Some gun rights supporters dispute data on firearms used in self-defense

Obama sign executive orders
President Barack Obama signs a series of executive orders about the administration's new gun law proposals as children who wrote letters to the White House about gun violence, (L-R) Hinna Zeejah, Taejah Goode, Julia Stokes and Grant Fritz, look on in the Eisenhower Executive Office building, on Jan. 16, 2012 in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

More than 20 years ago, the CDC angered gun rights supporters when it reported that a gun in the home is more likely to be used on someone who lives there than on an intruder. Some Minnesota gun owners dispute the data. They say having a gun at home has helped them protect their families and their property.

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama announced proposals for reducing gun violence, including a directive to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to renew its research on gun injuries. The order states the CDC "shall conduct or sponsor research into the causes of gun violence and the ways to prevent it."

Late last year, the non-partisan Congressional Research Service issued a report on gun control legislation that included competing estimates of how often Americans use firearms in self-defense. The Bureau of Justice Statistics National Crime Victimization survey found that on average, about 62,000 Americans use a firearm to protect themselves each year and another 20,000 use a gun to protect their property. The report also cites a University of Florida survey which estimates that 2.5 million people a year use guns to protect themselves.

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One of the thousands, or perhaps millions, of instances where a gun was used in self-defense happened to Felicia Herman 21 years ago.

Herman was sleeping next to her, now late, husband in their south Minneapolis home when she felt someone touching her. Herman said she knew it wasn't her husband because he was sleeping on the other side of the bed.

"I remember thinking I was whispering, but apparently I was shouting, 'There's someone in the room,'" Herman said.

She said her husband yelled that he was getting his gun, as he grabbed a .22-caliber semi-automatic handgun from the bedroom and ran to the top of the stairs. She called the police, but said the burglars must have heard him mention the gun and fled.

"And they decided they did not want to see what kind of gun we were getting out," Herman said. "So, we did have a situation where we did in fact have no shots fired."

Herman is the widow of Joel Rosenberg, who was an author, gun rights activist and firearms trainer. Her experience is similar to that of some of the self-reported gun owners who responded to an MPR News survey of our Public Insight Network. About a dozen of the 87 respondents described an incident where they used a gun to defend themselves. Nearly all of them reported they did not have to pull the trigger. Several declined to disclose details.

One man from Eden Prairie described a situation where one night he was approached at a gas station by men carrying baseball bats. He said he reached into his car and grabbed his gun and holstered it so the men could see it. The would-be assailants turned away and left.

CONCLUSIONS BASED ON FLAWED DATA, CRITICS SAY

Herman, a research librarian, said she and Rosenberg decided to become gun owners after examining numerous sources of data. However, she thinks some of the information is flawed, and is particularly wary of the CDC's research conducted in the 1990s, which concluded that a gun in the home is more likely to be used to harm a resident than an intruder.

"I think the CDC has already taken themselves out of the field because they've already issued one politically biased report and there are many people who not trust them to do one that was unbiased," Herman said.

She believes the research is driven by anti-gun bias because it focuses too much on the presence of guns and not other factors that might influence outcomes. She and other gun rights activists accuse the CDC of using federal funds to advocate for gun control. In 1997, a rider attached to CDC funding stipulated that its funding could not be used for gun control advocacy.

"The public and special interest groups should know, scientists aren't doing this to make a political point," said Charles Branas, a PhD who conducts research at the Firearm and Injury Center at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine in Philadelphia.

"Scientists are doing this because they want to generate knowledge and figure out the truth about a particular question," Branas said.

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In this photo taken Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012, a customer checks out a shotgun at Burdett & Son Outdoor Adventure Shop in College Station, Texas. More civilians are armed in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world, with Yemen coming in a distant second, according to the Small Arms Survey in Geneva.
Pat Sullivan/ASSOCIATED PRESS

In 2009, the American Journal of Public Health published Branas' study on the link between gun possession and gun assault in Philadelphia between 2003 and 2006. The study involved 677 people who had been shot.

Branas concluded that on average, guns did not protect those who possessed them from being shot during an assault. He also concluded that while successful gun defense does happen, the probability of success is low.

"Users should either do one of two things: should rethink their possession of guns," Branas said. "Or, we said, at least if you're going to continue to possess the firearm, which is fine, they should understand that regular possession necessitates careful safety countermeasures."

Branas said he would like more research done on the subject, especially at the federal level.

On the local level, there is little information about the frequency of guns used in self-defense.

A Minneapolis Police Department spokesman said the department doesn't have data on incidences of people like Herman's husband, who chased an intruder out of their house with a gun. However, the department does keep data on justifiable homicides. There have been 10 killings over the last three years in Minneapolis that were committed in self-defense. In two of those cases, a person used a gun as protection: in 2010, a bar bouncer with a carry permit shot and killed a knife wielding attacker; In 2011, another permit carrier shot and killed a man who had stolen a woman's purse.

In the other eight justifiable killings, people used knives to defend themselves.

This story was produced with the help of the Public Insight Network. To become a source for Minnesota Public Radio, visit mprnews.org/insight.

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