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Gun use in the United States: results from two national surveys


Objectives—To determine the relative incidence of gun victimization versus self defense gun use by civilians in the United States, and the circumstances and probable legality of the self defense uses.

Methods—National random digit dial telephone surveys of the adult population were conducted in 1996 and 1999. The Harvard surveys appear unique among private surveys in two respects: asking (1) open ended questions about defensive gun use incidents and (2) detailed questions about both gun victimization and self defense gun use. Five criminal court judges were asked to assess whether the self reported defensive gun uses were likely to have been legal.

Results—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. This was so even under the assumption that the respondent had a permit to own and carry the gun, and that the respondent had described the event honestly.

Conclusions—Guns are used to threaten and intimidate far more often than they are used in self defense. Most self reported self defense gun uses may well be illegal and against the interests of society.

  • firearms
  • guns
  • self defense
  • legality

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