Concealed Handguns: The Counterfeit Deterrent

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Concealed Handguns: The Counterfeit Deterrent

Category: Concealed Carry, Crime, Firearm Policies|Journal: The Responsive Community|Author: F Zimring, G Hawkins|Year: 1997

There is a new wrinkle this season in the tired debate about gun control in the United States. A statistical analysis has been released with the flamboyantly specific claim that relaxing the remaining restrictions on concealed handguns in the United States would prevent “approximately 1,570 murders, 4,177 rapes, and over 60,000 assaults” each year. According to the study’s authors, John R. Lott Jr. and David B. Mustard, the “estimated annual gain from allowing concealed handguns is at least $6.214 billion.” This estimate was based on a multivariate regression analysis that showed lower murder and crime rates in jurisdictions that had made it easier for citizens to obtain permits to carry concealed firearms on their persons and in cars.

This new “right to carry” study is newsworthy in three respects. First, the crime prevention claims are very large and yet the legal changes necessary to achieve them are modest and do not involve financial costs. Here lies the promise of crime control on the cheap. Second, the people making these claims are not from the local branch of the National Rifle Association. The study is authored by a postdoctoral fellow in law and economics and a graduate economics student at the University of Chicago. Any connection of research to a reputable institution of higher learning is worthy of notice in a field where so many “studies” are transparent special pleading.

Third, from the perspective of a television news producer, the most exciting aspect of this new study is the method by which the legal changes are supposed to save lives and reduce crime. Whereas most observers worry that the city streets of the United States have too many people carrying guns on them, this new study announces that increasing the number of loaded handguns on our streets will reduce the number of citizens killed and wounded. This is what newspaper editors in bygone days used to call a “man bites dog” story. What could be more paradoxical than asserting that the current violence problem could be ameliorated by more guns rather than fewer?

Released to the press five months prior to its publication in January 1997, this new analysis of right-to-carry laws is becoming a discrete chapter in the debate about American policy toward guns and violence. The Lott and Mustard claims are of special interest to this journal’s audience for two reasons. First, the substantive question of whether more guns or fewer is the appropriate path to safer communities is of obvious importance. Second, the data and methods encountered in this study are typical of a genre of studies using multiple regression techniques to support statements about the effects of government policy. Are these reliable methods of determining the impact of government policy? What are the limits of the methodology? For communities to have reasonable dialogues about issues of importance—and given that people will often turn to “experts” for analysis—these questions are of more than just theoretical importance. Thus one goal of this essay is to make the seemingly arcane world of econometric models more accessible.

This essay will tell the “right-to-carry” story in four brief installments. We will first describe how state laws dealing with carrying concealed firearms became an important part of the politics of gun control in the 1980s, and how state level politics determined which states passed the National Rifle Association-sponsored legal changes. Those demographic factors are crucial to evaluating the validity of Lott and Mustard. Having described the origins of the legal changes, we will then turn our attention to the data assembled by Lott and Mustard to evaluate the impact of right-to-carry laws. The third section describes some of the statistical materials that have been put forward by critics of the Lott and Mustard study, materials that cast doubt on the causal relation Lott and Mustard advance.

The final section contrasts the debate about concealed weapons laws with the accumulating evidence on the influence of gun use on rates of violence in the United States. While one problem with studies like that of Lott and Mustard is that they get the wrong answer on the linkage between firearms and crime, a larger problem is that they ask the wrong question. The distinctive problem in the United States is not rates of crime, but rather high rates of lethal violence.

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