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Gun Threats and Self-Defense Gun Use | Harvard Injury Control Research Center | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health


The debate around gun ownership and its role in self-defense is contentious. Many claim that guns are used millions of times each year in self-defense. However, extensive research reveals that this figure is vastly overestimated. This article aims to shed light on the true nature of self-defense gun use and dispel common myths associated with it.

The Myth of Millions of Self-Defense Uses

Claims that guns are used millions of times annually in self-defense are widespread. However, these assertions do not hold up under scrutiny. Epidemiological theory can explain why the “false positive” problem for rare events leads to large overestimates. Research by Hemenway et al. has shown that the claim of many millions of annual self-defense gun uses by American citizens is invalid.


Self-Defense or Escalating Arguments?

Most purported self-defense gun use occurs during escalating arguments and is both socially undesirable and illegal. Data from national surveys conducted by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center indicate that a majority of these cases are unlawful, even when the respondent had a permit to own and carry a gun.


Firearms: Tools of Intimidation

Firearms are used far more often to intimidate than in self-defense. A national survey revealed that guns are frequently used to frighten and intimidate rather than to protect.


Guns in the Home: Intimidation Over Protection

Guns in the home are more often used to intimidate intimates than to thwart crime. Other weapons are far more commonly used against intruders than guns.


Adolescents and Gun Threats

Adolescents are more likely to be threatened with a gun than to use one in self-defense. A survey of California adolescents found that gun threats were more common than self-defense gun use, which often involved hostile interactions.


Criminals as Victims

Criminals who are shot are typically victims of crime. Surveys of detainees in Washington D.C. jails showed that most were shot during robberies, assaults, and crossfires, not by “law-abiding citizens.”


The Rarity and Effectiveness of Self-Defense Gun Use

Self-defense gun use is rare and not more effective at preventing injury than other protective actions. The National Crime Victimization Surveys indicate that guns are used in less than 1% of contact crimes, and there is little evidence that self-defense gun use reduces the likelihood of injury or property loss.



This article provides accurate information concerning self-defense gun use, debunking many myths about its prevalence and effectiveness. The evidence shows that the purported benefits of gun ownership for self-defense are vastly exaggerated. In many cases, guns are more likely to be used for intimidation rather than protection. Understanding these facts is crucial for making informed decisions about gun ownership and public safety.


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