Why Did The CDC Bury Data On Self-Defense Gun Usage?

posted on July 5, 2018

Gun owners are often hit with the insinuation that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) could have ended “gun violence” if only it was allowed to research the issue. No person or organization has stopped the CDC from funding research; it has been prohibited from using tax dollars to advocate or promote gun control since 1996, but not from conducting research. Even so, studies with all of the funding in the world will not change the nature of criminals—nor will bumper sticker conclusions or adulating press releases.

The allegations that gun owners are standing in the way of progress by blocking research depends strongly on the idea that such research is non-existent absent government funding. Myriad studies on “gun violence,” gun ownership, concealed carry and every other conceivable tangent have been conducted, and new studies are published regularly. Funding is not the issue. Academics, criminologists, economists, doctors, lawyers and political scientists are approaching the subject from every perspective, and such research began long before the Dickey Amendment prohibited the CDC from promoting gun control.

Some researchers want to find proof that firearms are the root cause of the nation’s ills, and some want evidence that firearms are the only bulwark against crime. Some let their biases color their efforts; some do not. While some of the research just isn’t well done, definitive conclusions have not been found primarily because the topic is not a simple one—it depends on variables that are difficult to identify and measure.

An important contribution to this body of research came from criminology professor Gary Kleck of Florida State University. Kleck distinguished himself in the study of firearms used in self-defense. In 1994, he and professor Marc Gertz set out to create the most advanced study of the subject, administering a highly refined, anonymous survey of 5,000 American households. They concluded that Americans use guns in self-defense approximately 2.5 million times per year. Kleck and Gertz also compared the results of 13 earlier studies, with all but one indicating 761,000 to 3 million defensive gun uses. Their findings were published in 1995.

Defensive gun use has always been a problem for the gun control crowd. Lawful use of firearms to defend oneself, one’s family and one’s community undermines their claims that no one “needs” guns and that guns are somehow inherently dangerous. Kleck has been refuting attacks on his findings for decades. Efforts to replicate, confirm or refute Kleck’s findings all suffer from flaws and limitations. One example, the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), indicated only 64,000 uses, but as Kleck pointed out, the NCVS was poorly designed to analyze defensive uses. It was not anonymous—interviewers obtained the names of everyone in the household being surveyed. They also described themselves as collecting data for the U.S. Department of Justice. The odds of an interviewed person clamming up about using a gun in self-defense were thus high, especially if he or she lived in an area where gun ownership was tightly restricted. Even viewed without the flaws, anti-gun studies at most claimed that guns were associated with crime and harm. If guns were also associated with stopping crime and preventing harm—millions of times per year—then the argument for gun control was off base, if not largely irrelevant.

An organization with the resources, expertise, and positioning—i.e., not an organization with the authority to arrest or investigate respondents—would be a good fit to take up the issue of defensive gun use. A large, well-written survey, like the Kleck and Gertz study, could confirm or refute their findings. This would be an ideal project for the CDC.

They thought so, too. If only they had not been prohibited from conducting any research on firearms! As it turns out, the CDC did conduct research on self-defense and firearms. They just didn’t tell anyone.

This spring, Kleck was researching an entirely different topic in the CDC’s databases when he made a remarkable discovery. The cdc runs annual surveys known as the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), which are huge surveys with 97 pages of questions on health-related issues. People interviewed over the telephone are asked about smoking, alcohol use, salt consumption, exercise, seat belt use and any medical problems they currently have or have ever been diagnosed with. The BRFSS became a nationwide surveillance system in 1993. Optional modules of questions were implemented in 1988; the core questionnaire is administered in every state.

Kleck found that these surveys had asked about use of a firearm in self-defense. Those questions were asked in 1996, 1997 and 1998—in six states for the first two years, and four the last year. The timing suggests the questions were posed in hopes of answering Kleck’s research first published in 1995. Maybe this was a “fishing expedition” to find out whether there was a chance of challenging Kleck’s findings.

The inclusion of defensive gun use questions in a survey “developed and conducted to monitor state-level prevalence of the major behavioral risks among adults associated with premature morbidity and mortality” itself may be questionable. But the more glaring issue was a major flaw in the methodology of the cdc survey: It only asked about firearm self-defense if the person being interviewed stated he or she owned a gun right now. Kleck’s work had found that about 21 percent of persons reporting gun self-defense in the past year denied owning a gun at the time of the interview, and other studies have shown that many gun owners are understandably reluctant to tell a pollster that they own a firearm. Still, a comparison could be made to the Kleck and Gertz findings. This design would not completely invalidate the study; it would just require a caveat that acknowledges the bias introduced by limiting the respondent pool. The data would still be valid for those who meet the selection criteria.

What has the CDC done with this data? Nothing. It had plainly never followed up with a nationwide survey, as it has on so many other topics. It never publicized or discussed the data it had collected. Instead, the CDC left it buried among the mountains of raw data posted online for downloading in spreadsheet format, to be found, by chance, 20 years later by Kleck. The CDC reports other BRFSS data on its website and acknowledges that their own “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) contains hundreds of articles citing BRFSS data.” Why no mention of the defensive gun use question?

Kleck’s discovery yields two findings before he analyzes a single piece of data. First, the claim that the CDC is not allowed to research firearms is invalid. The CDC knowingly asked questions about one of the hottest topics around in the years immediately after the Dickey Amendment. The CDC is not a one-person operation; the addition of these questions had to have been approved by the research team. Since these questions were first asked in 1996, the CDC has been silent while gun control proponents argue that the Dickey Amendment restricts research. What it restricts is advocacy.

One can understand why a government agency may not interfere with outside efforts to award it more funding, but the CDC seems to have a more nuanced understanding of the Dickey Amendment than it has acknowledged over the years. 

Secondly, the lack of public acknowledgment that this data was collected coupled with the lack of follow-up is concerning. For three years, the CDC collected data on defensive gun use and did nothing with it. The addition of these questions to the BRFSS was not without some cost, and that money was essentially wasted as the collected data was simply filed away.   

Some might posit that the CDC hid the data and discontinued the questions because the findings were not helpful to the gun control cause. Others might believe that the CDC didn’t find anything interesting in the few states in which data was collected, or that other states chose not to use the defensive gun use questions. The “why” may be interesting—it might even be sensational—but the sad reality that a government agency had timely data that could inform a critical policy debate is more concerning.

Kleck is working on an analysis of the CDC data, and he will compare it to his own findings. His analysis is unlikely to prove why the CDC did not expand the defensive gun use survey questions to other states, or why the questions were discontinued. But it should give us some clarity on what the CDC actually found—something that the CDC should have done itself in the late 1990s.

David T. Hardy is a Tucson, Ariz., firearm attorney and Second Amendment author who wrote the book, I’m from the Government, and I’m Here to Kill You: The Human Cost of Official Negligence. It’s available on Amazon.


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