The Untold Triumph of Concealed Carry Permits

Policy Review. July/Aug. 1996. Reprinted in Tamara L. Roleff, ed. Gun Control. Opposing Viewpoints (Greenhaven Pr., 1997). In italiano.

         In recent years, the debate over gun policy has been dominated by two federal initiatives: the Brady bill's waiting period for the purchase of handguns and the ban on so-called assault weapons. While these federal issues have riveted the nation's attention, however, a quiet revolution in gun policy has spread throughout the states.

         Ten years ago, only a half-dozen states routinely issued permits for trained citizens to carry concealed handguns for personal protection. Most states gave police departments wide latitude to issue such permits, which were rarely given to persons other than retired police officers and people with political connections. Today, however, 30 states comprising half the nation's population grant concealed-carry permits to law-abiding citizens. In the long run, this movement will be far more significant than either the Brady waiting period (which expires in 1998) or the ban on certain semiautomatics (which expires in 2004).

         This movement began in the early 1980s, when gun-rights activists in Florida joined with law-enforcement lobbies such as the Florida Chiefs of Police Association to reform the state's handgun law. They proposed legislation that entitled any citizen who clears a fingerprint-based background check and passes gun-safety classes to receive a permit to carry a concealed handgun for protection.

         Although the legislature passed the concealed-carry bill several times, it was vetoed repeatedly by Democratic governor Bob Graham. But his successor, Republican governor Bob Martinez, signed the bill in 1987. Since then, a steady progression of states has adopted concealed-carry laws modeled on Florida's, and more are likely to follow.

         Whenever a state legislature first considers a concealed-carry bill, opponents typically warn of horrible consequences: Permit holders will slaughter each other in traffic disputes, while would-be Rambos shoot bystanders in incompetent attempts to thwart crime. But within a year of passage, the issue usually drops off the news media's radar screen, while gun-control advocates in the legislature conclude that the law wasn't so bad after all.

         In some respects, the concealed-carry movement has become a women's issue. In fact, about a quarter of those who apply for and receive carry permits are women. When Alaska governor Walter Hickel signed concealed-carry legislation in 1993, he explained that the constituents he found most compelling were "the women who called and said they worked late and had to cross dark parking lots, and why couldn't they carry a concealed gun?"

         Leading advocates for concealed-carry laws include female victims of crime such as Suzanna Gratia Hupp, whose parents were murdered five years ago in a mass killing in Killeen, Texas; Rebecca John Wyatt, the founder of Safety for Women and Responsible Motherhood; and Marion Hammer, the new president of the National Rifle Association and an activist in the Florida concealed-carry debate. Hammer once brandished her handgun to ward off a gang of would-be robbers.

         Has this movement toward concealed-carry laws made America safer or more dangerous? In an article for the Tennessee Law Review, historian Clayton Cramer and I examined homicide rates in states that had adopted concealed-carry laws, adjusted for the effects of national homicide trends. In all but one state we examined, homicide rates did not appear to change as a result of the laws. We saw fluctuations, of course, but nothing out of the ordinary.

         The lone exception was Florida, where the murder rate started an immediate, steady decline. Before the law, Floridians were about 36 percent more likely to be murdered than other Americans; after a few years, the Florida rate was equal to or slightly less than the national rate. As for other violent crimes, Florida was the worst state in the nation both before and after the new law. Florida's overall violent-crime rate, however, rose much more slowly since 1987 than did the national violent-crime rate.

         We also examined violent-crime data in California, where permit policies vary widely by county. Counties that issue permits liberally had lower violent-crime rates than counties with restrictive policies; restrictive counties had lower rates than counties with prohibitive policies. A graduate student at Southwest Texas State University compared states that adopted concealed-carry laws with demographically similar states that did not. This study found strong support for the hypothesis that concealed-carry laws reduce the homicide rate, and weak (but still positive) support for a reduction in robbery and serious assault.

         Advocates of gun-control advocates sometimes cite a 1995 study of concealed-carry policies by three researchers from the University of Maryland. The study looked at five urban areas and found that in four of them, the handgun homicide rate rose after a concealed-carry law had been enacted. But David McDowall, one of the authors, says that the small set of data limits the conclusions to be drawn from the study. He also states that there is no evidence permit holders commit crimes. The study is a classic illustration of how changing the parameters of a "before-and-after" analysis can change the results. For each city, McDowall and his colleagues averaged the yearly crime rates from 1973 until the year before the law went into effect, and compared that figure to the average rate of all subsequent years. If, instead, we compare the year before the law went into effect with the most recent year for which we have complete data (1994), then the homicide rate declined in three of the five cities.

