Get More Guns Into Law Abiding Pockets

By Dave Kopel

The American Enterprise, May/June 1995. More by Kopel on licensed carry.

Growing numbers of states are allowing law-abiding citizens to carry handguns with which to defend themselves. Research shows these laws increase personal security and do not have bad side effects.

Gun-control experts agree on two basic points: Every year, guns are used many thousands of times to perpetrate crimes. And every year, guns are used many thousands of times for lawful protection. Common sense thus suggests that gun control policy should follow two tracks: decreasing the number of unlawful criminal uses, while increasing the number of lawful defensive uses. While the former approach has garnered most of the media attention, a large number of states in recent years have adopted laws using the second approach. Twenty-three states currently have policies that stipulate that any trained law-abiding citizen may obtain a permit to carry a handgun.

When handgun-carrying laws are debated, opponents typically raise fears that blood will flow in the streets as armed citizens shoot each other over traffic jams. A recent study by Clayton Cramer and myself of outcomes in states that have legalized handgun-carrying finds this is not true. No legal-carry state saw any abnormal increase in homicide rates, and one such state--Florida--experienced a sharp drop in its murder rate after the law changed.

Whether concealed carry permits result in significant reductions in crime rates or not, they plainly pass the "if it saves one life" test propounded by some gun control advocates. In October 1991, psychopath George Hennard rammed his pickup truck through the plate glass window of Luby's Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas. Using a pair of ordinary pistols, he murdered 23 people in 10 minutes, stopping only when the police arrived.

Dr. Suzanna Gratia, a cafeteria patron, had a gun in her car, but, in conformity to Texas law, the gun was not carried on her person; despite its Wild West image, Texas was the first state in the nation to prohibit any carrying of handguns. (Carry reform is considered virtually certain to pass Texas in 1995.)

If Dr. Gratia had been carrying her gun, she could have shot Hennard. "I had a perfect shot at him," she later explained, "I had a place to prop my hand. The guy was not even aware of what we were doing.

Hennard reloaded five times, and had to throw away one pistol because it jammed, so there was plenty of opportunity for someone to fire at him. But because of the restrictive Texas law, neither Dr. Gratia nor any other citizen was armed. Both of Gratia's parents were among Hennard's victims.

Two months later, a pair of criminals with stolen pistols herded 20 customers and employees into the walk-in refrigerator of a Shoney's restaurant in Anniston, Alabama. Hiding under a table in the restaurant was Thomas Glenn Terry, armed with the .45 semi-automatic pistol he carried legally under Alabama law. One of the robbers discovered Terry, but Terry killed him with five shots in the chest. The second robber, who had been holding the manager hostage, shot at Terry and grazed him. Terry returned fire, and critically wounded the robber.

The experience of states with legal carry laws clearly shows that the people who obtain permits-going through fingerprinting, a 90-day background check, and training classes-are law-abiding, stable citizens, and do not turn into temperamental psychopaths when issued a permit. Despite much gun control hysteria, in no jurisdiction we studied were the permit-holders considered a problem by law enforcement. Having strongly opposed Florida's reform law, the Dade County police administration in 1988 began compiling detailed reports of every police encounter with a permit-holder. The reports were discontinued in 1992, since permit-holders were so rarely encountered. Over 200,000 permits have been issued in Florida since 1987, and only 18 revoked because of misconduct with a firearm (generally, carrying the gun into an unlawful place, such as a bar). The story is the same in other states.

The only "evidence" that concealed carry laws are harmful is a single unpublished article from the University of Maryland that claims to find a homicide rise in cities that adopted concealed carry laws. This bit of "junk science" used data that did not distinguish lawful defensive killings from criminal ones, did not study whether homicides occurred outside the home (the only place where concealed carry laws come into play), altered the years analyzed from city to city in order to minimize pre-law homicide rates, used mostly cities in Oregon and Florida but ignored the fact that homicide rates fell in both states, presumed that the change in the carry law was the only plausible explanation for homicide changes, and, most importantly, presented no evidence that even a single carry-permit holder had perpetrated a homicide.

Apart from the lives they save and the crimes they squelch, legal-carry laws allow permit-holders a precious peace of mind. If a woman can feel safe walking three blocks to the 7-Eleven after dark rather than remaining a prisoner in her own home, the permit has value even if the defensive weapon is never needed. Large numbers of women are beginning to demand the right to protect themselves in this way. When signing Alaska's 1994 carrying reform law, Governor Walter Hickel explained that the decisive factor was the women who called his office: "Those that impressed me the most were the women who called and said they worked late and had to cross dark parking lots, and why couldn't they carry a concealed gun?" In Colorado, a group of 1,600 women called "SWARM" (Safety for Women and Responsible Motherhood) has become the leading voice for carry reform. Already, California allows domestic violence victims whom a court has determined to be in immediate danger the right to carry a handgun for protection, without need to undergo a months-long application process for a permit.

Opponents of carry reform, finding that experience in legal-carry states has been quite positive, resort to slogans such as, "What if everyone carried a gun?" The question is meaningless, since data from legal-carry states show that only 1 percent to 4 percent of the adult population chooses to obtain a permit. But even if everyone did carry a gun, leading to the "Wild West" scenario foretold by carry reform opponents, the nation might be a lot safer. Historian Roger McGrath's detailed examination of actual crime rates in the nineteenth century American West, Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes found that despite the fact that the region was peopled mainly by young transient males subject to few social controls and weak law enforcement, the per capita annual robbery rate was 7 percent of modern New York City's, the burglary rate was 1 percent, and rape was nearly unknown. Everyone carried a gun, and "the old, the weak, the female, the innocent, and those unwilling to fight were rarely targets of attacks," McGrath found. Except for young men who liked to drink and fight with each other for disreputable sport, residents of the well-armed West were far more secure than residents of today's cities where ordinary people are banned from carrying a firearm.

With concealed carry reform laws already on the books in 23 states, and under serious consideration in 15 more, it seems inevitable that a national carrying-permit proposal will eventually be considered. In the near term, Congress might consider repealing the Washington, D.C. handgun prohibition and replacing it with a statute that requires authorities to issue a defensive carrying permit to any law-abiding resident of the District who requests it and is willing to take a safety course. Letting residents of the nation's capital exercise their Second Amendment right to protect themselves from the murderous insecurity that now rages all around them might just be a bold idea whose time has come.

David Kopel is research director of the Independence Institute.  

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