarized by the National Rifle Association (NRA) information division director bluntly stating, “No matter the policy, our messaging continues to focus on self-defense,” both internal NRA documents and independent studies tracking the shift in gun advertising show that while the gun lobby was establishing a narrative of constant risk and fear, the gun industry was launching marketing campaigns for weapons designed explicitly as self-defense products. This movement toward “2.0” gun culture, which sells the idea of personal protection through arms, was embraced to such a degree that it has wholly replaced a gun culture focused on hunting and gaming. Evoking an image of society under constant threat of attack, these messaging tactics prey on the fear and distrust of one’s neighbors. For example, a March 2020 tweet, spotlighted by The Hill, advertised firearms as a “pandemic safety measure.”

These messaging tactics, however, are meant to promote gun purchasing and deregulation of gun manufacturers, not safety. In addition, this manipulation of fear and perversion of self-defense has had a devastating effect on public safety, with too many innocent lives lost at the hands of someone emboldened by a “shoot to live” narrative.
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By advancing this false narrative among the American populace and key voting demographics, the gun lobby has successfully blocked commonsense legislation while churning out a constant stream of messaging designed to increase American gun ownership and industry profits. Moreover, the strategic manipulation of fear and identity politics has made it more difficult to counter this emotive, provocative messaging with fact and reason. As a result, a growing divide has emerged over the past decade between states that are enacting stronger gun laws and those that are passing dangerous gun laws, including permitless concealed carry and “stand your ground” laws. Contrary to what the NRA would have the public believe, more permissive gun laws are making people less safe. In the states with the weakest gun laws, gun deaths rose 46 percent from 2012 to 2020, compared with just a 7 percent increase in the states with the strongest gun laws over that same period. Additionally, recently released data from the Center for American Progress show that firearm homicides fell much faster in 2023 in states with the strongest gun laws, while states with the weakest gun laws saw marginal, if any, improvements to public safety.

The truth is that guns are not typically used for self-defense, nor are they effective in deterring mass shootings or criminal activity. In fact, guns are more likely to be used in violent crime, get stolen, result in a fatal accident, or be used to facilitate a criminal homicide than be used in a protective capacity. And those living with a gun in the home are twice as likely to die by homicide and three times as likely to die by suicide than those living in a gun-free household.

This issue brief, written in partnership with GVPedia, debunks the most common myths about defensive gun use and makes an affirmative case for why stronger gun laws make us safer.

Defensive gun use -- GVPedia defines “defensive gun use” (DGU) as when a citizen either fires, brandishes, or reveals a firearm in an attempt to stop an assailant from committing or completing a crime. This action can be in defense of oneself, others, or even property. Law enforcement shootings are not considered defensive gun use for the purposes of this analysis.

Busting myths with the facts

Myth: Defensive gun use is common
Several surveys conducted in the 1990s estimated that somewhere between 760,000 to 2.5 million defensive gun uses occur annually. Gun lobbyists have used this upper bound to claim that DGU is not only widespread but also more common than the use of guns in violent crime. However, a widely cited 1995 study published by Gary Kleck and Matt Gertz does not hold up to peer-reviewed scrutiny and vastly overestimates how often guns are used defensively or for crime mitigation. Using Kleck and Gertz’s own accounting, David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, showed just two years later that their DGU estimates were impossible. While the 1995 survey estimated that guns were used for self-defense during burglaries approximately 845,000 times that year, Hemenway estimated that fewer than 550,000 possible burglaries occurred in homes with a gun owner present—suggesting that for the Kleck and Gertz figures to be accurate, burglary victims would have needed to use their gun defensively in more than 100 percent of cases, which is, of course, impossible. Upon further investigation into these estimates, Hemenway showed that these surveys suffered from overestimation due to a significant problem with false positives, as explained in greater detail in GVPedia’s DGU series, “The Defensive Gun Use Lie and the Gun Lobbyʼs Firehose of Falsehood.”

