What are the odds?

Human beings invest a lot of effort into trying to predict the future and protect against uncertainty. We spend billions on insurance to protect us against the uncertainties of tomorrow and billions more on research to try and determine what’s going to happen to our bodies and our bank accounts. When we begin to ponder the question of self defense we want the same sort of answers we ask of doctors, lawyers, and insurance agents and at some point we typically look to others who have more knowledge and experience to ask how likely it is that we’ll need to actually take violent action to protect ourselves from harm.

Unfortunately those we look to often don’t have any more actual information than the relative novice does. They may be familiar with more axiomatic groupthink than the novice, but that isn’t the same thing as having actual useful knowledge. If you wandered onto most web forums and blogs and asked about the likelihood of needing to use a firearm in self defense, doubtless several people would say that gunfights are pretty rare things and you don’t have to worry much about them.

I would make a very different argument. It’s true that gunfights (which I will define as a two way exchange of gunfire) involving law abiding citizens and violent criminal actors don’t show up prominently in a lot of statistics, but merely looking at the raw statistics on that matter doesn’t really tell the tale.

In their Uniform Crime Report for 2011, the FBI records 751,131 instances of aggravated assault for 2011. The crime of aggravated assault is defined by statute in all of the 50 states, but the FBI has a pretty good working definition: They define aggravated assault as “ an unlawful attack by one person upon another for the purpose of inflicting severe or aggravated bodily injury. The UCR Program further specifies that this type of assault is usually accompanied by the use of a weapon or by other means likely to produce death or great bodily harm.” We typically encounter this kind of language when discussing justification for the use of lethal force. Again for clarity: The events that the FBI describes as “aggravated assault” are typically going to present the factors necessary to justify the use of lethal force in self defense.

Someone who takes a baseball bat to another person’s head without killing them will often end up being charged with or convicted of aggravated assault. Renowned firearms instructor Tom Givens once encountered a fellow who threatened to bash Mr. Givens’ head in with a piece of steel rebar. Had that attack actually been carried out, it would have likely been written up as an aggravated assault. Of course, the criminal didn’t realize who he was threatening and had second thoughts about the matter once he was staring down the barrel of Mr. Givens’ pistol.

…and that gets at the heart of the matter. You often hear people comment on how rare “gunfights” are based on murder statistics, but when you start looking at the crime statistics there are an awful lot of other criminal acts that would justify getting a gun involved. I’ve only presented data from a single year, one in which the number of aggravated assaults was down by double digits from the previous year. Some time ago the Bureau of Justice Statistics put out a statistical analysis based on crime trends at the time which attempted to calculate someone’s lifetime risk of being the victim of a violent crime. The results were quite startling and I encourage you to read it for yourself. 

As is ever the case when it comes to making predictions based solely on statistics…well…here be dragons. Still, when we stop to consider these predictions in context with Gary Kleck’s research on defensive firearms use, and the number of crimes like aggravated assault which would justify the use of a firearm in self defense, the idea that it’s rare to find oneself in a situation where the use of a firearm in self defense would be justified starts to look pretty sketchy.

Social scientists with an anti-gun agenda tried to make the argument some time ago that firearms were more likely to be used as instruments of crime than as instruments of self defense. When I see people online or in gunstores arguing that you aren’t likely to ever need a gun to defend yourself I can’t shake the feeling that the pernicious propaganda has had the desired effect. Their research was typically very limited and failed to consider a great big glowing problem: The lack of good guys out and about their lives toting a firearm for protection. That’s why we don’t see a lot of gunfights…not because there’s a lack of criminal actors out there preying on the citizenry.

Most victims of violent crime are unarmed when they are attacked, and that’s not surprising given the relative scarcity of people carrying guns. My home state of Virginia has a population of a little over 8 million people and it’s estimated that there are a little over 300,000 people who hold a concealed carry permit in the Commonwealth. (Including out-of-state permits) Of that 300,000, the number of people who are armed 24/7 is probably pretty small. Even if we factor in off-duty police officers (many of whom do not carry) it doesn’t really add that many good guys out and about with a firearm on them. Thus the odds that the average street criminal is going to end up staring down the wrong end of a gun in a pretty pro-gun state with very good laws on self defense are still relatively tiny for a lot of violent crimes. If just 10% of the population got a permit and started carrying at every possible moment I’d wager Virginia’s already pretty low violent crime rate would plummet faster than Anthony Weiner’s poll numbers.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics tells us that in 2011 5.8 million people were victims of violent crime, and then goes down to break out the number of victims by the type of crime. Included in that number is rape/sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, and murder…all of which would present objective justification for use of lethal force in most states.

