Counting the Uncountable Lives Saved by Good Guys with Guns

We know your armed neighbor protected himself when he scared away the robber in the night. What we don’t know, and often can’t know, is how many other people your neighbor saved that night. It is devilishly hard to measure the good that armed citizens do as they stop violent crime. Sure, we have a pretty good idea how many people own guns. We have a very good idea how many times these gun owners save lives every year. What we don’t know very well is how many violent attacks they prevented. Sure, we can come up with a number, but this is why that simple question of lives saved is so difficult to answer.

The good news is that we are far better at this than we used to be. To begin, there was a nationwide survey in early 2021 that asked tens of thousands of people if they owned guns. The researchers came up with a figure of about 81 million people over the age of 18 who own firearms in the USA. That certainly tells us some of what we want to know, but it isn’t nearly enough. In the same way that you might have a driver’s license and drive regularly but still not be a car owner yourself, we don’t know how many people routinely have access to a firearm for self-defense but are not themselves a gun owner today. Maybe they owned guns yesterday, but not now. We know that about four-in-ten of us live in a household that owns guns.

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