If the National Rifle Association “stifles” research into firearm use, the Clinton-era Centers for Disease Control buried it in the backyard and burned the map.
A new report from Florida State University researcher Gary Kleck reveals that in the late 1990s the CDC suppressed the results of a “high-quality telephone survey” indicating that in an average year 2.23 million Americans used a firearm to defend themselves or their families.
“For CDC’s own surveys to generate high estimates of DGU prevalence was clearly not helpful to efforts to enact stricter controls over firearms,” Kleck notes, “since it implies that some such measures might disarm people who otherwise would have been able to use a gun for self-protection.”
In 1996, 1997, and 1998, the CDC asked about defensive gun uses (DGUs) as part of its larger Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS). The DGU question appeared in an optional module concerning firearms, and six states chose to ask the question in 1996 and 1997 and four states asked it in 1998.
According to Kelck, the BRFSS surveys are “high-quality telephone surveys of enormous probability samples of U.S. adults, asking about a wide range of health-related topics.”
The wording of the DGU question mitigated many of the problems with similar surveys conducted in the past:
“During the last 12 months, have you confronted another person with a firearm, even if you did not fire it, to protect yourself, your property, or someone else?”
The question excludes firearms used against animals, asks about a specific time period, covers uses of any type of firearm, includes uses in places outside the home, and explicitly mentions uses that do not involve firing on another person.
Respondents were also instructed not to include instances related to an occupation that “requires or authorizes you to use a firearm,” which excluded any military or law enforcement uses.
Kleck used the results of his own 1993 national survey to extrapolate the state DGU numbers in the BRFSS. He concluded that the average percentage of Americans who used a gun for defensive purposes between 1996 and 1998 was 1.125 percent, totaling about 2.23 million people.
Some have questioned the method by which Kleck extrapolated the CDC’s state date, including Reason’s Brian Doherty and National Review’s Robert VerBruggen. Doherty reached out to Kleck, who said he is in the process of rethinking his analysis and will publish the results soon.
In any case, Kleck’s report reveals both the willingness of the federal government to suppress data it doesn’t find politically useful and the prevalence of defensive gun uses each year in the United States, many of which do not involve a firearm being discharged.
It’s also worth noting that, given the recent concealed carry movement, the yearly DGU number today is likely much higher than in 1998. Even if Kleck were to provide an even more conservative estimate, the number he finally reports will almost certainly be much lower than it is in 2018.