Facts About Firearm Policy Initiative

Return to Database
MYTH: Guns Are Used More Often In Self Defense Than To Commit Crimes


  • Researcher John Lott claims guns are used in the U.S. five times more frequently in self defense than to commit a criminal act.  
  • Lott does an apples to oranges comparison using crime numbers from the National Crime Victimization Survey and flawed defensive gun use (DGUs) surveys that inflate defensive uses.
  • Each year in the U.S., approximately 40,000 people are fatally shot and 30,000 suffer non-fatal gunshot injuries. In comparison, there are approximately 2,000 verified DGUs annually. 

Lott’s Claims:

Lott repeatedly claims that guns are used in the U.S. more often in self-defense than to commit crimes. In his 2020 book, Gun Control Myths, Lott writes, “Americans use guns defensively about 2 million times a year – about 5 times more frequently than guns are used to commit crimes.”

Lott writes in his 2016 book, The War on Guns, “Without question, most researchers believe that guns are used more often in self-defense than in the commission of a crime.”

The Facts:

Lott’s assertion of the high prevalence of defensive gun use is not backed by any substantive evidence. No academic peer-reviewed studies examining the issue of DGU indicate that defensive gun use is more common than criminal gun use. Yet the false claim that there are millions of DGUs annually have led some pro-gun activists to claim that guns are used more often in self-defense than to commit crimes.

The fundamental flaw with this claim is that gun advocates compare inflated survey defensive gun use numbers from Gary Kleck with National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) crime numbers. The defensive gun use surveys use different and more dubious methodologies from the NCVS. An accurate comparison requires comparing similar methodologies.

A 2013 Department of Justice report compared NCVS gun crime numbers to NCVS DGU numbers between 2007 and 2011. The DOJ report determined that more than nine times as many people are victimized by guns than are protected by guns. The study further found fewer  than 1% of victims in all nonfatal violent crimes reported using a firearm to defend themselves during the incidents.

Two Harvard surveys found people in the U.S. were more than three times as likely to have a gun used against them than they were to defend themselves with a gun. “Even after excluding many reported firearm victimizations, far more survey respondents report having been threatened or intimidated with a gun than having used a gun to protect themselves. A majority of the reported self defense gun uses were rated as probably illegal by a majority of judges.”

A 2004 study by Hemenway and Miller which focused on California adolescents found 13 times as many offensive gun uses as defensive. Yet another study focusing on gun use in the home found that a gun was more than six times more likely to be used to intimidate a family member than in a defensive capacity.

Empirical evidence from the Gun Violence Archive reveals approximately 2,000 verified DGUs annually. In 2019 alone, approximately 40,000 people in the U.S. were killed by firearms, tens of thousands were injured, at least 200,000 firearms were stolen, and hundreds of thousands of people were subject to abusive gun uses such as coercion, threat, brandishing, or intimidation. The comparison shows that guns are far more likely to be used to harm that to protect.


John Lott, Gun Control Myths, 2020

GVPedia University, “GVPedia explains…Defensive Gun Use,” Feb. 24, 2020

John Lott, The War on Guns: Arming Yourself Against Gun Control Lies, 2016

David Hemenway and Sara J. Solnick, “The Epidemiology of Self-Defense Gun Use: Evidence from the National Crime Victimization Surveys 2007–2011,” Preventive Medicine, Oct. 2015

Michael Planty and Jennifer L. Truman, “Firearm Violence, 1993-2011,” DOJ Bureau of Justice Statistics, May 2013

David Hemenway and Matthew Miller, “Gun threats against and self-defense gun use by California adolescents,” Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, April 2004

Deborah Azrael and David Hemenway, “In the safety of your own home’: results from a national survey on gun use at home,” Social Science & Medicine, 2000

David Hemenway, Deborah Azrael, and Matthew Miller, “Gun use in the United States: results from two national surveys,” Injury Prevention, 2000

David McDowall, Colin Loftin, and Stanley Presser, “Measuring Civilian Defensive Firearm Use: A Methodological Experiment,” Journal of Quantitative Criminology, March 2000

Arthur L. Kellermann et al., “Injuries and Deaths Due to Firearms in the Home,” Journal of Trauma: Injury, Infection, and Critical Care, August 1998

David Hemenway, “Survey Research and Self-Defense Gun Use: An Explanation of Extreme Overestimates,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Summer 1997

Gary Kleck 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

“Past Summary Ledgers,” Gun Violence Archive (accessed Oct. 2020)