Fact: Defensive gun use is rare and occurs less often than criminal gun use

Since 2012, the Gun Violence Archive, which tracks defensive gun use through 7,500 media and police sources across the country, has found between 1,195 and 2,119 DGUs annually. However, because more than half of all DGU incidents are estimated to violate the law—along with cultural differences in police reporting—not all DGUs will be reported to the police or other outlets, making national tracking of DGUs extremely difficult. While survey methods introduce their own form of bias, as described above, a more widely accepted estimate of annual DGUs is derived from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), which estimates approximately 70,000 DGUs per year—far short of 2.5 million. While still not a perfect accounting of all gun uses, critically, every survey that looks at both criminal and defensive uses finds that guns are used far more often in criminal activity than for defensive purposes:

Based on NCVS estimates, CAP analysis finds that nine times as many people report being victimized by a person with a gun than being protected by a gun.
In a study of two Harvard surveys taken between 1996 and 1999, David Hemenway and his co-authors found that respondents were three times as likely to report having been threatened or victimized by a gun than having used one defensively.
In a 2001 survey of 5,800 California adolescents, approximately 4 percent of respondents reported being threatened with a gun, compared with only 0.3 percent reporting using a gun in self-defense.

Nine times as many people report being victimized by a person with a gun than being protected by a gun.
Again, NCVS estimates and data from the Gun Violence Archive suggest that the actual number of DGUs occurring annually is less than 3 percent of the 2.5 million total claimed by gun lobbyists30 and could be as few as 1,600 per year. While the precise number of DGUs occurring annually cannot be pinned down, what these comparative studies do show is the relative harm of widespread gun accessibility. More guns in America means more gun victimizations, not safer communities or vigilante heroics.

Myth: Defensive gun use benefits society

As the title of the now-debunked 1995 study conducted by Gary Kleck and Matt Gertz, “Armed Resistance to Crime,” suggests, gun lobbyists view widespread gun ownership to be a public good. The messaging goes that an armed society is an effective deterrent against those wishing to cause harm. This idea is so ingrained in the gun lobbyist movement that instead of addressing America’s gun violence epidemic head-on, some states have actually chosen to pass even more permissive gun laws in recent years in the aftermath of mass shootings. Moreover, these tragic events are often followed by a surge in local gun purchases while fear and concerns for safety are at their highest. However, there is no evidence to support the claim that more guns are associated with less crime. Given that there are more guns in circulation than people in America, if more guns led to fewer violent crimes, America would be the safest place in the world.

Fact: Most defensive gun use cases are harmful to society

Essential to the “good guy with a gun” argument is the assumption that in most, if not every, case, the person using their gun defensively is presumed innocent and the person they are using their weapon against is guilty and lethally dangerous. However, this simply is not the case, and stories abound of otherwise nonviolent conflicts becoming deadly from a person claiming self-defense. In June 2023, for example, a confrontation started when Susan Lorincz allegedly threw a roller skate at a 10-year-old neighborhood boy who was playing outside in front of her home. According to police reports, when the boy’s mother, Ajike Owens, knocked on Lorincz’s door to confront her, Lorincz fatally shot Owens through the closed door. Despite being at no immediate risk or danger—and after not following the directions of law enforcement, who Lorincz had called to the scene—Lorincz claimed that her actions were in self-defense.
Unfortunately, events such as this are more common than gun lobbyists would like to admit:
In February 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was walking back to a relative’s house after buying snacks at a convenience store when George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator, spotted him and called 911 to report a “real suspicious Black guy.” Against police instruction, Zimmerman exited his vehicle and pursued Martin, who was unarmed. Following a brief confrontation, Zimmerman fired his weapon at Martin, fatally shooting him. Zimmerman claimed he acted in self-defense. However, evidence found that Zimmerman not only failed to identify himself as a neighborhood watch member, but neither a deadly weapon nor deadly force was deployed by Trayvon. While Zimmerman was eventually acquitted, this case has remained highly criticized due to its racial profiling and armed vigilantism.

