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In Defense of Self-Defense

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In Defense of Self-Defense

A landmark case comes down on the side of Americans' individual right to arm themselves. What the best research has to say about what it all means, and why.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court tackled one of the most divisive and hotly debated issues in the past half century: the individual citizen's right to own a gun for personal use.

At issue was the District of Columbia's 1976 ban on handguns, the strictest gun-control law in the country, a law that banned residents from owning handguns, automatic firearms, and high-capacity semi-automatic firearms. The statute also prohibited possession of unregistered firearms.

Dick Anthony Heller, a security guard, challenged the District of Columbia's law, and his lawyers began amassing the strongest arguments from the most highly respected researchers in the country to support their client's challenge. Among those experts identified for support was Gary Kleck/A>, a criminology professor in the College of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida State University.

"I didn't have any active involvement," says Kleck, sporting a tightly cropped white beard and surrounded in his Hecht House office by books on criminology, guns and violence, and criminal justice ethics. "But after the Heller challenge, I was asked every few weeks or so by his law team for reprints of my articles. They were obviously building the empirical side of the case."

On June 26, in the case of District of Washington, D.C. v. Heller, the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 to overturn the handgun ban, effectively interpreting the Second Amendment's language to include a guarantee of the right of individual Americans to bear arms. As it turned out, Kleck's research was cited by Justice Breyer on the losing side of the case. Even so, Kleck's initials are now carved in the oak tree of Supreme Court lore.

"Oddly," says Kleck, "my work was cited by the losing side—the ones who thought the D.C. law should stand. They claimed that because there are various scholarly findings and opinions on the issue, mine being one of them, the court wasn't qualified to adjudicate anything."

This decision pleased Kleck, in part because it repealed a law that simply didn't work—the number of violent deaths in the nation's capital increased after the law was passed. In 1977, the first full year of the ban, the city recorded 192 homicides. The total rose to 223 in 1981, and 482 by 1991. Even as the homicide toll declined in D.C. after 1991, the percentage of killings committed with firearms remained far higher than when the ban was passed. Guns were used in 63 percent of the city's 188 slayings in 1976. Last year, out of 169 homicides, 81 percent were shootings.

Another reason Kleck applauded this decision is that, now, citizens in D.C. will be able to legally arm themselves against criminal attack. Why is this a good thing? Through years of grueling research, Kleck has found strong evidence that crime victims who use guns during a crime are less likely to be injured or killed, and less likely to lose property than crime victims who adopt any other strategy, including non-resistance.

But doesn't this point of view run counter to claims by gun-control advocates that trying to resist a would-be criminal by using a gun defensively will just get you hurt—or killed?

"Yes," Kleck says, "it was often claimed in early pro-control propaganda that when victims attempt to use guns defensively, offenders take guns away from them and use them against the victim. That is false," he says, his tone underlining the word "false." He adds that the only quasi-factual foundation for this claim appears to be the idea that police officers are occasionally killed with their own guns. "This is extremely rare," Kleck says. "Over the period from 1997 through 2006, an annual average of 4.8 police officers in the U.S. were killed with their own guns, out of a total of 665,555 full-time sworn officers in the nation."


Kleck's ability to easily rattle off such stats comes from three decades of intense research on gun control, gun ownership and crime. And he is quick to point out that he didn't come to the pro side of this debate through his ideology.

"Landing on this side of the issue is the most unnatural thing in the world to me. I didn't come to this stance through my social background—I grew up in the wilds of suburbia, where guns are scarce. I'm a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International USA, and I'm a lifelong Democrat," he says, pausing briefly in this recitation. "I'm not now and have never been a member of the National Rifle Association, Handgun Control, Inc., and I've never received a penny in funding for research from any such organization."

Kleck makes the simple but important point that his way into this pro-handgun position is evidenced-based. "I'm boringly scholarly, having studied this issue for nearly 30 years." The result of this research is impressive by any standards: three books, 50 published articles in journals and in newspapers such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, 10 book chapters, and 40 presented papers. Kleck has published more articles on the defensive use of guns than anyone else on the planet.

And, he adds, he's one of the media's favorite "resource persons."

"Oh yes," he says, laughing, "I'm in quite a few Rolodex files under the heading "pro gun" or "gun-friendly." Sometimes, though, he disappoints pro-gun reporters, because he talks about how complicated these issues are. "Oftentimes, someone will want me to say something loud and clear and direct, like, 'Gun availability is a good thing,' but that's just not the case. Having more guns available is a bad thing if these guns are falling into the hands of criminals."

"The simple fact is, if criminals have guns and use them in attacks on people, the victims are more likely to die." It's the "if" that Kleck has explored in hammering detail in his research.


It's no news flash, Kleck says, that firearms are heavily involved in crime in America, especially homicide.

"In 2006, about 11,600 homicides were committed by criminals armed with guns, claiming 68 percent of all homicides," he says. Based on data from the National Criminal Victimization Survey (NCVS), as many as 500,000 violent crimes were committed in the United States in 2006 by offenders armed with guns, and around 26 percent of robberies and 7 percent of assaults were committed by gun-armed offenders.

