In 1995 a study in The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology estimated that Americans used guns to defend themselves 2.1 million to 2.5 million times a year. That sounds like a lot, too much really—and the authors, Gary Kleck and Marc G. Gertz, acknowledge that, though they argue that it’s “not implausibly large” when you consider that there are 200-million-plus guns in the United States.
Nearly two decades later, that statistic has been recited countless times, and it often comes up in the aftermath of a horrible mass-shooting incident, like the one last week in Newtown, Conn., to make the case that on the whole firearms actually save lives and that gun-control advocates fail to see the big picture.
When Bob Costas recently argued, in response to a football player’s killing his girlfriend and himself, that “handguns do not enhance our safety,” the executive director of the National Rifle Association used that 2.5-million figure (it almost always gets rounded up) to slap him down with some peer-reviewed science.
But how good is that science?