The largest and most comprehensive survey of American gun owners ever conducted suggests that they use firearms in self-defense about 1.7 million times a year. It also confirms that AR-15-style rifles and magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, frequent targets of gun control legislation, are in common use for lawful purposes, which the Supreme Court has said is the test for arms covered by the Second Amendment. …
Thirty-one percent of the gun owners said they had used a firearm to defend themselves or their property, often on multiple occasions. As in previous research, the vast majority of such incidents (82 percent) did not involve firing a gun, let alone injuring or killing an attacker. In more than four-fifths of the cases, respondents reported that brandishing or mentioning a firearm was enough to eliminate the threat.
That reality helps explain the wide divergence in estimates of defensive gun uses. The self-reports of gun owners may not be entirely reliable, since they could be exaggerated, mistaken, or dishonest. But limiting the analysis to cases in which an attacker was wounded or killed, or to incidents that were covered by newspapers or reported to the police, is bound to overlook much more common encounters with less dramatic outcomes.
About half of the defensive gun uses identified by the survey involved more than one assailant. Four-fifths occurred inside the gun owner’s home or on his property, while 9 percent happened in a public place and 3 percent happened at work. The most commonly used firearms were handguns (66 percent), followed by shotguns (21 percent) and rifles (13 percent).
Based on the number of incidents that gun owners reported, [Georgetown University political economist William] English estimates that “guns are used defensively by firearms owners in approximately 1.67 million incidents per year.” That number does not include cases where people defended themselves with guns owned by others, which could help explain why English’s figure is lower than a previous estimate by Florida State University criminologists Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz. Based on a 1993 telephone survey with a substantially smaller sample, Kleck and Gertz put the annual number at more than 2 million.
Although less than one in 10 of the defensive gun uses identified by English’s survey happened in public places, most of the respondents (56 percent) said they had carried handguns for self-defense. More than a third (35 percent) said they did so “sometimes,” “often,” or “always or almost always.” About the same percentage reported that they had wanted to carry handguns in circumstances where local rules prohibited it.