Despite Risks, More Use Guns In Self Defense
By Frank J. Murray
Gunpoint confrontations in which armed private citizens
turn the tables on violent criminals occur with explosive
swiftness hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times each day in
the United States.
This guerrilla shooting war is almost invisible to the public,
experts say, because combatants on both sides have qualms
about publicity. Its biggest victories prevent serious crimes and
don't seem newsworthy one at a time.
The loud public battles focus on how often citizens fight
back, and how dangerous it is to defend themselves.
Opponents at the extremes of the debate cite estimates that
guns are used in self-defense from 180 times a day to once
every 13 seconds, a breath-taking number even to the National
Rifle Association, which culls a handful of such stories for its
monthly magazine feature, "The Armed Citizen."
Whatever the total of potential victims who actually halt
crimes with their own guns -- a surprising number of them
young women with babes in arms -- they are a quickly growing
lot and convinced that they're doing the right thing.
Among them: A pair of elderly grandmothers in snowbound
Moses Lake, Ore., who repelled an attack by four men at
home; an Apache Junction, Ariz., church deacon who
wounded an armed robber in his church; and a Bangor, Maine,
man who shot a robber in his front hallway after being slashed
with a knife.
They are people who believe it's better to have a gun and
not need it than to need one and not have it.
"I'd do it again in the same situation. I felt we were probably
going to get raped and murdered and whatever. I've still got
two shotguns," Marty A. Killinger, 64, said in an interview this
week from the Oregon home she defended with fellow
"pistol-packing grandma" Dorothy Cunningham, 78.
"If you're not willing to defend yourself or your family,
you're just going to be a dead gun owner instead of somebody
who is alive and safe," said Phoenix apartment manager Rory
Vertigan, 27, whom the National Rifle Association invited to
Saturday's Denver convention for standing up to three heavily
armed men who murdered a police officer.
Bangor robber Michael Chasse was so surprised when his
victim drew a gun that he pleaded self-defense at his trial. He
was sentenced April 2 to 12 years in prison after a jury
rejected that claim.
Chasse, 24, a homeless alcoholic with a criminal record,
said he slashed bakery executive Robert Cohen -- brother of
Defense Secretary William S. Cohen -- only after Mr. Cohen,
inside his own house, drew a gun and shot him twice in the
chest and held him until police arrived.
"I saw a man with a gun pointed at me," Chasse testified,
saying the knife fell out of his pocket while he was trying to
But Penobscot County prosecutor Mike Roberts told The
Washington Times: "The defendant would have continued the
attack if he had not been shot. Mr. Cohen hit him twice and he
The self-defense claim evoked the oft-told tale that
criminals routinely sue citizens who shoot them in the course of
"Extremely rare and almost never successful. Normally
these lawsuits don't go far," said New York state Sen. Michael
A.L. Balboni, who recalled a criminal suing unsuccessfully for
$1 million after being shot by the owner of an inn he was
burglarizing in Saratoga Springs.
No large numbers of such cases are known either to the
Association of Trial Lawyers of America, whose members
would file them, or the American Insurance Association, which
could expect to pay off for a homeowner.
"There may be coverage" from a homeowners' policy
against such a suit if the insured "intended" only to scare the
criminal and stop the crime, not specifically intend to shoot him,
a spokesman for the insurance group said.
Mr. Balboni studied the topic for a Fordham Urban Law
Journal article last year and was the prime sponsor of a bill
passed two weeks ago to block felons from "adding the
ultimate insult to injury" by going to state courts to profit from
"There's something to be said about closing the loophole, if
only to save people from being victimized twice by having to
pay for a defense," Mr. Balboni said in an interview.
However, police departments occasionally lose such
lawsuits. In one such instance, the New York Transit Authority
paid $4.3 million in 1993 to subway mugger Bernard
McCummings for a gunshot wound that paralyzed him nine
years earlier while he was trying to escape from a robbery. The
money was tied up for two more years, however, until state
courts in 1995 rejected an attempt to share that with the
injured crime victim, Jerome Sandusky, 83.
Most reported self-defense cases are from 31 states that
allow some degree of carrying a concealed weapon.
Home invaders, store robbers, and carjackers top the list of
those who face gunfire and sometimes death. That was the fate
of would-be carjackers who confronted an FBI agent in a
1998 Maryland case and another who chose a Stanton Road
SE car occupied by three women, all off-duty D.C. police
officers who returned a volley of gunfire.
Some incidents are flatly unlawful because the private citizen
illegally possesses a gun. But even in the District of Columbia,
which has the toughest gun laws in America, authorities may
tolerate self-defense with an illegal firearm.
When robber Roger W. Green put a gun to the head of the
wife of store owner In Doi Choi at his Minnesota Avenue SE
convenience store on July 25, 1997, Mr. Choi killed the bandit
with a shot in the back. The merchant was not prosecuted,
either for the shooting or for illegal gun possession.
Last week, when officers arrested a Capitol Hill resident
who had 23 loaded guns in his house, Capt. Elliot Gibson
noted the situation from a burglar's perspective: "You definitely
would not have wanted to break into that house. You would
have been in big trouble."
