- Researcher John Lott claims Americans use guns defensively approximately two million times a year to advance the myth that a good guy with a gun will keep us safe from a bad guy with a gun.
- Lott relies on flawed 1990s survey data which has results that are mathematically impossible.
- The best empirical evidence from the Gun Violence Archive reveals that there are approximately 2,000 verified defensive gun uses (DGUs) annually.
In his 2020 book, Gun Control Myths, Lott claims: “Americans use guns defensively about 2 million times a year.” Lott has made similar claims over the past two decades.
Lott writes in his 2003 book, The Bias Against Guns, “It is particularly difficult for people to accept academic and private survey data on defensive gun use that show people using guns defensively anywhere from 1.5 to 3.4 million times a year.”
Lott’s 1998 book, More Guns Less Crime, acknowledges the US Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey that reports 110,000 defensive uses of guns during assaults, robberies, and household burglaries. However, Lott cites other surveys and polls that “imply that there are 760,000 defensive handgun uses to 3.6 million defensive uses of any type of gun per year.” Lott claims that a national survey he conducted in 2002 found that 95% of defensive gun use requires only brandishing a firearm to end the attack.
Lott’s claim of approximately two million defensive gun uses annually originate from a series of surveys conducted by Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz in the early 1990s. Subsequent validity tests reveal that the survey numbers are mathematically impossible. Surveys of rare events such as DGUs exaggerate the frequency due to false positives. These surveys suffer from severe false-positive issues, telescoping, and social desirability bias, in addition to other methodological problems that render the data useless.
For example, one of the surveys indicates that guns were used in self-defense 845,000 times during burglaries in the U.S. Yet at the time of the survey, there were 1.3 million burglaries annually where the occupant was home, and in only 33% where the occupants were awake at the time. Furthermore, at the time only around 42% of households owned firearms, meaning at most only 180,000 defensive gun uses are possible.
The best empirical evidence from the Gun Violence Archive reveals approximately 2,000 verified DGUs annually, a far cry from millions.
In 1997, conservative criminologist James Q. Wilson wrote in the New Republic that Lott’s estimates are not reliable and researchers should rely on government surveys:
“Using the data compiled by the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) of 56,000 families, scholars have estimated that there are, at a minimum, between 65,000 and 80,000 defensive gun uses per year. Some estimates based on private polls suggest much higher defensive uses, ranging up to 1.5 or even 2.5 million. The data supplied by private polls are controversial, since so much depends on inferring society-wide effects from the answers of a tiny number of respondents. (If, to take a recent study, only 54 people out of 2,500 surveyed said they used a gun to defend themselves, then each of the 54 represents 68,000 Americans. Reporting errors–lies, exaggerations, poor memory–on the part of just a few people can have huge effects on the total number of defensive gun uses.) So consider instead the much larger and more reliable NCVS, conducted by the Census Bureau, according to which defensive gun uses in America are not trivial: 65,000 to 80,000 uses each year.”
Despite NCVS estimates suffering from false positives and are likely to overestimate the number of DGUs, it is still much closer to the true number of DGUs compared to Lott’s surveys.
John Lott, Gun Control Myths, 2020
“GVPedia explains…Defensive Gun Use,” GVPedia University, Feb. 24, 2020
John Lott, The Bias Against Guns: Why Almost Everything You’ve Heard About Gun Control Is Wrong, 2003
John Lott, More Guns Less Crimes: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws, 3rd ed., 2010
David Hemenway, “Survey Research and Self-Defense Gun Use: An Explanation of Extreme Overestimates,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Summer 1997
“Past Summary Ledgers,” Gun Violence Archive, (accessed January 22, 2021)
James Q. Wilson, “Hostility in America,” The New Republic, Aug. 25, 1997