Crime is not evenly distributed and certainly lifestyle and circumstances play an important role in determining your individual risk of being the victim of violent crime. That being said, when you start looking at the numbers and stop to consider their significance it’s difficult to accept the idea that needing a gun to defend oneself is an unlikely event. It should also be noted that self defense with a firearm doesn’t necessarily mean having to actually shoot someone. You could find yourself confronting a dangerous individual on your property like Mr. Givens did in the example I mentioned earlier and yet not needing to shoot. When Mr. Givens responded to that criminal aggression with a preemptive draw and an apparent willingness to actually use the pistol he pulled, it put an immediate end to hostilities without a shot being fired. This is another glaring omission of the aforementioned agenda-driven research: When a good guy unexpectedly pulls a previously concealed handgun many criminals will immediately break off the attack and run for it, ending the encounter without gunfire and in many cases without any documentation of the use of the firearm in self defense.

While it would certainly be possible to successfully defend oneself from some of the attacks that show up in the statistics without using a firearm, the fact remains that resisting an act of criminal violence with a firearm gives the good guy the best chances of ending the attack without suffering serious damage.

My goal here is to provide some food for thought when trying to answer the “What are the odds?” question that all of us face on the subject of self defense. With my lifestyle and in my geographic location the statistics say that I have about as good a shot as anyone can of never being a victim of a violent crime. Yet not all that long ago someone actually did try to make me the victim of one. I almost went into that unarmed because as I contemplated putting the gun on I thought “What are the odds?”…but I figured with my luck merely asking the question guaranteed that the universe was gunning for me.

It’s possible that I could have successfully defended myself against the attempt without my pistol, but I don’t know what implements of mayhem the skeezy looking drifter could have brought to bear in a fight. I do know that once he figured out that the guy he intended to rob was pulling a gun he ran the hell away as fast as he could. It was a mutually beneficial decision since he got to stay alive and I didn’t have to go through an uncomfortable chat with the police about the final resting place of my hollowpoints.

What are the odds for you? Unfortunately I don’t know. If I had the kind of powers necessary to tell you, I wouldn’t be writing for a gun blog. I’d be on my private island with Warren Buffet and Vladamir Putin mowing my lawn and Charlize Theron serving me drinks. All I can really do is point you to the information and encourage you to look at it seriously and incorporate the knowledge into your assessment.

My opinion is this: While the oft-cited axiom about the rarity of law-abiding citizen gunfights has a grain of truth to it, finding oneself in circumstances where use of a firearm in self defense would be justified isn’t really all that rare, or is at the very least much more common than many believe. Therefore it behooves the defense-minded individual to believe that at some point in their life they will need to use a firearm in self defense and prepare accordingly.




  1. I wish I could recall the instructor who started his course with a discussion about how many of his students had a regular workout regiment vs. a regular firearms training regimen, followed up by pointing out that statistics indicate that any one of them was much more likely to face heart disease or other sedentary-lifestyle-influenced illness than get involved in a gunfight…not to discourage people to train, but to give a little perspective on other aspects of their lives.

  2. @CJ – the last couple of times I looked at the National Safety Council statistics, it was 1:6 and 1:7 for heart disease and cancer (I forget the order) followed by 1:28 stroke and 1:85 automobile related death. I believe “firearm related death” was around 1:600.

    I would say exercise, eating the right food and plenty of sunshine (good for Vitamin D) are #1. Maybe we should all take driving lessons on a regular basis.

    I believe you were actually more likely to die in a pool or get hit by a car than some sort of violent crime.

    Thant’s not enough to keep from practicing though…

  3. Death odds: assault by firearm 1/321 – firearm discharge 1/6609 – falling 1/163 – intentional self harm 1/109
    It appears that we all need body guards to protect us from ourselves ; )

  4. Nicely written article. Ever pull into a less then stellar gas station on a road trip? Come out of the super market, into the parking lot – late? The odds are definitely there.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: