Gary Kleck, a Florida State University criminologist who is the source of a debunked claim that critics say dramatically exaggerated the frequency of defensive gun use, recently served on a committee tasked by the federal government with creating a potential research agenda focusing on ways to minimize gun violence.
The committee, formed by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council at the request of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in response to an executive order President Obama signed in January following the Newtown school shooting, recently issued its report, titled “Priorities for Research to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence.”
The committee of 14, led by Alan I. Leshner of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was tasked with developing “a potential research agenda focusing on the public health aspects of firearm-related violence-- its causes, approaches to interventions that could prevent it, and strategies to minimize its health burden.” The report calls for a research program to be implemented by the CDC and other agencies and private foundations and “designed to produce impacts in 3-5 years” that focuses on the characteristics of firearm violence and risk and protective factors, among other issues.
Kleck is best known for his 1995 study with Marc Gertz that claims that up to 2.5 million incidents of defensive gun use occur every year. Media figures and the National Rifle Association frequently cite this study to bolster their claims that owning firearms makes people safer.
But critics point to the study's “serious methodological difficulties” -- it extrapolates a very rare event, the slightly more than one percent of respondents to a survey that said they had used a gun in self-defense over the past year, to the entire population of 200 million adults. This means that even slight deficiencies in the accuracy of the survey, whether due to false positives or a sample that is not perfectly indicative of the overall population, can lead to large differences in the result. Harvard Injury Control Research Center Director David Hemenway has labeled Kleck's result “an enormous overestimate” and pointed out that the results require one to believe, for instance, that “burglary victims use their guns in self-defense more than 100% of the time.”
Contra Kleck, data from the National Crime Victimization survey produced by the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics suggests that there are roughly 100,000 instances of defensive gun use per year.
Right-wing media have pointed to the report's citation of Kleck's research to claim that it proves that “guns actually save lives.” In fact, the report's treatment of the criminologist's work is more complex, typically contrasting his results with other studies that show dramatically different results. For example, the report states (emphasis added):
Estimates of gun use for self-defense vary widely, in part due to definitional differences for self-defensive gun use, different data sources, and questions about accuracy of data, particularly when self-reported. The NCVS has estimated 60,000 to 120,000 defensive uses of guns per year. Based on data from l992 and l994, the NCVS found 116,000 incidents (McDowall et al., 1998). Another body of research estimated annual gun use for self-defense to be much higher, up to 2.5 million incidents, suggesting that self-defense can be an important crime deterrent (Kleck and Gertz, 1995). Some studies on the association between self-defensive gun use and injury or loss to the victim have found less loss and injury when a firearm is used (Kleck, 2001b).
Similarly (emphasis added):
Defensive uses of guns by crime victims is a common occurrence, although the exact number remains disputed (Cook and Ludwig, 1996; Kleck, 2001a). Almost all national survey estimates indicate that defensive gun uses by victims are at least as common as offensive uses by criminals, with estimates of annual uses ranging from about 500,000 to more than 3 million per year (Kleck, 2001a), in the context of about 300,000 violent crimes involving firearms in 2008 (BJS, 2010). On the other hand, some scholars point to radically lower estimate of only 108,000 annual defensive uses based on the National Crime Victimization Survey (Cook et al., 1997). The variation in these numbers remains a controversy in the field. The estimate of 3 million defensive uses per year is based on an extrapolation from a small number of responses taken from more than 19 national surveys. The former estimate of 108,000 is difficult to interpret because respondents were not asked specifically about defensive gun use.
A spokesperson for the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council would not comment on Kleck's controversial presence on the committee, but explained that the committee was selected by staff based on “folks that are nominated” with an eye toward providing “enough expertise to address all of the questions” at issue as well as “these different perspectives and points of view with the expertise.” She stressed that the slate was approved by the president of the National Academy of Science and that all members must sign off on the report before its release.
Kleck and Leshner did not respond to requests for comment.