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Private Citizens Kill More Felons Than Police Each Year

Justifiable homicides are defined as the killing of a person without criminal intent and with justifiable cause such as self defense. This could be done in the process of protecting one’s life, property, or loved ones such as in the case of a home burglary.

Number of Felons Killed by Police vs. Private Citizens

In 2019 and 2020, private citizens killed more felons than the police, using firearms and other weapons.

Justifiable Homicides of Felons20162017201820192020
Police using Guns432437421355298
Citizens using Guns278314317359343
Police Other Weapons88475
Citizens Other Weapons5656585562
Justifiable Homicides of Felons during the commission of a felony. Data from the FBI

This trend of private citizens using a gun to kill felons has become more common in recent years. In 2016, the Federal Bureau of Investigations reported 278 such incidents in their annual published findings. That number grew by 29.1% in 2019 to 359. In 2020, incidents fell slightly to 343, but still significantly higher than a few years ago.

During the same period, justified homicides by police with firearms are trending down. The FBI reported 437 justifiable police homicides with gun in 2017, yet that fell by 31.8% to 298 in 2020.

This FBI report does not include cases where a felon was injured but not killed, nor does it include cases where a felon was scared off with a firearm by a private citizen.

Justifiable Killings each year by police vs citizens of the USA (Chart)

See Interactive Chart

This data from Statista goes back to 2007 and shows the longer trends of justifiable killings of criminals by both police and citizens.

Potential Causes

Justifiable homicide by police or a private citizen remains statistically rare. The chance of anyone, even the police, confronting a criminal in the commission of a felony is uncommon. The U.S. is a relatively safe country overall and violent crime rates have been falling steadily since 1991, though there has been a slight uptick in recent years which might be contributing to the rise in justified killings from private citizens.

While almost all police carry firearms on duty, relatively few citizens are armed in any given place, at any given time. Citizens are perhaps then more likely to kill a criminal in the commission of a home invasion where their firearm is present and where the law strongly protects a private citizen who has committed a justifiable homicide in defense of his or her own property, life, and family.

Police, on the other hand, rarely face deadly force scenarios that are as clear cut or legally defensible. When confronting a criminal, the standard for the use of deadly force is more narrow and more scrutinized. Even when a police use of force incident results in a dead criminal, the law does not offer the same level of protection because justifiable homicides require a high standard for cause. When someone breaks into your home, that standard is met, de facto, by the act of having violated someone personal space.

Police rarely have such clear cut justification. Judgement and discernment are essential to assessing often fast moving and chaotic situations in which deadly use of force may or may not be deemed legal by investigators, after the fact.

What the data does not tell us

Furthermore, when addressing issues around self-defense and justifiable homicide, it is essential to understand what the data cannot tell us.

Guns can be used to thwart crime. We know, for example, that brandishing a weapon sometimes prevents a crime without a shooting incident that would be captured in these statistics. On the other hand, all incidents of police weapon discharges are logged and investigated regardless of whether a suspect is injured or killed.

Changes in policies can also lead to changes in behavior. In recent years, police body cameras have become more common and even mandated in many jurisdictions. That added level of accountability may also have an effect on the decision to use deadly force against another person.

Understanding the parameters of the data allows us to understand its utility and scope as well.

You can learn more about these statistics and search the data by visiting the FBI’s Crime Data Explorer website.

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1 year ago


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