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As far as I understand, the main argument for US-Americans having guns is to protect themselves.

I am wondering if there are statistics which show

  1. How often a civilian US-American person saved his life (or someone else's life) via his private gun.
  2. If 1 exists, which kind of gun was used in this case.
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    Note that, technically, it is near impossible to compile accurate statistics which accurately show how often this actually happens. There are statistics about reported incidents, and about confirmed incidents, but that is not quite the same. There will be lots of instances of people claiming they fended off an attack with a gun when really the noise outside was just an animal, or where there was a person but they didn't mean any harm, or other false positives. Likewise, there will be many people who successfully defend themselves with a gun but never report it. It goes both ways. – Aaron Aug 10 at 2:36
  • To add some anecdotes, I know a woman who carries a handgun in her purse who used it to scare away a mugger in a parking lot. She never reported the incident, I think because the handgun was not legal. Personally, I have been threatened at least twice that I recall right now, both times from attackers with weapons (not guns), and having a gun would have increased my odds of thwarting attackers - for the first I barely kept an attacker at bay with my knife, and for the second I was fortunate to have someone come to my assistance. Me with a gun would undoubtedly have improved the situation. – Aaron Aug 10 at 2:55
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    @Aaron The question is "How often did guns safe a life". We don't know about the first case, but in your own two cases having a gun wouldn't have saved anyone's life, because you are alive without a gun. I can very much understand that having a gun, or the person coming to your assistance having a gun, would have made you feel a lot safer. But the question was about "saving someone's life". – gnasher729 Aug 11 at 22:01
  • @gnasher729 But there is a fine line between the two. If you don't count instances where someone narrowly escaped injury but easily might not have, where their odds would have been much improved with a gun, then your findings will be just another set of deceiving statistics which don't paint a picture in context. – Aaron Aug 12 at 15:58
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[edit] tl;dr: in the period 2014-2016, official statistics show that a firearm was used by a victim to protect themselves in 1.1% of the cases of violent crime. There is no detail about whether or not a life was saved as a result. There is no detail either about the type of firearm used, except in the specific case of justifiable homicides: handgun 76.6%, rifle 4.2%, shotgun 4.6%, other 0.4%, unknown 14.2% (period 2012-2016).

The Violence Policy Center published in July 2019 a report entitled "Firearm Justifiable Homicides and Non-Fatal Self-Defense Gun Use". This analysis is based on data from the FBI and the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The data analyzed covers the years 2012 to 2016. As its title suggests, the report analyses the statistics in two cases:

  • Homicides in legitimate self-defense with a firearm by a private citizen
  • The use of guns for self-defense by the victims of both attempted and completed violent crimes and property crimes (whether or not the use of the gun resulted in a fatality)

Here is a selection of the key findings: [selection mine]

Firearm justifiable homicides

[edit] Justifiable homicides don't cover all the cases of self-protective use of a firearm. However there are more detailed statistics available for these cases (gender, race, relationship and type of firearm), this is why they are relevant to this question.

  • In 2016, across the nation there were only 274 justifiable homicides involving a private citizen using a firearm reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program as detailed in its Supplementary Homicide Report (SHR). That same year, there were 10,341 criminal gun homicides tallied in the SHR. In 2016, for every justifiable homicide in the United States involving a gun, guns were used in 37 criminal homicides. And this ratio, of course, does not take into account the tens of thousands of lives ended in gun suicides or unintentional shootings that year.

  • In 2016, 19 states reported no justifiable homicide

  • In 2016, 34.3 percent (94 of 274) of persons killed in a firearm justifiable homicide were known to the shooter,6 47.8 percent (131) were strangers, and in 17.9 percent (49) the relationship was unknown.

  • In 2016, of the 274 firearm justifiable homicides, 88.0 percent (241) were committed by men, 10.9 percent (30) were committed by women, and in three cases (1.1 percent) the sex of the shooter was unknown.

  • [edit] In 2016, firearms were used in 83.8 percent of justifiable homicides (274 of 327). Of these: 71.5 percent (196) were handguns; 3.6 percent (10) were shotguns; 4.0 percent (11) were rifles; 20.4 percent (56) were firearm, type not stated; and, 0.4 percent (one) were other gun. For the five-year period 2012 through 2016, firearms were used in 81.9 percent of justifiable homicide incidents (1,233 of 1,505). Of these: 76.6 percent (944) were handguns; 4.6 percent (57) were shotguns; 4.2 percent (52) were rifles; 14.2 percent (175) were firearm, type not stated; and, 0.4 percent (five) were other gun.

How often are guns used in self-defense whether or not a criminal is killed?

  • According to the NCVS, looking at the total number of self-protective behaviors undertaken by victims of both attempted and completed violent crime for the three-year period 2014 through 2016, in only 1.1 percent of these instances had the intended victim in resistance to a criminal “threatened or attacked with a firearm."

The report notes that "the number may also include off-duty law enforcement officers who use their firearms in self-defense".

The report contains a table detailing the different types of "self-protective behaviors by type of crime" for the period 2014-2016. The report analyzes the number depending on the type of crime:

Violent crimes

  • According to the NCVS, looking at the total number of self-protective behaviors undertaken by victims of both attempted and completed violent crime for the three-year period 2014 through 2016, in only 1.1 percent of these instances had the intended victim in resistance to a criminal “threatened or attacked with a firearm.” As detailed in the chart on the next page, for the three-year period 2014 through 2016, the NCVS estimates that there were 16,115,500 victims of attempted or completed violent crime. During this same three-year period, only 177,300 of the self-protective behaviors involved a firearm.