These facts have led many people to conclude that America's high rate of gun ownership must be at least partially responsible for the nation's high rates of violence, or at least its high homicide rate, says Kleck, adding that this belief in a causal effect of gun levels on violent crime rates has, in turn, led many to conclude that limiting the availability of guns would substantially reduce violent crime, especially the murder rate.

"What's not so widely known, though, is that large numbers of crime victims in America also use guns in the course of crimes (but) in self-defense," says Kleck.

Based on 16 national surveys of samples of the U.S. population, he continues, the evidence indicates that guns are used by victims in self-protection more often than crimes are committed by offenders using guns. Victims used guns defensively two to two-and-a-half million times in 1993, for example, compared to about 850,000 crimes in which offenders possessed guns.

But aren't these gun-toting would-be victims risking injury or death? By the time most Americans are adults, they've heard the popular wisdom— if you try to use a gun to protect yourself, you'll only get hurt.

"Well, there was a lot of early research that claimed this was the case," says Kleck, "but this research was based on a basic error—the error of what happened first." Researchers reported instances of people being hurt and using guns defensively, but these were cases where someone was first hurt and then used the gun for self-protection, he explains. "It wasn't using the gun that got them hurt. And once this flaw in the research was fixed, it was found that people who use guns for protection are almost never injured after that."

There's also evidence to support the common-sense belief that many criminals are deterred from robbery attempts in the first place by the possibility of victims using guns against them. "Criminals interviewed in prison indicate that they have refrained from committing crimes because they believed a potential victim might have a gun," Kleck said.

Evidence also supports the hypothesis that U.S. burglars are careful to avoid residences where victims are home because they fear being shot—an estimated 46 percent of the citizens in the United States own firearms, in contrast to, for example, England, where handgun ownership was banned in 1997. While 43 percent of British residential burglaries are committed while victims are at home, only 9 percent of residential burglaries in the United States are committed under such circumstances.

"None of this evidence is strong or decisive," Kleck is quick to point out. "But we can say it is consistent with the hypothesis that criminals are deterred from attempting some crimes by the possibility of being on the wrong side of a gun."

Defensive gun use by crime victims is not only effective in preventing injury, but also in preventing property loss, Kleck has found. Protection of body and property are usually achieved without the victim shooting the gun and are almost always achieved without wounding or killing the criminal. "Only 24 percent of gun defenders even fired the gun (including warning shots), only 16 percent tried to shoot the perpetrator, and at most 8 percent wounded the offender," Kleck points out.

But don't guns provoke the criminal? What about the old joke punch line: Don't shoot the bear again, you'll just make him mad.

Kleck laughs. "Just not true. Victim defensive use of guns almost never angers or otherwise provokes offenders into attacking and injuring the resisting victims. It's extremely rare that once a victim shows or uses a gun, he is injured."

In any case, Kleck says, summarizing this crime scenario, it is clear that regardless of whether victim gun use occasionally provokes the offender the net effect of victim gun use is to reduce the likelihood that the offender will hurt the victim. In a 2004 study, Kleck and his FSU colleague, Mark Gertz, a professor of criminology, analyzed data from the NCVS and found that among 45 sample cases of victims who used a gun to attack the offender, none were injured after using the gun, and of 202 sample cases of victims who used a gun to threaten the offender, just 7.7 percent were injured after using the gun.


Most U.S. gun laws are aimed largely or solely at handguns. Why is this the case, and is singling out handguns an effective policy?

"One of the political temptations of handgun-only control is that it appears to be a satisfactory compromise between doing nothing about gun violence, which would alienate pro-control voters, and restricting all gun types, which would alienate many long gun owners," Kleck states. "I think it's a very bad idea to have stricter controls over handguns than long guns, because such controls inadvertently encourage the substitution of long guns if they are less regulated. Kleck envisions the scenario of a convicted felon buying a gun at a dealership.

Felon: "Hey, give me that .38 over there, OK?"

Gun dealer: "Great—Let's run you through a background check."

Felon: "Oh, never mind. I guess I want that shotgun over there instead."

"Well, you haven't prevented him from getting a gun," Kleck says pointedly. "You've basically shifted him from the least lethal variety of gun, the handgun, and the hardest to aim accurately, to a much more lethal weapon—more accurate and though not as concealable, concealable enough."

Kleck explains: "He can saw off part of the barrel and the stock in 10 minutes with a hacksaw and have something that'll look just fine underneath a raincoat or a sports coat," adding that now there would be a man on the street who has a gun that is several times more likely to kill if he shoots anybody with it.

And Kleck's view is backed with some preliminary research he's done. He has run statistical simulations that suggest a result of criminals substituting long guns for handguns would be more homicides. "A clear policy recommendation follows from what should be the first principle of weapons regulations: Never place restrictions on a subcategory of weapons without also placing restrictions at least as stringent on more deadly, easily substituted alternative weapons," Kleck states strongly.

But while decision-makers ponder policy, the facts remain grim: more than 80 people die every day in the United States from gun violence, and America lives with one of the world's worst murder records.

For Kleck, that makes both impassioned and reasoned study and debate of gun laws and violence all the more imperative. Most of all, he wants decision-makers to base policy decisions on research, not emotion. He wants them to think critically about how ineffective gun laws could produce unintended but perhaps deadly results. He asks: "Do we really want to keep a gun out of the hands of someone who might someday need it to defend his—and his family's—life"?