Policy Documents

Concealed Gun Permits Deter Violence

Morgan O. Reynolds –
February 1, 1997

Hopeful that permitting citizens to carry concealed weapons will reduce crime, states across the country have implemented new "shall issue" concealed carry laws. Do such laws make us safer?

Texas is a good case study. Before its concealed carry law was passed in 1995, proponents claimed that public safety would improve. Opponents said the Lone Star State would quickly degenerate into a Wild West shooting gallery.

"If you introduce a gun into a violent encounter," Duke University criminologist Philip Cook has said, "it increases the chance that someone will die." Since January 1, 1996, when Texas's new concealed carry law went into effect, 100,000 citizens have acquired licenses--far more than projected--while only 700 applications have been denied.

So far, the crime data from Texas support the claims of gun enthusiasts. Through the first eight months of 1996, Houston murder rates were down 18 percent from the previous year. Dallas murder rates fell 25 percent from the previous year. The evidence is mixed with regard to other violent crimes. Property crimes reported to the police, meanwhile, rose 3 to 4 percent in both cities (at this writing, statewide figures for 1996 were unavailable).

At a minimum, the data suggest that the alarmists were wrong about the impact of concealed carry on reckless homicide. The decline in gun deaths, admittedly, might have little to do with concealed carry permits. A five-year prison-building boom in Texas, for example, has raised capacity from 50,000 to 150,000 beds and probably accounts for the lion's share of the crime decline. The willingness of the state to seek and successfully employ the death penalty is a relevant factor too. The Texas crime rate has fallen by nearly 40 percent during the 1990s, to its lowest level since 1970.

But an impressive study from the University of Chicago concludes that concealed carry permits are indeed responsible for a significant national decrease in violent crime and no significant increase in fatal firearms accidents. Economist John Lott and his graduate assistant David Mustard are the first social scientists to scientifically study the impact of concealed carry permits. The crimes most likely to be deterred by concealed handgun laws, conclude Lott and Mustard, involve direct contact between the victim and criminal rather than nonconfrontational crimes like auto theft and burglary.

Contrary to the findings of a widely quoted study by University of Maryland researchers who picked only three cities in Florida and one city each in Mississippi and Oregon, Lott and Mustard used data from all three thousand counties in the United States between 1977 and 1992. Concealed handgun laws, it turns out, reduce murder by 8.5 percent, rape by 5 percent, and severe assault by 7 percent. The Lott-Mustard statistical models are sophisticated and account for many differences among counties, including arrest rates.

According to Lott and Mustard, there would have been 1600 fewer murders, 4200 hundred fewer rapes, and 60,000 fewer severe assaults if the same state laws to license law- abiding handgun carriers had prevailed throughout the country in 1992. The deterrent effect of concealed handgun laws turns out to be highest in counties with high crime rates. Despite a relatively small number of women with concealed handgun permits, the deterrent impact on rape is comparable to that of other violent crimes.

The Chicago economists figure that the national reduction in violent crime is worth $6.6 billion, while the modest rise in property crimes costs about $400 million--for a net social gain of $6.2 billion.

The Lott-Mustard study has set the disarmament movement back a good ten years, reducing it to emoting and personal smears. The study, which appeared in the University of Chicago's peer-reviewed Journal of Legal Studies in January 1997, examines the data in every conceivable way and finds the deterrent effect of armed, law-abiding citizens to be undeniable.

Today, 31 states--representing 49 percent of the population--have "right to carry" laws on their books. Many legislators in those states took a lot of heat for their belief in the benign effects of gun ownership and concealed carry. Now they have solid proof that they were right.

Morgan Reynolds is director of the Criminal Justice Center at the National Center for Policy Analysis