Facts About Firearm Policy Initiative

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MYTH: Guns are the Safest and Most Effective Way to Prevent Crime


  • Researcher John Lott claims guns are the safest and most effective way to stop a crime.
  • Research shows defensive gun use when confronting a criminal has the same risk of injury as doing nothing in the situation, and is more dangerous to the defender than simply leaving the area.  
  • Surveys found that a majority of self-reported defensive gun uses were both illegal and provided no social benefit. 
  • The vast majority of academic research clearly indicates that gun ownership does not reduce a person’s rate of victimization.  

Lott’s Claims:

In Lott’s 2016 book, The War on Guns, he writes, “Having a gun is by far the safest course of action when one is confronted by a criminal.” 

Lott argues that guns are especially effective at stopping crimes against women. In his 2020 book, Gun Control Myths, Lott states, “women benefit much more than men from using guns in self-defense. The reason is simple – women tend to be physically weaker than the male criminals who attack them.” 

In a 2020 Newsweek article, Lott writes, “Having a gun is by far the most effective way for people to protect themselves. That is particularly true for the most vulnerable, people who are relatively weaker physically (women and the elderly) and those who are the most likely victims of violent crime (poor blacks who live in high-crime urban areas).”

The Facts: 

The vast majority of academic research has found that owning a gun does not make a person safer. 

Using National Crime Victimization Survey data, David Hemenway and Sara Solnik found that “defensive gun use” (DGU) is more rare than gun advocates claim and rarely protects a person from harm.

During incidents where a victim used a gun in self-defense, the study found the likelihood of suffering an injury was 10.9%. Had the victim taken no action at all, the risk of injury was virtually identical: 11%. Furthermore, possessing a gun did not reduce the likelihood of losing property; 38.5% of those who used a gun in self-defense had property taken from them compared to 34.9% of victims who used another type of weapon, such as a knife or baseball bat.

The study also found that while the likelihood of injury after brandishing a firearm was reduced to 4.1%, the injury rate after those defensive gun uses was similar to using any other weapon and was still greater than if the person had run away or hid (2.4%) or called the police (2.2%). These results were similar to previous research on older NCVS data which showed that, while using a firearm in self-defense did lower a person’s risk of subsequent injury, it was less effective than using any weapon other than a gun.

A pair of private surveys conducted by Hemenway in 1996 and 1999, in which respondents were asked to describe DGUs in their own words, found that the majority of defensive gun uses were both illegal and provided no social benefit. When a gun is used in self defense, it is often part of an escalating hostile interaction — one in which both participants are likely to be responsible for the event that initially prompted the DGU. One male respondent who reported a defensive gun use described an incident as follows: “I was watching a movie and he interrupted me. I yelled at him that I was going to shoot him and he ran to his car.” Another respondent pulled out a gun to resolve a conflict with his neighbor: “I was on my porch and this man threw a beer in my face so I got my gun.”

It is not at all clear that cases such as these benefit the public  — let alone constitute legitimate defensive gun use. After all, these incidents are substantially different from a situation in which a victim is taken by surprise, such as during a street mugging. Stories of criminal gun use posing as self-defense highlight that defensive gun use in aggregate is likely not beneficial for society. This is especially true when combined with studies that find defensive gun use is not more effective at preventing injury than other means of self-defense.


John Lott, Gun Control Myths, 2020
John Lott, “Americans’ Very Right to Keep and Bear Arms Is on the Ballot This Election,” Newsweek, Sept. 8, 2020 
GVPedia University, “GVPedia explains…Defensive Gun Use,” February 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, October 2015
Evan DeFilippis and Devin Hughes, “Gunfight or Flight: New Study Finds No Advantages to Using a Firearm in Self-Defense Situations, The Trace, July 14, 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
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 October 2020)

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