Defensive Firearms Use Is Common, Largest-Ever Survey of U.S. Gun Owners Finds

According to the largest ever American gun owner survey, self-defense is used by Americans approximately 1.7 million times per year. Also, it confirms that AR-15-style rifles as well as magazines holding more than 10 round are common uses for lawful purposes. The Supreme Court has stated that this is the benchmark for weapons covered under the Second Amendment.

Centiment conducted the online survey in February 2021 and March 2021. It was taken from a sample of approximately 54,000 people, 16708 were gun owners. William English (Georgetown University’s political economist) commissioned the survey for a book project. The major results of the survey are presented in a new paper that is available at the Social Science Research Network.

Gallup’s survey found that 32 percent of adults own guns. This is in line with the Pew Research Center’s recent research. The survey also shows that gun ownership rates vary across ethnicities and racial groups. It was 25 percent for African Americans and 28 percent for Hispanics. 19% among Asians and 34 percent of whites. About 58 percent were gun owners owned by men.

Due to its unusually large sample size, this survey was able produce estimates specific to each state which are more reliable and accurate than other estimates. The gun ownership rate ranged between 16 and 50 percent in Massachusetts, Hawaii and Idaho to over 50 percent in West Virginia and West Virginia.

According to the survey, Americans have 415 million guns, which includes 171 million handguns and 146 million rifles. There are also 98 million shotguns. A third of the respondents said they have owned AR-15s and similar rifles in their lives. These weapons are considered “assault weapon” by several states, as well as a federal ban. This legislation often places a maximum magazine capacity limit of 10 rounds. Nearly half of the respondents (48 percent) said they had ever owned  magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds.

These results highlight the challenges legislators face in trying to eradicate “assault weapon” and “large-capacity” magazines. According to the survey, up to 44,000,000 AR-15-style rifles are in use and 542,000,000 magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds each are currently available.

These are high-bound estimates because people may later sell the magazines or rifles they own. Even allowing double counting these figures show how unlikely it is that bans would have any significant effect on the criminal use targeted products. However, bans can be challenged constitutionally if there is widespread ownership of these products by law-abiding Americans.

Two-thirds reported that AR-15-style rifles they owned were used for target shooting. The other half mentioned hunting, and the third said that they were used for competitive shooting. Sixty two percent of respondents said that such rifles were used for their own defense. 35 percent mentioned using them outside the home. However, politicians who wish to ban such rifles claim they can only be used for mass murder.

The owners of large capacity magazines also cited many legal uses. The most popular use of large capacity magazines was for recreational target shooting (64%), followed by hunting (47%), defense at home (42%) and competitive shooting (27%).

A 10-round limit would be a good idea, as it will make no difference to criminals or officers. Respondents described a variety of situations in which a weapon with a capacity greater than 10 rounds would be helpful for defense purposes. This included encounters with wild animal, multiple attackers or home invasions.

Perhaps these gun owners thought it was wrong that they believed the capability to fire 10+ rounds with no reloading was crucial in such situations. They had good reasons, judging by the English quotes and responses. Current and former police officers are exempted from bans on large capacity magazines on the grounds that they may be vulnerable to threats that could require them more than 10 rounds. The assumption that citizens don’t face threats like this is a stretch of credulity. This survey supports that belief.

A third of those who own guns claimed that they used their firearms to defend themselves or others, and often multiple times. The vast majority of incidents, 82 percent, did not include firing a firearm, or injuring, killing, an attacker. This is consistent with previous research. Respondents reported that mentioning or brandishing a gun was sufficient to end the threat in more than 4/5 of cases.

This fact helps to explain wide variations in defensive gun usage estimates. Self-reports by gun owners might not be completely reliable. They could be exaggerated or mistaken. It is easy to forget about the many other situations that result in less dramatic results by limiting our analysis to only cases where an attacker has been wounded or killed.

A majority of defensive gun use identified in the survey was involving more than one attacker. The survey found that four-fifths of defensive gun uses were within the gun owner’s residence or on his own property. Nine percent occurred in public places and three percent at work. Handguns ranked first (66%), then shotguns (21%), and rifles (13%).

English’s estimate that firearms owners use guns defensively in around 1.67 million incidents each year is based on the reported incidents. English does not count cases in which people used guns to defend themselves, as this could be why English’s number is lower than the previous estimate of Marc Gertz and Gary Kleck from Florida State University. Kleck and Gertz figured the annual figure at over 2 million based on a 1993 phone survey that included a smaller sampling.

English’s survey identified that only one-tenth of all defensive gun usages occurred in public spaces. But, the majority of respondents (56%), said they have carried handguns in self defense. Over a third (35%) of the respondents stated that they had carried guns for self-defense at least once a month. A similar percentage said they wanted to be able to carry guns in situations where it was prohibited by local laws.

The ability to carry a handgun in public was not the same across all jurisdictions at the time. Some states had extremely restrictive laws which allowed local officials to deny carry permit applications. A policy the Supreme Court recently found unconstitutional. Even though that decision was overturned, many states intend to continue to enforce location and licensing restrictions which make it hard for citizens to possess handguns for self defense. The results of the survey can be interpreted in two ways depending on who you are.

English also wanted to know about instances in which gun-wielding customers believed the presence of guns had negated a potential violent threat. According to English, this would be “a scenario in which a hostile customer has calmed after seeing that the owner of the shop had a pistol on her hip or when a trespasser cooperately vacates a property while being interrogated by a landowner with a rifle over his/her shoulder or an instance in which a friend shows up with a firearm in order to aid.” [defuse] a dangerous situation.”

These incidents were reported by nearly a third gun owners. Many others said that they have witnessed these types of incidents more than once. English states that the findings indicate “approximately 1.5 Million incidents each year.” [in]The presence of a gun deters criminal activity. This estimate is based on subjective perceptions of the respondents, and is therefore less reliable than that of the explicit defensive use estimate. However, it does open up to questions regarding the reliability of the responses’ memories and interpretations. The results, even if taken with a pinch of salt suggest that other studies could grossly underestimate the gun’s defensive value.