New Violence Policy Center “study” on guns recycles old claims using Justifiable Homicide data

Jun 17, 2015 | Featured

The Hill Newspaper reports on a “new” Violence Police Center (VPC) study (other publicity in the LA Times, New York Times, Washington PostHuffington Post, among many others).

A new study attempts to debunk the claim that gun owners rely on their firearms for self-defense.

The Violence Policy Center released a study Wednesday that finds people are much more likely to use a gun to kill someone without cause than to protect themselves.

According to the study, gun owners committed 259 justifiable homicides compared to 8,342 criminal homicides in 2012, the most recent year data was available.

That means gun owners are 32 times more likely to kill someone without cause than to act in self-defense, the study reasoned. . . .

The comparison of justifiable homicide numbers to murders with guns is a very old claim.  Of course, why anyone would put weight on a Violence Policy Center study is a mystery (for their errors on other issues see here, here and here).  The problems with the current claims are as follows.

1) The data on justifiable homicides is useless.  The definition used by the FBI is very limited.   From the UCR Handbook (pp. 17-18):

NOTE: Justifiable homicide, by definition, occurs in conjunction with other offenses. Therefore, the crime being committed when the justifiable homicide took place must be reported as a separate offense. Reporting agencies should take care to ensure that they do not classify a killing as justifiable or excusable solely on the claims of self-defense or on the action of a coroner, prosecutor, grand jury, or court.

The following scenario illustrates an incident known to law enforcement that reporting agencies would not consider Justifiable Homicide:

17. While playing cards, two men got into an argument. The first man attacked the second with a broken bottle. The second man pulled a gun and killed his attacker. The police arrested the shooter; he claimed self-defense.

But this narrow definition is combined with the fact that most jurisdictions don’t report these numbers and even the ones that do so are missing lots of cases.  It is very bad for police (only about 1 percent of police departments report justifiable homicides by police and see also here) and the numbers are even worse for civilian justifiable homicides.  Even the places that report this data don’t really have any incentive to get the numbers correct.  For example, see this investigative study for Michigan.

One reason those numbers are low is simple, MLive’s investigation found.

Police are reporting the cases as criminal homicides. When it’s later determined to be justifiable, they don’t change the easy-to-recode electronic records. It’s as simple as changing a “1” to a “4.”

That was the case in Kalamazoo County, where FBI statistics show only one justifiable homicide between 2000 and 2010. There were eight, three by civilians and five by police, MLive found.

“It’s all a data-input problem,” Kalamazoo Public Safety Chief Jeff Hadley said. “What happens is when the initial reports are generated, it’s coded as a homicide. It never gets recoded.” . . .

In addition, while more than half the states report a justifiable homicide number, that hides the fact that very few jurisdictions within those states that report the number actually compiled the numbers.

2) The notion that one should compare cases where a criminal is killed with all cases of murders with guns is flawed in many ways.  It assumes that if you banned guns, all those murders would disappear.  In fact, every single time that we have murder data before and after a gun ban, murder rates have gone up.  If this line of reasoning were right, you should see both justifiable homicides and gun murders falling to zero when guns are banned.

3) The claim that “Gun owners not likely to use firearms for self-defense” assumes that all self defense actions with guns result in the death of the attacker.  This completely ignores the times that a defensive gun use stopped a victim from being harmed even when the criminal wasn’t killed.  By any measure defensive gun uses, only a tiny fraction of one percent of defensive gun uses result in the criminal attacker being killed or wounded.  This claim completely ignores all those benefits and assumes that they are zero.

4) Finally, it is disappointing that as a journalist you didn’t try to get a response from someone who might be critical of the VPC report.  The VPC has a long history of making up factual claims (see here, here, and here).

UPDATE: The Blaze interviewed us about this claim by the VPC.

But Dr. John Lott, Jr., founder and president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, told TheBlaze that comparing justifiable and criminal homicides is a “stupid, old tactic” that’s been used by anti-gun advocates for years. . . .

Lott argued, for the Violence Policy Center’s assertions to be true, it would mean that banning all guns would dramatically decrease murders — a claim he said is “completely false.”

“Every single time — and not just in places like Washington or Chicago, but around the world — that you’ve had a complete ban on guns, murder rates have gone up,” he claimed, citing analysis by the Crime Research Prevention Center.


1 Comment

  1. john

    “gun owners committed 259 justifiable homicides compared to 8,342 criminal homicides in 2012”???
    Is this number for the “legal” gun owners, or people that have guns?
    Ban all guns and all guns will disappear? Who “really” believes this? Drugs are illegal, yet their everywhere. Wake up, criminals WILL find ways to get them.


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