What We Don’t (and Can’t) Know About Defensive Gun Uses Isn’t Great For Anti-Gunners’ Arguments

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After a mass shooting is thwarted by an armed citizen who wasn’t wearing a badge, we often see the same debate with the same tired talking points. “Yeah, but that almost never happens!” Or, if they want to sound sophisticated, they’ll call the defensive gun use a “statistical anomaly” or maybe just a “rounding error.”

The ones who are more intellectually honest will admit that it’s complicated and that defensive gun uses are in fact real, but want to say that criminal use or accidents with guns are more common than successful defenses, making guns a net negative.

The other angle the Civilian Disarmament Industrial Complex uses is to simply cook the books. As John Lott, Jr. has pointed out over and over again, most studies of mass shootings count everything that can possibly be counted in the United States, but then leave out many shootings overseas. Or worse, when they find a study that gives results they don’t like, they just bury it.

One way I’ve seen pro-gun groups try to counter this bad information is to regularly share the good things people do with firearms. For example, there’s the NRA’s Armed Citizen stories, or the Heritage Foundation’s DGU Tracker . . .

I don’t have anything bad to say about efforts to debunk inaccurate or misleading “data” or giving the public regular links to stories of armed self defense. These are important ways to help sway public opinion toward the truth and away from deception. But there’s an important thing they tend to leave out.

This problem is often called “survivorship bias”, but I like to call it the “Napoleon, like anyone can even know that” factor.

The Things We Can’t Know

No matter how carefully we go looking for pieces of information, they just can’t all be found. Defensive gun uses are definitely among those. While it would be a nearly impossible task, I suppose one could go through every single police report in a given year in the United States and pick out all of the defensive gun uses, but even that would leave a lot out.

For example, there are people who merely uncover a concealed gun, and their would-be attacker flees. It’s probably a good idea to call the cops at that point, but not everyone knows that. So such incidents tend to go unreported. The same is probably true for people who point a gun at an attacker who then flees without the trigger being pulled.

Getting gun owners to call the police after a non-shooting defensive gun use is impossible. There are people who (often rightfully) don’t trust their local police. They may possess the gun illegally in a place like New York or Los Angeles, or they could themselves not be lawfully present in the country. Or, they could fear discrimination based on some other factor. Or maybe they’re in possession of something illegal, like marijuana.

Even the best estimates of defensive gun use are probably off by a significant factor, which means the ratio of defensive to offensive gun uses is actually even more in favor of the argument for gun rights. This is nearly impossible to prove, though, so gun control supporters never believe or acknowledge it despite the solid logic showing that we’re vastly undercounting DGUs.

The Open Carry Debate

Another gun debate that happens within the gun rights community is the open vs. concealed carry debate. While this isn’t really an anti-gun argument, I have seen it used in legislative debates over open carry in places that haven’t always had it. So, in cases where it’s used against others’ right to open carry, it frequently is an anti-gun position. As to the practical argument over whether open carry is a good idea, not so much.

There’s one big problem with this debate…once again, “Like anyone can even know that” comes into play.

While we certainly can find anecdotes of people who were shot first or targeted for theft because they were carrying openly, we can also find anecdotes of people who prevented a crime through open carry deterrence. I’m one of those rare people who can give you a first-person account of this happening and may do that here some time in another article. The Pulse shooter’s ultimate choice of a target is another great example of being deterred by the presence of an openly armed opposition.

But, these stories are difficult to find compared to stories of open carry going wrong. Why? Because when it goes wrong and a citizen has their gun stolen or they’re killed, those incidents almost always make it into a police report and probably a media article. When a criminal decides not to rob a store or a terrorist decides to not shoot up a place, they’re not going to call the police or the local news station to tell that tale for very obvious reasons.

Does this mean open carry is a good idea? For most people, probably not. Comparing a quantifiable risk against an impossible to measure reward only leaves a big question mark. Add to this the fact that most people have little or no training in retention and defensive tactics and the answer shifts from a question mark to a fairly solid “No.”

But, that doesn’t mean we know much. We still have to admit that we’re making an educated guess.

More importantly, we also shouldn’t assume the opposite: that concealed carry is safe from theft or being attacked first. There are plenty of stories of people losing a gun in a scuffle and having it stolen…or worse things happening. Plus, many people carrying concealed might keep the gun hidden, but wear types of clothing and carry other equipment that makes it obvious that they’re probably carrying.

In other words: If you don’t know how to keep your gun from getting stolen, carrying concealed isn’t a good substitute for the failure to get the right training. In that case, what you don’t know really can hurt you.

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