Property crimes

  • According to the NCVS, looking at the total number of self-protective behaviors undertaken by victims of attempted or completed property crime for the three-year period 2014 through 2016, in only 0.3 percent of these instances had the intended victim in resistance to a criminal threatened or attacked with a firearm.

  • For the three-year period 2014 through 2016, the NCVS estimates that there were 45,816,900 victims of attempted or completed property crime. During this same three-year period, only 123,800 of the self-protective behaviors involved a firearm. [...] In comparison, a 2017 study estimated that there are approximately 250,000 gun theft incidents per year, with about 380,000 guns stolen. Further, according to the FBI, firearms were used in 189,718 aggravated assaults and 125,289 robberies in the United States in 2016 alone

Additionally, the report debunks the claim that guns are used in self-defense 2.5 millions times a year:

Using the NCVS numbers, for the three-year period 2014 through 2016, the total number of self-protective behaviors involving a firearm by victims of attempted or completed violent crimes or property crimes totaled only 301,100. In comparison, the gun lobby claims that during the same three-year period guns were used 7.5 million times in self defense (applying to the three-year period the gun lobby’s oft-repeated claim, noted earlier, that firearms are used in self defense 2.5 million times a year).


[edit to answer Joe's comments about the claim of 2.5 millions self-defense gun uses a year]

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    This answer quickly got multiple downvotes: anyone who thinks there are any real problems with this answer please share, it would be good to know if any of this information is bad. – Aaron Aug 10 at 3:04
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    Downvoters: Do you just not like the data given? – BobE Aug 10 at 3:04
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    I’ve downvoted because: 1. Justifiable homicide is not the most expected outcome from self defense use, 2. The report is likely underestimating deterence effect of having openly armed people on 3. The report creates a straw man by taking a number that a particular study found (which is only cited as being from “the gun lobby”, an implicit ad hominem) and multiplying it by 3, 4. There is no attempt to answer the second part of the question. – Joe Aug 10 at 10:14
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    @Joe: about 3. the link to skeptics or a simple google search shows that the "2.5 millions a year" of defensive use is used a lot by gun advocates, so it's not a straw man argument. The extrapolation to 3 years is indeed an extrapolation, but so is the original number of 2.5 millions. an argument qualify as "ad hominem" if it targets the opponent rather than their claim, which is not the case here. – Erwan Aug 10 at 12:16
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    Also, my criticism of citing justifiable homicides is not that they are not relevant, it is that focusing on that number ignores the vast majority of defensive firearms use, where nobody dies. – Joe Aug 10 at 13:09
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For attacks by an active shooter :

6 out of 277 since 2000 ; 2 out of 27 in 2018 (cases of stopping the shooter, it is impossible to know if lives were saved)

FBI and and ALERRT center (Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training) publish each year a report about events involving an active shooter. There has been 277 such events (excluding fights in-between criminals and gang violence) between 2000 and 2018.

In all those cases, 9 armed potential victims have retaliated, including 6 civilians (one was an off-duty cop, two were security agents).


Zooming to year 2018, among 27 cases, civilians have stopped the shooter five times.

In 3 of those 5 cases, the civilians who stopped the shooter were unarmed.

In one case (Jeffersontown, Kt, October 2018), the civilian was armed but didn't shoot.

In one case (Oklahoma city, OK, May 2018), two armed civilians shot and killed the agressor.


It is obviously impossible to know if lives were saved by the armed civilians in any precise case, or how many. In Sutherland Springs, TX, November 2017, the shooter was killed by an armed neighbor when he left the church where he had killed 25 people - the only occurrence in the 21st century of the author of a mass murder being killed by an armed civilian. On the one hand the shooter was killed after the mass murder, in his flight. On the other hand no one can know if he would have committed more crimes later on.

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We can try to find the number of cases where use of a gun saved a life (meaning a life that would have otherwise been lost to a crime).

We start with the opposite: The number of lives that were not saved. In 2017, there were about 15,000 victims of "murder and non-negligent manslaughter" in the USA. (That's homicide, not gun victims. And the 40,000 gun deaths that you read about is to a huge extent suicide, accidents, or in some way justified killing.)

Elsewhere it was quoted that "official statistics show that a firearm was used by a victim to protect themselves in 1.1% of the cases of violent crime". If we assume the same rate for homicide, that would be about 165 lives saved.

That number will not be accurate. The 1.1% was "use of a firearm", it doesn't say the numbers of "successful use of a firearm". Murderers are usually more dangerous than pickpockets, so it would be possible that people draw a gun to protect someone from a pickpocket, but would run away instead of protecting someone from murder. Or it might be the other way round, that more people draw a gun to protect someone from being murdered than from having their wallet stolen.

Drawing a gun is always dangerous. If the choice is "draw a gun or be killed" everyone would draw a gun. If the choice is "draw a gun or have your wallet taken" many would hand over the wallet, because drawing a gun risks a dangerous escalation.

There's also the question how many of the 15,000 are victims of "violent crime" where someone might have protected them with a gun. For example, Harold Shipman murdered about 200 people in the UK as a family doctor. Guns wouldn't have helped, because nobody knew what he was doing. So we would need to know how many of the 15,000 never were in a situation that they considered dangerous, but were poisoned, murdered in their sleep and so on. And then there is the number of cases where someone drew a gun but was killed anyway.

All in all, I think the number 165 is something of a guess, but not totally unreasonable. And getting statistics about the real numbers is practically impossible, because by definition all these cases were not homicide - if I use a gun successfully to prevent a murder, then it's not murder anymore but attempted murder.

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