Survey Validates Estimates of Private Guns and Defensive Uses

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Survey Validates Estimates of Private Guns and Defensive Uses

U.S.A.-( On July 13, 2021, William English, PhD, made a summary of the latest National Firearms Survey (NFS) available to the public online. The survey uses the advanced techniques created with digital technology and the Internet to quantify numbers about firearms ownership, carry, and defensive use.

Surveys for information on defensive gun uses (DGU) have been absent for most of a quarter-century.  This is because of the difficulty and expense of conducting such surveys by telephone.

Surveys about gun ownership have reached significantly different conclusions.

Surveys about defensive uses of firearms have fallen into two camps. Most surveys have found large numbers of defensive uses of firearms, from about 500,000 per year to three million per year.  From the CDC study commissioned by the Obama administration:

Defensive use of guns by crime victims is a common occurrence, although the exact number remains disputed (Cook and Ludwig, 1996; Kleck, 2001a). Almost all national survey estimates indicate that defensive gun uses by victims are at least as common as offensive uses by criminals, with estimates of annual uses ranging from about 500,000 to more than 3 million (Kleck, 2001a), in the context of about 300,000 violent crimes involving firearms in 2008 (BJS, 2010). On the other hand, some scholars point to a radically lower estimate of only 108,000 annual defensive uses based on the National Crime Victimization Survey (Cook et al., 1997). The variation in these numbers remains a controversy in the field. The estimate of 3 million defensive uses per year is based on an extrapolation from a small number of responses taken from more than 19 national surveys. The former estimate of 108,000 is difficult to interpret because respondents were not asked specifically about defensive gun use.

Significantly, the CDC conducted surveys in 1996, 1997, and 1998, which found numbers which agreed with the majority of the surveys.  The CDC chose not to publish those numbers.

The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) is what those who oppose an armed population routinely refer to. It is the outlier. It is a very large survey, but it is not designed to determine the number of defensive gun uses.

Gary Kleck published a paper in 2018, on the sources of errors in surveys of defensive gun uses.  It appears the information was used to formulate the recent large survey, leveraging the latest technology to minimize errors.

The new survey has an order of magnitude greater respondents.

The previous surveys about defensive gun use started with less than 5,000 people. The 2021 National Firearms Survey starts with 54,000 people. Gun owners are determined from this initial number. 16,708 gun owners, self-identified from a carefully neutral question, participated in the more detailed survey. 15,450 completed all the questions. Over three times the number of gun owners complete the 2021 survey than the number of all respondents per survey in the previous multiple surveys outside the NCVS.

The NCVS interviews about 100,000 people, mostly by telephone.  The focus is not on gun ownership or defensive uses of guns.

The NFS of 2021 is the most careful, complete survey about gun ownership and defensive gun uses to date. There were enough respondents to gain statistical data by state and demographic groups.

Some key results of the National Firearms Survey, 2021:

  • About one-third of US adults own guns, 81.4 million people. The result is in close agreement with many polls.
  • 57.8% of gun owners are male. 42.2% are female.
  • The average gun owner owns five firearms.
  • Nearly 21 million gun owners carry defensive firearms in public with some frequency.
  • Over 25 million gun owners have used a gun in self-defense.
  • Defensive gun uses number between 1.67 million a year (reported in the survey by gun owners and extrapolated) to 2.8 million a year, based on research indicating about 40% of defensive gun uses are by people who do not personally own a gun.

This is a preliminary paper. The survey will be extensively analyzed in book form later. Several things stand out.

The number of firearms found in the survey agrees reasonably well with current estimates of private firearms in the United States. Five firearms times 81.4 million is 407 million firearms. The National Firearms Survey was done from February 17 to March 23, 2021.

The Small Arms Survey estimated 393 million private firearms in the US as of 2017.  Over 47 million private firearms have been added to the US stock from 2018 through the end of 2020. Adding those to the Small Arms Survey would predict 440 million privately owned firearms in the U.S.A. at the end of February 2021.

This Correspondent’s estimates, published on AmmoLand, calculate 468 million firearms at the end of February 2021, using the methods pioneered by Newton and Zimring, and extended by Gary Kleck in “Point Blank: Guns and Violence in America”. The 2020 and 2021 numbers are estimated from the National Instant background Check System (NICS).

The numbers are in contrast to a survey finished in 2015. The survey, done in collaboration at Harvard and Northeastern Universities, estimated the number of private guns in the US at 265 million, with only 45 million gun owners. The study agreed the average gun owner owned 5 guns. About 80.4 million private firearms have been added to the private stock from the end of 2015 to the end of February 2021.  Millions of new gun owners have been added as well. The updated estimate would be 345 million private firearms, making this estimate the lowest one.

The National Firearms Survey of 2021 estimated about 21 million gun owners carry guns in public with some frequency. This is in reasonably close agreement to the 19.48 million carry permits in the United States at the middle of 2020. As of September 2021, 21 states do not require a permit to carry a firearm concealed in most public places.

The estimates of defensive gun uses (DGU) each year of between 1.67 and 2.8 million in the NFS of 2021 are in reasonable agreement with most of the earlier, smaller, and less comprehensive surveys. The National Crime Victimization Survey remains an outlier. Professor Kleck expands on possible reasons for this in his paper published in 2018.

It is not difficult to see why increased restrictions on gun acquisition, ownership, and use are resolutely opposed in the United States. 25 million gun owners who have personal experience of using a gun for self-defense create a strong political force to contest such actions.  Most of the over 81 million gun owners in the United States likely have interaction with someone else in the gun culture who has personally used a firearm for self-defense.

About Dean Weingarten:

Dean Weingarten has been a peace officer, a military officer, was on the University of Wisconsin Pistol Team for four years, and was first certified to teach firearms safety in 1973. He taught the Arizona concealed carry course for fifteen years until the goal of Constitutional Carry was attained. He has degrees in meteorology and mining engineering, and retired from the Department of Defense after a 30 year career in Army Research, Development, Testing, and Evaluation.

Dean Weingarten

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Great up to date information. I will use/share in an upcoming NRA Home Firearm Safety class I will be teaching.


Very good info. Thank you!