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Nature and Circumstances of Defensive Gun Use: A Content Analysis of Interpersonal Conflict Situations Involving Criminal Offenders

NCJ Number
Justice Quarterly Volume: 19 Issue: 1 Dated: March 2002 Pages: 127-157
Date Published
March 2002
31 pages

This study analyzed descriptive accounts of incidents in which a criminal respondent possessed a firearm to identify defensive gun use (DGU).


The data were gathered as part of a larger research project. Although they were not gathered with the intention of studying DGUs, the data set contained detailed information about a wide variety of violent and risky, nonviolent situations. Interviews were conducted with a random sample of 704 male inmates who were admitted to a diagnostic and evaluation unit in a mid-western State between November 1997 and December 1998. Trained interviewers asked the respondents a battery of detailed questions about their lives during the 3 years before the arrests that led to their current incarcerations. Results showed that over a quarter of the cases studied involved a DGU that might not have been necessary or might have involved more than simply defensive gun use. Guns were used in a variety of ways for defense. These included firing guns at opponents in approximately 40 percent of the DGU cases and using their guns for defense by simply displaying guns, pointing guns at an opponent, and making threats with guns 36 percent of the time. Most DGUs did not end with the defenders’ arrest. Only 16 percent of all defenders were arrested for the DGU incidents. Approximately half the DGU situations occurred in public places, whereas over a quarter of each type occurred in or near the respondents’ residences. Most incidents occurred outside. Over 30 percent involved disputes about money, property, drugs, or women. Seventy-five percent of the DGU incidents evolved from verbal exchanges and other or ambiguous circumstances. The remaining 25 percent appeared to be one sided, as when an opponent initiated an incident with an attack, an attempted attack, or an attempt to steal property. The results showed that a nontrivial portion of DGU situations involved gun use that might be characterized as offensive. 2 footnotes, 2 tables, appendix, 54 references

Date Published: March 1, 2002