COMMENTARY: Packing heat more people are carrying guns, and it's making the streets safer

Chicago Tribune

BY David Kopel. Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

A quiet revolution in gun policy is spreading throughout America. Ten years ago, only a half-dozen states routinely issued permits for trained citizens to carry concealed handguns for personal protection. Today, 31 states comprising more than half the nation's population grant concealed-carry permits to law-abiding citizens. In the long run, this movement will prove far more significant than either the Brady Bill waiting period or the ban on certain semiautomatics.

In 1987, Florida Gov. Bob Martinez signed a bill entitling 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. Since then, a number of states have adopted concealed-carry laws modeled on Florida's. Has this movement made America safer or more dangerous?

In research conducted for an article in the Tennessee Law Review, historian Clayton Cramer and I found that in Florida, following adoption of its concealed-carry law, 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.

When we examined violent-crime data in California, where permit policies vary widely by county, we found that counties that issue concealed-carry permits liberally had lower violent-crime rates than counties with restrictive policies; restrictive counties had lower rates than counties with prohibitive policies.

A comprehensive study by University of Chicago law professor John Lott and graduate student David Mustard examining crime data for 3,054 counties found that while concealed-carry reform had little effect in rural counties, in urban counties it 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 non-confrontational 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 estimate 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 reason for the current decline in murder rates.

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 concealed-carry permits are women. When Alaska Gov. 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 asked 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.

Typically, when state legislatures first consider concealed-carry bills, opponents 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 media radar screen as pro-gun-control lawmakers conclude that the law wasn't so bad after all.

Why? Because everyone is a potential beneficiary of concealed-carry reform. Since criminals don't know which of their potential victims may be armed, even persons without concealed-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 permits are no panacea for high crime rates.

But they will be an important component of an anti-crime strategy based on the right and duty of good citizens to take responsibility for public safety.