Photo credit: mhogan35 via VisualHunt.com / CC BY

Defensive firearm use is a big topic, one that’s fraught with much anecdotal nonsense, and firearms training that doesn’t make any sense.  This article aims to correct that, by showing you 21 well researched statistics on defensive firearms use for civilians.  The article covers where these events happen, how they happen, and how effective the criminals really are.  As a bonus, you will also find out just how legal most defensive firearms uses are, as rated by criminal court judges.

Most folks that read this site have an interest in self protection, and many carry firearms on a regular basis; whether that’s professionally, as an LEO, military member, or as an armed civilian.

Having been all three, at various points in my life, I think it’s safe to say that I’ve seen the good, bad, and the ugly from each crowd, with many advocating tactics, and citing “facts” that either are dubious at best, or flat out wrong.

I believe it.

This article will focus on those facts and statistics that are related to the average civilian gun owner.  Yeah, it’s cool to pretend to be a Navy SEAL, except the high hair gel, and tanning bed costs, but stats relating to them won’t really help us normal folk out.

Our first order of business is to discuss those statistics related to just how common defensive gun use (DGU) is.

Defensive Gun Use 

There are really only a few ways that one can attempt to determine just how many DGUs there are in the US in any given year.  You can attempt to comb through police records, or you can take surveys.  The latter is much more accurate, because apparently, not all crimes get reported to the police. Who would have thought?

There have been both private, and public surveys that have attempted to determine the nature, and relative frequency of DGUs.  This study, is a telephone based survey that estimated between 1-2 million DGUs occur annually.

This is a much higher figure than most other survey’s estimate; with some as low as 70,000, and most hovering around 700,000 per year.  Most of the authors of the various studies agree that it’s difficult to know the true number, because most folks do not report these events, for fear that they may end up in legal trouble.
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The survey’s were quite interesting for other reasons though.  Check these stats out.


  • 29% of households with a DGU reported more than one in the last 5 years
  • 1% of survey takers reported DGU
  • 2.9% of gun owners reported DGU

To be honest this blew me away.  I’ve have always assumed, like many people do, that pulling a gun was a very rare thing, and it was almost certainly a once in a lifetime thing.  This appears not to be the case.

It looks like roughly a third of households, with a DGU, have more than one in a 5 year period.  If you read the studies, you will see that some people report as many 14 DGUs in a 5 year period.

If you like this kind of well researched article, and want the latest articles sent directly to you, put your email in on the right.  If you don’t, I’ll assume you’re too busy looking at dino porn.  Yeah it’s a thing.  Don’t ask.

As a police officer, and general owner of common sense, I’d say legally that pulling a gun that many times is probably not legal, and even if it were legal, you might want to examine your life, when you are pulling a gun on someone every month or two. Especially since the studies did their best to screen out criminals, military, police, and security guards, which all would have used their weapons at a much higher rate.

Now that we see about how common they are, let us take a look into some of the details of the average DGU

Defensive Gun Use Details 

I’ve already covered a lot of the particulars in other articles namely this one, and this one, but these stats are a little different and haven’t been covered before. They will be focusing on the specifics of DGU from the criminal’s perspective, including their efficacy, and their patterns of weapon usage.


  • 24% of DGUs involved defenders firing weapons
  • Only 3% percent of DGUs involved exchanging gun fire
  • 53% of cases had multiple offenders
  • 72% occurred in and around defender’s home
  • A 10 state sample of inmates stated that 34% have been scared off by firearms

The important thing to note here is that most of these incidents are not Hollywood gunfights.  In fact, reading through the study cited above you will see that most offenders aren’t actually armed with a weapon when the defender uses their gun.

It is also important to point out that the most common use of a firearm is brandishing it, with the second being informing the offender that you are armed.  Even in cases where a gun is fired, it is often not aimed at killing anyone, merely scaring them away.

So even though you wear 5.11 pants and Oakley’s, you probably aren’t likely to get into a firefight, regardless of how cool you look sitting in a black SUV.
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Criminals and Their Guns 

This section will cover the types of guns criminals carry, and the condition in which they carry them.  If you want even more info on this, you can check out this article which is based on interviews with criminals who killed cops.


  • 28% of guns confiscated by police where unloaded
  • 5% less than fully loaded
  • 2% loaded with wrong caliber ammo
  • 57% were fully loaded
  • 41% of firearms were non functional (no ammo/broken mechanically)

These stats come from Greg Ellifritz, who among other things, processes seized firearm for his police department, when he’s not training police officers, and civilians in defensive shooting.

He works for a fairly small department in Ohio, but these stats are surprising.  It’s crazy to think that almost half of the guns, that his department came across, could not have functioned.

Obviously, we can’t assume that a criminal’s gun is non operational, in a self defense scenario, but it does explain the fairly common weapons malfunctions criminals experience.

This leads us to our final question. How effective can criminals with weapons shoot?

