Changing Maryland's gun laws may have little effect on crime, scholars say

John H. Josselyn is legislative vice president of the Associated Gun Clubs of Baltimore.
John H. Josselyn is legislative vice president of the Associated Gun Clubs of Baltimore. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun)

John Josselyn stood at a gun range in Baltimore County on the warmest day of last week, ready for target practice with his .22-caliber pistol, and recalled how the simple threat of a gun once saved him from three thugs. The gun-rights advocate called it "tantamount to the rattle of a rattlesnake."

But Matthew Fenton's memories of firearms give him no sense of security. He was shot in the head three decades ago during a robbery that led him to found an anti-gun lobbying group. There's still a half-dollar sized piece of skull missing today above his left eye, where the bullet struck him that night.

Each man also has a different take on a federal judge's ruling last week, striking down Maryland's handgun-carry regulation as unconstitutionally restrictive. The opinion alternately caused consternation or celebration among residents, depending on which side of the debate they stand.

Gun advocates applauded the decision and called it overdue, saying that it would bring Maryland policies in line with most of the country's and have a deterrent effect on crime — if the ruling withstands a promised appeal. Meanwhile, some gun opponents predicted a boost in criminal activity and shootouts in the streets, because the court order would make it markedly easier to legally carry a gun.

Each side points to stacks of research backing its position and debunking the other's, but the credibility of much of that literature is in question, according to academics who have studied the impact of gun-carry laws on crime.

The truth, they say, lies somewhere in the middle.

There could be an uptick in aggravated assaults, according to studies from Yale and Stanford law schools, or even a slight decrease in murders, according to an economist who also is a commentator for Fox News. But more likely than not, most said, there will be no discernible change at all.

"It doesn't make any difference," said Gary Kleck, a professor of criminology at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Researchers generally "don't find any effect one way or the other. You don't get a Wild West with people shooting each other over fender-benders on the highway, nor the deterrent effect that" gun advocates foretell.

It's a lackluster message that's rarely detected in the public din over guns, where showier passions and politics often drive the debate.

The debate is also colored by perception. Many consider firearms an integral part of the country's early survival — though that image may be portrayed more often by Hollywood than the history books — and loudly defend their right to bear arms. Others, particularly some crime victims, embrace a more modern characterization of guns in which they're demonized as the preferred weapons of urban gangsters, rapists and robbers.

At stake, each side says, are the issues of life and liberty that make up the country's core values. It's the kind of emotional thinking, some scientists said, that makes it tough for academic data to sway the discussion.

"People on both sides don't care what the evidence is," Kleck said. "It doesn't have anything to do with why they arrived at their position, and they're not going to be talked out of it."

Until last week, Maryland was one of about 10 "may issue" states left in the U.S. when it comes to the distribution of gun-carry permits. That means it was up to the discretion of local authorities to determine whether an applicant had a "good and substantial reason" to receive a license — chiefly based on whether the person worked with valuables or could show his or her life was in some kind of danger based on business or personal experience.

If that good and substantial reason was established, under the law the Maryland State Police could issue permit after ruling out other disqualifiers, such as felony convictions, mental illness, a history of violence or drug and alcohol abuse.

The remaining 40 or so states — either on the law books or in practice — are "shall issue" states, meaning they give applicants a gun-carry permit once basic safety criteria are met. No further justification is required.

But on Monday, an opinion by Baltimore-based U.S. District Judge Benson E. Legg seemed to seriously threaten Maryland's "may issue" status. Legg found that the Second Amendment right to bear arms extends outside the home and that the "good and substantial reason" requirement for a carry permit in Maryland unconstitutionally limits that entitlement.

It's unclear how or when his ruling will be implemented, however. The Maryland attorney general's office has asked for a clarification and also requested that its enforcement be delayed while the agency appeals the decision. And the Maryland State Police say they're sticking to the old way of issuing permits until told otherwise.

But the reaction to the ruling was clear and swift, with lawyers and legislators on each side fighting to defend or overturn the decision.

Some Republican state legislators quickly called for an immediate realization of the judge's order, or for the passage of a bill before the House of Delegates that would change the law to match it, while some Democrats tried to figure out how to defer both proposals. Gun-rights advocates said they felt "vindicated," while anti-gun groups were deflated.

There are 12,000 active carry permits in Maryland, and experts predict that the number will soar — to somewhere between 58,000 and 292,000 based on the population — if the judge's order stands.

Most applicants are middle-aged or older white men, without a significant criminal record, who are either married or living with a partner in a rural area, according to national gun-ownership statistics. Most already own a gun; Maryland doesn't require permits for ownership.

"What I think is the long-term reason why the judge ruled the way he did, is law is not entirely independent of the society it lives in," said David Kopel, a law professor at Denver University and research director at the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank. "It's an important fact that, unlike in 1975, Maryland's policy of hardly ever issuing permits is now a national oddity."

While Maryland was considered a "may issue" state, in practice it was a "probably won't issue" state, gun-rights advocates said, as were many states a quarter-century ago, when Florida started the "shall issue" trend. The Southern state reformed its gun laws in 1987, adopting a non-discretionary model that gave a gun-carry permit to non-felons over the age of 21 without recent drug convictions, alcohol issues or mental problems and who completed certain safety courses.

