Shooting down claims about right-to-carry laws

CHICAGO — CHICAGO -- Last week, the Missouri legislature voted to let citizens carry concealed handguns with a state permit, and advocates on either side of the issue were quick to make the usual predictions. Opponents feared an epidemic of gunplay over trivial disputes, and the National Rifle Association announced, "The streets of Missouri just became safer for everyone, except criminals."

Both sides have a stake in pretending that great consequences will follow. But the real news about the "right to carry" laws is that there isn't much news.


When Florida became one of the first states to make it possible for people meeting certain conditions to carry sidearms in public places in 1987, no one really knew what the results would be. Gun advocates assured us that an armed society would be a polite society, and gun control groups gave the impression that the streets would run red with blood.

Despite the uncertainties, the change soon became a trend. Missouri is the 36th state to adopt such a law. Like other states, it disqualifies convicted felons, the mentally ill and drug abusers and requires applicants to pass a firearms safety course.


Guns and violence are among the most emotional and bitterly contested issues of our time. But partisans on either side might keep in mind Samuel Johnson's lament: "How small, of all that human hearts endure, that part which laws or kings can cause or cure!" This turns out to be one of those cases in which drastic alterations in government policy have virtually no effect on the lives of most people.

One economist, John Lott Jr. of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, made his name with a book, More Guns, Less Crime, presenting a statistical case that conceal-carry laws serve to reduce wrongdoing -- presumably by deterring crooks from preying on people who could be packing lethal weapons. But more recent scholarship casts doubt on his findings. Law professors John J. Donohue of Stanford and Ian Ayres of Yale examined Mr. Lott's data, accused him of errors and concluded that the laws didn't reduce crime and may have increased it slightly.

It would take a journalist bolder than I to feign mastery of the regression analyses that the disputants have flung at each other. But a new article by Tomislav V. Kovandzic of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Thomas B. Marvell of Justec Research, published in the journal Criminology and Public Policy, offers further grounds for skepticism about the more-guns-less-crime theory.

They looked closely at Florida's experience and found that its law "had no measurable effect, for good or ill, on violence rates." Supporters of the law can't exactly dismiss their research as liberal propaganda: It comes with the endorsement of Florida State criminologist Gary Kleck, whose research on firearms use has been widely cited to discredit gun control. In light of this study, says Mr. Kleck, "I wouldn't expect any effect" from the new Missouri law.

That may be bad news for gun rights groups, but it's not exactly a great boon to gun control zealots, either. If there had been an epidemic of concealed gun permit holders blasting away at each other over parking spaces, we would have heard about it. In fact, all evidence indicates that almost all the people who obtain these licenses are responsible and law-abiding.

Since 1987, Florida has issued 859,124 permits. During that period, fewer than 2,000 of them have been revoked by the state because the licensee committed a crime after getting the permit -- and only 164 of those crimes involved a gun.

The Violence Policy Center, which opposes right-to-carry laws, has published a report on Texas subtitled "More Guns, More Crime." It trumpets the news that over the course of nearly five years, licensees in that state were arrested for a total of 5,314 crimes -- "two and a half crimes a day since the law went into effect." But considering the fact that some 891,000 adults are arrested in Texas every year -- more than 2,400 a day -- that number doesn't look too scary.

There are currently 234,000 people in the state with conceal-carry licenses. In 2001, reports the Texas Department of Public Safety, only 180 of them were convicted of crimes -- including a grand total of one for murder. People without these permits, according to the DPS, account for 99.5 percent of all the crime in Texas.


The advantage of these laws is that they give individuals the means to protect themselves from violence, if they feel the need. But those who expect anything better than that are probably doomed to disappointment. So are those who expect anything worse.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.