How often do women really use guns in self-defense?

Women represent only a sliver of the gun-owning American population and – as much as Second Amendment proponents would like to think – they are seldom defending themselves with guns. At least, that’s what gun control advocates are saying.

A study on the subject published in partnership by online women’s magazine Marie Claire and the Harvard Injury Control Research Center found that 32 percent of women across the country live in a household with a gun, while only 12 percent of women actually own a gun themselves. The number of male gun-owning Americans towers over that of the opposite sex by nearly three times, the survey found.

Among the households that reported gun ownership, the Marie Claire-Harvard survey assumes a certain number could have included silenced opposition to having a gun in the home, which renders counting gun ownership by household ineffective in getting a true representation about how the greater population feels about guns.   

“Counting by household silences the voice of whoever lost the debate, if there was one,” Marie Claire wrote. “And in the important and demographically lopsided issue of gun ownership, the silenced voice is usually a woman’s.”

Marie Claire and gun violence news website The Trace – which gun rights advocates are wary of because it is funded by gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety – contend that the number of defensive gun uses (or DGUs) among women are insignificant and thus a firearm isn’t an effective means of protection. A gun in the home is more likely going to be used against a woman regardless of who owns it, making her three times as likely to be killed with it, gun violence prevention groups say.

An average of 554 American women are fatally shot by intimate partners each year, making it the people female victims know – and not strangers – the ones who pose the biggest threat to their safety, the Trace previously reported. reached out to the National Rifle Association for comment on this piece and did not receive a response by article publication, but the gun rights group recently held up a poll that found millennial women, between the ages of 18 and 35, value protecting gun rights just as much as they do the issues of abortion access and equal pay.

“I think this poll reflects that all Americans — not just young women — all Americans are increasingly looking to their Second Amendment as a way to protect themselves,” NRA spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen told last month. “It sort of carries on with the feminist tradition of empowerment. It emboldens women to take responsibility for their personal safety.”

Women are increasingly taking matters into their own hands, Mortensen said. Between 2011-2014, the NRA saw an 86 percent increase in women taking the group’s basic pistol course and saw a 46 percent increase in male participants the same four-year period.

So how are all these trained gun users not using their firearms to protect themselves and others like gun rights researchers Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz in 1995 estimated they did so 1.2 million times per year?

According to counter-research conducted in 1997 by David Hemenway, a Harvard School of Public Health professor who is also despised by the gun rights community, the number of DGU cases is overestimated, as it was based on the results of self-reported surveys, which give the respondent incentive to exaggerate or lie about an incident to make themselves look more heroic.

Hemenway based his research on National Crime Victimization Surveys and found that there only between 55,000 and 80,000 victims using guns in self-defense annually.

The authors have, of course, published a number of counter-arguments to one another’s assertions since the research was initially published almost two decades ago.

Each of the initial research papers now include an editor’s note from professor Tom W. Smith, senior fellow and director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Society at the University of Chicago, which points to a paper he wrote – “A Call for Truce in the DGU War” – to act as an objective voice of reason in an argument that predated the research by about a decade.

Smith concluded that Hemenway’s figures were too low because the victim surveys he based his research on didn’t account for crimes like trespassing, vandalism, and malicious mischief and didn’t directly ask the respondent about DGUs, which lead to under-reporting.

Smith found the Kleck-Gertz results were also off, with their reporting of DGUs too high. This was due, in part, to methodology.

“Finally, as [Kleck and Gertz] acknowledge, various statistics from their survey are wrong, questionable, or severely limited,” Smith wrote.

Smith also questioned the gun rights researcher’s findings that claimed a large number of DGUs – some 46.3 percent – are carried out by women.

If women are 21 percent of gun owners and approximately 14 percent of those who lawfully kill someone with a gun, Smith found it improbable  they would make up 41-46 percent of all DGUs.

“What is needed is less argumentation and speculation and more and better data,” Smith wrote. “Only by such further careful, empirical research will the errors in measuring DGUs be understood and the true level of DGUs ascertained.”

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