In February 2020, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was jogging in a Georgia neighborhood when white residents Gregory and Travis McMichael—father and son—armed themselves with a shotgun and a .357 Magnum handgun to pursue Arbery in their vehicle. Upon cornering Arbery, a conflict quickly ensued, and despite Arbery being unarmed, he was shot three times and killed by the men. While defense lawyers for the McMichaels argued that the two men acted in self-defense, they were ultimately each convicted of a federal hate crime and sentenced to life in prison.

In July 2020, Daniel Perry, at work as an Uber driver, turned onto a street when he encountered a crowd protesting the George Floyd murder. According to witness testimony, Perry was driving “dangerously close” to the crowd when an interaction started between him and a protester, Garrett Foster, who was armed with an AK-47. Perry, who was also armed, claimed that he feared for his life when Foster approached his vehicle. Perry reacted by fatally shooting the protester, later claiming that Foster had raised his weapon first. Despite arguing this was an act of self-defense, a jury found Perry guilty, and he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
In April 2023, Kaylin Gillis was with three friends when the group mistakenly pulled into the wrong driveway while searching for a friend’s house. According to police reports, after realizing their mistake and starting to turn their car around to leave, the homeowner, Kevin Monahan, fired two shots from his porch, one of which struck Kaylin fatally.
These stories are not outliers. In the same study that found that it was three times as likely for people to be victimized by a gun than to use a firearm defensively, David Hemenway and his co-authors also asked respondents who reported using a gun defensively to describe the event. The researchers then presented these self-reported incidents to a panel of five criminal judges and asked them to determine if these uses would be deemed legal. Of all the incidents reported to the panel of judges, 51 percent were deemed to most likely be illegal. Yet given that these were self-reported incidents and the judges were instructed to take the accounts at face value, this is likely an underestimate of the proportion of DGU cases that are illegal. esearch on “stand your ground” (SYG) laws also reveals that in more than half of all fatal defensive gun uses where SYG was invoked, there was clear evidence that the shooter could have safely de-escalated the conflict without using deadly force. Emboldened by a “shoot first, ask questions later” culture, too many armed individuals have used deadly force as a first response, rather than a last resort. More concerning, gun homicides in which white shooters invoked SYG after killing Black victims were determined justifiable by the legal system five times more often than when the situation was reversed, indicating serious racial disparities in the defensive use of firearms. While it is hard to question when and if someone feels their life or safety is in danger, what these stories share is that when a gun is involved, any person can become the judge, the jury, and—far too often—the executioner of justice without due process. This is not a society in which we should have to live, nor is it consistent with our values as a country. Despite the narrative gun lobbyists like to push about the mythos of a “good guy with a gun,” a society in which people feel empowered to take justice illegally into their own hands is not safer, but rather stokes fear and distrust.

Myth: Carrying a firearm is the most effective means of self-defense to prevent injury or property loss

Despite mounting evidence that defensive gun use is neither common nor beneficial to society, these arguments are understandably unpersuasive when one is deciding how to protect themselves and their families. The idea that one is not safe unless they are carrying a gun is perhaps the most personal and insidious myth constructed by the gun lobby. Not only is it not true that guns are the safest means of self-protection, but households with guns put family members at a higher risk of both fatal and nonfatal injury. What does improve safety is stronger gun laws, improved clearance rates, and investments in community violence intervention programming.

Fact: Defensive gun use is no more effective at preventing injury or property loss than other means of self-defense

For the myth of defensive gun use to be true, someone using a gun for self-defense must be more likely to walk away from the incident both unharmed and without loss of property than someone either not defending themselves or defending themselves through other means. However, a 2015 study conducted by David Hemenway and Sara Solnick shows this is not the case:
Using NCVS survey data from 2007 to 2011, the authors found that of the 14,145 crime incidents in which the victim was present during the altercation, less than 1 percent involved defensive gun use.
When a victim used a gun defensively, 10.9 percent reported suffering an injury when victims took no defensive actions, the rate of injury was 11 percent.
Property loss during a crime when a victim was present was higher among those who reported using a gun defensively: 38.5 percent of respondents who reported using their gun defensively also reported some loss of property, while less than 35 percent of respondents who reported defending themselves with a different weapon also reported some loss of property.