The fate of being charged with illegal gun possession was
not escaped by Carl Rowan when the pro-gun-control
columnist used a .22 pistol to shoot a midnight intruder, who
turned out to be a teenage skinny-dipper using his backyard
pool. Mr. Rowan's sensational 1988 trial ended in a hung jury
and he was not retried.
In his autobiography, Mr. Rowan said he still favors gun
control but admits being vulnerable to a charge of hypocrisy.
But anecdotal incidents are difficult to translate into
meaningful nationwide statistics.
"There isn't any source of information that contradicts the
notion that people who use guns for self-protection come out
of the event better off," said Florida State University
criminologist Gary Kleck, whose studies consistently produce
the highest estimates of self-defense with guns -- and the most
"Kleck really drives most people up the wall," said Patrick
A. Langan, senior statistician for the Justice Department's
massive National Crime Victimization Study (CVS), which
tracks annual gun trends. He considers the data reliable but
doesn't break out gun statistics in published tables because they
are incidental findings.
Reliable numbers are a sore point for gun prohibitionists and
advocates alike because the self-defense value of guns is
crucial in the political struggle over curbing the number and
readiness of legally owned weapons.
"I think it would have a large bearing on deciding the issue.
It's one of the key factors that keeps gun control from being
enacted," said Desmond Riley of the Coalition to Stop Gun
Violence, which he described as "the most radical gun-control
group" for seeking to halt all handgun sales and manufacture.
"You've got to have enough benefit to cancel out the cost of
arming criminals because there's so many guns out there,"
conceded Mr. Kleck. He said he converted from being a
gun-control advocate who began his studies with the belief that
more guns meant more homicides.
The late criminologist Marvin E. Wolfgang, who opposed
"ugly, nasty" guns so fervently he advocated taking them from
the police, wrote four years ago that he regretted finding Mr.
Kleck's study scientifically admirable, cautious and sound.
Mr. Langan said much the same, but in more cautious terms
as he explained why the Justice Department isn't more active
on the topic.
"We usually just put out the facts and let others decide
whether on balance it's better to resist. These are really
complex questions," Mr. Langan said of his own reports that
defending against rape, robbery or assault helps 65 percent of
the time and makes things worse about 9 percent of the time.
Critics say it is dangerously foolhardy to pull a gun against a
criminal. But unpublished Justice Department figures show the
risk is less than the alternatives.
Crime victims who use guns to repel an attack are injured
17 percent of the time, less than half as often as crime victims
who defend themselves with a knife.
"About one-fourth of those who don't resist at all are
injured, which means nothing is a guarantee of safety in these
situations," said Mr. Kleck, who challenges the motives of
anyone who questions or supports his work.
"Even the NRA uses it as a propaganda ploy. They happen
to be facts, but they are politically useful facts so they are used
politically," Mr. Kleck said in an interview.
"I don't think the [gun opponents] of the world have any
interest in finding the true number. They all concede it's big, and
they're afraid of how big it's going to be because it's against
their prohibitionist agenda," he said.
The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence endorses
interpretations of the federal study that support the low-end
estimate of 65,000 defensive gun uses a year, but agrees that's
still a lot. Nationwide it would mean gun owners use weapons
to defend against violent crime more than seven times each
"We understand people are scared of crime and violence,
but buying a gun is not the way to go. The safety that you feel is
an illusion," Mr. Riley said, contending a gun owner is three
times more likely to use the weapon against a relative than
against a criminal and five times more likely to kill himself with
Nine researchers are in the ballpark with Mr. Kleck,
reporting more than a million self-defense incidents a year. In
1981 Mr. Kleck found an annual rate of 800,000 incidents,
boosted that to 1.2 million by 1990 and doubled it in 1993 to
the current 2.5 million.
"The general pattern was that the better the surveys got, the
higher the numbers got," Mr. Kleck said, describing a
nationally representative survey of 4,977 adults that was
specific to guns.
Breaking down his numbers to an average 6,850
self-defense incidents every hour of every day gives pause to
Kleck supporters, even at the NRA, which often trumpets his
findings but said it would take a broad definition of defense to
have more than four episodes each minute.
"Defensive gun use in this country is a reality, and all
estimates of that number are significant, but numbers high or
low don't affect the principle that there is a fundamental right of
self-defense," NRA spokesman Jim Manown said.
Tim Lambert of the University of New South Wales in
Brisbane, Australia, frequently challenges Mr. Kleck's
"There is overwhelming evidence to prove him wrong, but
unlike an urban legend we know the source of the claim," Mr.
Lambert said in an e-mail exchange with The Times, saying he
tracks the subject because gun control is a hot squabble in
Australia as well.
"When a gun is used for defense it is reasonably effective,"
Mr. Lambert said, adding that he believes the Justice
Department study supports an estimate of 100,000 to 200,000
defensive uses a year.
"It's a frustrating murky, murky world," Mr. Riley said.
"They've got a hunk of paper that says this, we've got a hunk of
paper that says that. After a while you don't know who to believe."
Mr. Kleck said the count is not critical to the conclusion.
"Frankly, if the number were half of what I said it was it's
still huge. And it matters very much politically because there's a
downside risk to all those guns being out there. The biggest
cost of prohibition gun control is that people wouldn't have
them to save their lives and protect property."
This information is from The Washington Times