Criminal Firearm Proficiency 

Unfortunately this isn’t a well studied area.  Apparently no one wants to give hardened criminals guns, just to see how well they shoot them. We do; however, have the next best thing.

The Force Science Institute recently completed a study where they compared shooting proficiency between, novice, intermediate and expert shooters.  Novices were police recruits who had not completed firearms training, and had no previous experience with firearms.  Intermediates had shot before, but had no significant pistol experience.  Experts had graduated from the police academy.

They were then given three rounds to fire from three different distances.  They were told to shoot as fast and accurately as possible, at a cardboard target.  So no force on force here, but the results were surprising.

New shooter are still dangerous

This shows that those without any pistol shooting experience are still able to hit a man sized target 75% of the time at 5 yards and in.  Of course this would be a little different had this been a live, force on force scenario, as all participant’s accuracy would be degraded.

This highlights a few things to me.  One, skill matters when the distance increases.  Two, police training doesn’t really convey expertise with a pistol, only basic competence.  Check out this article on why you should consider competition shooting to take your self defense skills to the next level.

Legality 

The elephant in the room, that we have not addressed yet, are the amount of DGUs that are actually lawful.  Well thanks to this Harvard study we can answer that question.

They did two rounds of telephone interviews like other researchers have done, but they went one step further.  They turned over the cases that seemed legitimate to a panel of criminal court judges.  Check out these stats based upon the judge’s review.


  • 20% of cases could not be determined with the info available, were excluded
  • 51% of cases were rated as likely illegal
  • 43% of cases were rated as likely legal
  • 6% of cases had no majority opinion

These stats should be sobering to responsible gun owners.  The majority of the DGUs were most likely illegal.  It should also be stated that the researchers told the judges to assume that the defender had a legal permit to carry.  These judges were strictly looking at the self reported actions of the defenders.

I would also hazard a guess that these scenarios were presented in the most favorable light by the defenders, as most folks aren’t in a hurry to admit to breaking the law to strangers.  I would bet that if both sides of the story, relating to the DGU were examined, you would see even higher amounts of illegal DGU use.

Here’s and example of an illegal action DGU from the Harvard study.

“A 62 year old male said that at 6 pm “the police called. My alarm at my business went off so I went there to shut it off. Two men were outside my building, so from my car I shot at the ground near them”. The respondent said the men were trespassing.”

The takeaway here is that you need to get some training in the legal use of firearms.  Knowing how to shoot is good, knowing when to shoot is better.

I recommend this book called, The Law of Self Defense, by Attorney Andrew Branca.  He is an attorney that specializes in armed citizen self defense cases.  In fact his practice is based solely on consulting with other attorney’s to help them better handle this type of specialized law.  The link is an Amazon Affiliate Link.

Conclusion

Many of these stats have been quite sobering, and have real implications for our self defense training.  First, we all need to go through some solid legal training and educate ourselves.

The next implication is that we need realize that a lot of criminals weapon’s do not function, but when they do, they are likely as accurate as the average joe who shoots a few times a year.  This is directly contradictory to those who always think that criminals can’t possibly be accurate shooters.

Understand that these scenarios are not likely to occur at all, but if you want to be prepared, you will have to master more advanced shooting such as: drawing and shooting on the move, as well as shooting in a time compressed environment.  As always keep training, and post your questions and comments below.

 

 

5 COMMENTS

  1. Didn’t bother to read the article. Can’t get past the picture at the top. Do you not see how this kind of stuff destroys your credibility?

  2. Are there any stats which show the number of “innocent bystanders” if any, accidentally shot by the Defender while defending themselves?

    • I haven’t looked into it, but I’d imagine there are probably some. I think the real issue is accuracy. You’d probably have to comb police records at the local level to get truly accurate stats though.

  3. I’m not surprised some people have repeated DGUs. It depends on your neighborhood and your job. You’re more likely to carry and thus need to do a DGU if you live in a bad area or carry a firearm professionally (security guard, etc.). But if you have multiple DGUs without them being professionally – it’s time to move out of Kandahar, as the saying goes

    “53% of cases had multiple offenders” – so much for relying on that five- or six-shot revolver – despite the statistics that show only few shots fired and only 24% of the time the guns are fired at all and only 3% involve exchanges, a revolver (or single-stack semi-auto) just doesn’t carry enough ammo – even if most of the assailants flee at the first shot, some won’t.

    Plan for the outliers: carry a double-stack or at least ten round single-stack and carry either a spare mag or a backup gun – or both.

    “28% of guns confiscated by police where unloaded” – Amazing. People carry unloaded guns? Insane. You have to be wanting to commit suicide.

    “2% loaded with wrong caliber ammo” – That is just awesomely stupid… These are people who get their guns and ammo from people they know and don’t have a clue about what they were handed.

    “41% of firearms were non functional (no ammo/broken mechanically)” – Also amazing.

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