<1% Difference in injury rates between victims who use a gun defensively and victims who take no action

Further evidence presented by Philip Cook and Kristin Goss in 2014 provides similar results, indicating that the outcomes from a gun used in self-defense during a crime are not significantly different than other forms of protective actions. Moreover, research on right-to-carry gun laws finds that more gun carrying and usage is associated with higher rates of violent crime, more gun theft, and lower violent crime clearance rates in urban areas. Taken together, this evidence suggests that someone is not statistically safer from avoiding injury or property loss if they are carrying a gun than if they are not. In fact, research overwhelmingly suggests that owning a gun can put loved ones at greater risk of injury than not owning a gun. A 2022 study found adults who lived with handgun owners, but were not gun owners themselves, were twice as likely to die by homicide in general and three times more likely to die by homicide in the home than those who lived in a gun-free household. The same study found people living with handgun owners were also seven times more likely to be shot by their spouse or intimate partner, indicating that instead of being protective, the household gun was more often used as an instrument of abuse. Similarly, a study from 2000 found that a gun in the home was over six times more likely to be used to intimidate a family member than be used in a defensive capacity.

Contrary to the gun lobby narrative that firearm owners successfully use their weapons to protect their home and families against threatening intruders, both research studies found no protective benefits to having a gun in the home. In addition to an increased risk of gun homicide victimization, at least 13 different studies have found that a gun in the home significantly increases the risk of suicide among owners and cohabitants—with risk ranging from two to 10 times greater than for those in gun-free homes, depending on the age of the individual and how firearms are stored.

THE RISKS OF GUN OWNERSHIP: BY THE NUMBERS 7x Greater likelihood for those living with handgun owners to be shot by their spouse or intimate partner, compared with those living in a gun-free household 6x Greater likelihood for those living with handgun owners to be intimidated with a weapon than be protected by one 3x Greater likelihood for those with access to firearms to die by suicide, compared with those without access 2x Greater likelihood for those living with handgun owners to die by homicide, compared with those living in a gun-free household


Concerningly, guns intended for defensive use are more likely to be kept unlocked, readily accessible, and loaded, substantially increasing the risk of unauthorized access by a minor. Even more concerning, a 2021 research study found that more than one-third of adolescents living in a household with firearms report being able to access a loaded gun in less than five minutes. Similar to adult cohabitants, children living in a home with a firearm are at a greater risk for unintentional injury and death, homicide, and suicide. Moreover, their unauthorized access to household firearms can put those outside the home at risk, with more than 74 percent of firearms used in school shooting incidents obtained from the student’s home or from the home of a relative or family friend. In addition to the increased risk of physical harm as a result of unsecured firearms in the home, direct and indirect exposure to gun violence among children can be particularly damaging and is linked to several conditions, including PTSD, anxiety, depression, substance use, and somatic symptoms that can severely affect functioning.

Conclusion

Reinforced through the manipulation of fear, the perversion of self-defense, and falsified statistics, the narrative that guns make society safer weakens the public’s ability to properly inform themselves on the risks associated with gun ownership. Moreover, this myth that guns keep us safe encourages dangerous gun use and protects gun industry profits, regardless of the human toll. All told, the myth of defensive gun use has allowed the gun lobby and its allies to effectively control the narrative around American gun ownership, undermining efforts to pass reasonable gun safety legislation at the local, state, and federal levels.
 In untangling the myth of defensive gun use, one thing is abundantly clear: If safety is the goal, guns are not the answer.
Allison Jordan, Research Associate, Gun Violence Prevention Chandler Hall, Senior Policy Analyst Devin Hughes, Founder and president GVPedia -------------------


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