Over 97% of homicides in America aren’t committed in self-defense

Image: Reuters/Brian Blanco
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The right to bear arms is a pillar of the US Constitution and many Americans defend it in the strongest terms.

One key argument for gun ownership is that it allows citizens to protect themselves and their families, and to prevent greater harm to society—potentially by killing an assailant. These types of killings are known as “justifiable homicides.”

But a June report (pdf) from the Violence Policy Center, a Washington DC-based non-profit organization that advocates for gun control, reveals an important problem with that rationale.

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The report tracks American homicides over five years, concluding that “justifiable” killings—defined in the report as the killing of a felon, during the commission of a felony, by a private citizen—made up just 2.5% of the total number of firearm fatalities. Between 2008 and 2012, 42,419 people were killed by other people in the US using guns. Of those, just 1,108 were killed in self-defense. (The report’s totals do not include any gun-related deaths that were listed as accidents or suicides.)

The study also found that a large percentage of homicides ruled justifiable did not involve strangers. In 2012, for example, 35.5% of the victims of justifiable homicides “were known to the shooter.” This would seem to refute the popular scenario used by self-defense advocates, in which an armed individual is forced to fight off a random attacker.

Just a few days after another fatal mass shooting, the US is once again undergoing a period of soul-searching. But as Australian comedian Jim Jefferies recently pointed out, maybe Americans need to finally admit that the classic self-defense argument simply isn’t strong enough to support the current state of affairs.

At the very least, statistics like those offered by the Violence Policy Center should prove to Americans that current gun policy reflects how much some people still like their guns—but not any real necessity.