Some thought it was a recipe for disaster. Florida was a high-crime, heavily urbanized state with an overcrowded prison system and a diverse "and often tense" population, Kopel and a partner wrote in a 1995 research paper. But state data showed there was little effect. A small number of permit holders were convicted of crimes and a larger number reported using their firearms to thwart crimes.

"The general take-away is that it's going to have very little effect on you," Kopel said. "If you're a guy who isn't interested in guns and doesn't think about them much one way or the other, you can keep right on not thinking about them."

Still, Florida's project launched a wave of studies across the country by numerous advocacy groups and academics, who sought to find some kind of causal correlation between crime trends and carrying guns, particularly as other states followed Florida's model.

Their conclusions were as varied as the researchers, but they generally fell into one of three camps, depending upon the researcher's bias. "Shall issue" permit policies decreased violence, according to gun advocates; increased violence, according to gun opponents; or had minimal or no obvious effect, according to academics, like the National Academy of Sciences, which said exactly that in 2004, albeit with one dissenter on its panel.

"There's sort of this cherry-picking of studies," Kopel said.

Those who say "shall issue" policies decrease crime largely base the theory on an assumption that criminals won't act if they believe there's a chance their potential victims are armed, but there's little data to show a causal relationship between gun policies and a decrease in violent crime.

One economist, John R. Lott Jr., did some studies going back to the '90s that showed violent crimes decrease with "shall issue" policies and that murders drop as well. The reliability of his methods has been questioned by some, however, and supported by others.

John Josselyn, the legislative director for the Associated Gun Clubs of Maryland, tells the story of when he simply unzipped his coat and reached for a non-existent gun, scattering some shady men headed his way, as an example of the deterrent effect.

Just having a gun "says leave me alone, and a wise person steps back," he said last week at the Baltimore County Game and Fish Protective Association, one of four AGC clubs in the state that has a gun range.

Josselyn, 63, grew up with guns, earning his first .22-caliber rifle when he was 14 by selling Christmas cards door to door as part of an offer from Boys' Life magazine. Back then, he said, you could walk through downtown Towson with a firearm slung over one shoulder and a bag of tin cans over the other, on the way to Cromwell Valley Park, where you could shoot all afternoon.

He was on the Calvert Hall rifle team as a teenager and kept up the hobby into adulthood. But he now collects firearms for safety reasons as well as sport, he said, and was issued a carry permit in 2005. It was a hassle that took months, he said, and cost about $141 total, when you factor in the background check and fingerprinting fees.

Courtney Brown, 48, who runs Iota Firearms Security and Training Academy with her husband, E. Kenneth Brown, said the speed with which permit applications are accepted or rejected in Maryland "depends on how the wind blows."

She got her first gun as a wedding present in 2000, a Smith & Wesson LadySmith, she said, clearly amused by the lack of romance in the gift. But she took to it as a sport, and routinely hits the middle circle on targets. She fired off a round of 10 shots last week at the Baltimore County range while her husband called out tips.

E. Kenneth Brown, 62, is skeptical that the judge's ruling will stand and reserving celebration until he knows. "It won't matter to me until it becomes law," he said. "I will wait and see."

Gun advocates have lobbied hard to loosen Maryland's restrictions, but they've gotten a good fight back from opponents, many of whom are counted among the "crime will increase" believers.

The theory is based on a belief that people will react impulsively in public and shoot their guns, or that their firearms will fall into the wrong hands, stolen or wrestled away by criminals, or found by children. Firearms were involved in half of teen suicides in 2009, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, and they were involved in more than 82 percent of homicides of young people ages 10 to 19.

Roughly a half-million guns are stolen in the U.S. every year, but some researchers say they're not typically taken on the street and that victims are more likely to disarm a criminal than the other way around.

Still, Matthew Fenton, 60, believes that if he'd had a gun on him in 1981, when he was robbed and shot by two men on a Bolton Hill street, that instead of "two bad guys with one gun, it would have [turned into] two bad guys with two guns."

The experience led him to start an anti-gun lobbying group that lasted roughly two decades before fading away a few years ago, he said. But he's still personally interested in the issue and "pretty disappointed" by the judge's ruling, which he sees as a political move. Legg was appointed by Republican President George H. W. Bush.

"I hope they're successful in overturning this," he said of the attorney general's appeal. But even he admits it's not likely to change life in Maryland much if they're not.

"I think we're still going to be safe in spite of this, but it's not going to make it any easier," he said.

In 2004, the National Academy of Sciences set out to analyze the existing research and its competing claims. The majority of researchers found that firearms "are used defensively many times per day" and that gun suicides increase in households with firearms. What they didn't find was any "credible evidence that the passage of right-to-carry laws decreases or increases violent crime."

The committee said it found "that the data available on these questions are too weak to support unambiguous conclusions or strong policy statements."

One dissenter agreed with Lott's findings, however, concluding that the right-to-carry laws "do in fact help drive down the murder rate."

And some others, including Daniel Webster, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, espouse a 2003 study by professors at Stanford and Yale law schools, that showed slight increases in aggravated assault because of "shall issue" laws.

"I find that credible," he said, adding that he didn't want to exaggerate the conclusion. There may be more gun assaults, but there will also be "more opportunity for defensive use," he said.

"It's not so simple."


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