         All of the research about concealed- carry laws has been eclipsed by a comprehensive study by University of Chicago law professor John Lott, with graduate student David Mustard. Examining crime data for 3,054 counties, Lott and Mustard found that while concealed-carry reform had little effect in rural counties, in urban counties reform was followed by a substantial reduction in homicide and other violent crimes such as robbery. At the same time, there was a statistically significant rise in nonconfrontational property crimes, such as larceny and car theft. Apparently many criminals concluded that the risks of encountering a victim who could fight back had become too high.

         Lott and Mustard estimated that if all states that did not have concealed carry laws in 1992 adopted such laws, there would be approximately 1,800 fewer murders and 3,000 fewer rapes annually. Thus the adoption or improvement of concealed carry laws in more than a dozen states since 1992 may be one of several causes for the current decline in murder rates.

         Of course, data alone cannot measure the benefits of concealed-carry reform. If a gun permit helps a woman feel safe enough to go jogging, her increased sense of security is an important social benefit--even if she never has to draw a gun. If she does encounter a criminal, the chances are small that she will actually have to fire, and less than 1 percent that he will take the gun away. In the most thorough study ever done on this subject, Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck found that most instances of a citizen drawing a gun in self-defense end with the assailant simply retreating.

         Although solid proof of the effect of concealed-carry laws in reducing violent crime is relatively recent, it has long been clear that they do not threaten public safety. The most detailed information we have about the behavior of such permit holders comes from Dade County, Florida.

         When Florida's law went into effect, Miami's police chief ordered his officers to compile detailed reports of all police encounters with permit holders. In Miami, the number of permits increased from 1,200 in September 1987 to 21,092 in August 1992, when the police department decided that the behavior of permit holders did not merit further study. In five years, permit holders were convicted in these instances of criminal misuse of a firearm: two cases of aggravated assault involving a firearm, one case of armed trespass, and one case of a motorist shooting at another driver. In addition, one permit holder unthinkingly attempted to enter the secure area at Miami's airport with a firearm in her purse, and another accidentally shot himself in the leg.

         The Dade County police also recorded the following incidents involving defensive use of licensed concealed firearms: two robbery cases in which the permit holder produced a firearm and the robbers fled; two cases involving permit holders who intervened to attempt to stop a robbery, but the robbers were not apprehended (and no one else was hurt); one robbery victim whose gun was seized by the robber; a man who shot a pit bull that was attacking him; two cases of a citizen capturing a burglar; three cases of a burglar who was frightened off but not captured; one case of thwarted rape; and a bail bondsman who fired two shots at a fleeing bail-jumper wanted for armed robbery. There were no reports of permit holders shooting innocent people by accident.

         In Florida as a whole, 315,000 permits had been issued by December 31, 1995. Only five had been revoked because the permit holder committed a violent crime with a gun.

         Permit holders are not angels, but they are an unusually law-abiding collection of citizens. In Florida, for example, permit holders are about 300 times less likely to perpetrate a gun crime than Floridians without permits. Florida's experience has been copied nationwide. This should not be at all surprising: A person could carry a concealed handgun without a permit and, unless he gives himself away by committing some other offense, he would never be caught. Hence permit applicants tend to be those citizens willing to pay a large fee (usually more than $100) to comply with a law they could probably break with impunity.

         Although 1 to 4 percent of the adult population exercises the freedom to carry a handgun for protection, a much larger group believes they should have such a choice. Polls usually show that one-half to two-thirds of the population supports concealed-carry laws. Higher rates are reported when respondents are informed about the various restrictions--such as training requirements--typically included in concealed-carry laws. These laws appeal to citizens who object neither to gun ownership nor to the use of force in self-defense, yet welcome moderate regulation to screen out undesirables.

         Similarly, law-enforcement organizations in many states have supported concealed-carry laws. In Colorado, 53 of the state's 63 sheriffs voluntarily issue carry permits to citizens who pass a background check--even in liberal Boulder County. As these peace officers recognize, the government cannot in practice guarantee the safety of citizens in their daily lives. Therefore government must not prevent a responsible, trained individual from seeking to protect herself.

         The concealed-carry movement is based on the principle that responsible citizens should not expect government to provide them with the essentials of life. Providing for the safety of one's self and one's family is first of all a personal duty.

         Of course, everyone is a potential beneficiary of concealed-carry reform. Since criminals do not know which of their potential victims may be armed, even persons without carry permits would enjoy increased safety from any deterrent effect. Moreover, a Psychology Today study of "good Samaritans" who came to the aid of violent-crime victims found that 81 percent were gun owners, and many of them carried guns in their cars or on their persons.

         Concealed-carry reform is no panacea for the high rates of crime in this nation, but it will be an important component of an anticrime strategy based on the right and duty of good citizens to take responsibility for public safety.

David Kopel is the research director of the Independence Institute, in Golden, Colorado

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