Does carrying a gun make you safer? Does it make other people safer? Millions of Americans who pack heat think so, and 33 states with “right to carry” laws permit them to tote a gun. But a long-range study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that these states would have had less violent crime had they restricted gun-carrying. John J. Donohue, a Stanford law professor and economist, is a lead author of the analysis, which used more than 30 years of crime statistics and a novel algorithm: Researchers identified states whose crime rates paralleled those of states like Texas before it passed a “right to carry” law, and came up with models -- called synthetic states -- to look at before-and-after violent crime in right-to-carry states and non-right-to-carry “synthetic” states. It’s comparing apples and virtual apples, and Donohue – who’s also an expert witness in a right-to-carry lawsuit against the state of California -- concluded that gun-toting indeed makes a difference in violent crime: it can increase it, by as much as 15%.
How did you figure all of this out?
It’s a challenge to figure out what would have happened had the law not been adopted. There’s this new technique called synthetic control. What we will do is try to look at states that have not adopted right-to-carry [laws] at the time when, let’s say, Texas adopts, in 1996. We will look at the crime pattern that Texas had the 15 years before they adopted the right-to-carry law, and see if there are other states we can think of as a composite of Texas, that mimic that identical pattern of crime that Texas had prior to 1996.
We take that composite of other states and see what happened in that composite of other states after 1996. Then we’re comparing Texas against this composite of other states, because that composite was such a good match for identifying the impact, the pattern of crime prior to 1996.
Let’s compare it with what actually did happen in Texas after 1996, and the difference between those two numbers becomes your prediction of what the impact of Texas passing the right-to-carry law in 1996 was on violent crime.
What we found [was] that there tended to be a fairly substantial difference between those two numbers, such that it looked as though you saw about 10% to 15% higher levels of violent crime than you would have seen had you not adopted right to carry.
For some states, and Texas happened to be one of them, crime was trending down, and it just didn’t trend down nearly as much in this comparison group of states that had mimicked the pattern of Texas prior to 1996.
So are the headlines wrong to say that states with right to carry saw an increase in violent crime?
The way I would put it is right-to-carry laws increase violent crime. And that could be an increase above what would happen in a state that was experiencing a drop in crime, or just an outright increase if the state was essentially flat in terms of the other things.
The states vary. Mississippi -- the day they adopted their right-to-carry statute, crime took off like crazy. That would be a state where you would clearly say it looked like violent crime rose in the aftermath. But even if violent crime falls, it still doesn’t mean that all is well, because what we’re interested in is not the ultimate effect of all of the factors on crime, but what the specific effect is of this one factor, which is allowing citizens to carry concealed handguns.
Am I right that the right-to-carry laws started getting put into place as crime rates were already declining across the country?
Yes; essentially one thinks the Clinton administration as being the period of tremendous decline, and that was hurting gun sales dramatically. So the NRA was looking around for other ways to stimulate gun sales and managed to get a fair number of these right-to-carry laws passed during the Clinton years and successive years.
Permit holders do an amazing effectively job of arming criminals with their lost and stolen guns.
The way I try to frame it is, right-to-carry laws can increase crime, violent crime, by maybe 13 or 15% over a 10-year period. Some factors decrease crime, some factors increase crime. Increasing incarceration tends to push down crime, increasing police tends to push down crime, and allowing citizens to carry handguns tends to push up crime.
I read that in Texas, crime rates had dropped there since the law; isn’t that correct?
They passed it in 1996 in the middle of the Clinton years when crime was dropping very sharply, but as the synthetic control analysis showed, the states that mimicked the pattern of crime that Texas had up to 1996 did quite a bit better than Texas did after 1996. They had much lower crime or, putting it the other way, a greater drop in crime than Texas experienced over that 10-year period [after 1996].
The saying that the NRA President Wayne LaPierre used after the Sandy Hook murders is that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” I think of that in relation to the shooting of members of Congress at a baseball game. They had armed guards with them who shot and killed the shooter, but not before he’d gotten off several shots. What truth did you find to that saying?
I don’t think there’s any question that police and armed security personnel are very valuable in stopping crime. Where the NRA goes wrong is there’s an enormous difference between police and armed security personnel, and just some random citizen carrying their handgun. The latter virtually never plays a positive role in [stopping] an attempted mass shooting. It’s much more common that an unarmed person will stop a mass shooting than an armed citizen will, just because most people are unarmed. And so the NRA statement is sort of factually wrong. And a little bit insulting.
My research was focused on the more everyday crime. The mass shootings obviously get the most attention, but in terms of numbers of victims, it’s small relative to the grand scale of violent crime, or murder more generally. At the end of the day it looked to me that every category of violent crime seemed to be elevated. The one individual crime where it was most clearly elevated was aggravated assault.
The image that comes to mind is guys who might in one instance have solved their disagreement with fists now have guns. Is that a fair image or is it exaggerating?
Well, I think that there are many ways in which right-to-carry laws cause problems. One is as you said, and there are some obvious examples just in the last couple of weeks. In one case, a guy in Pennsylvania was merging in traffic and an 18-year-old girl cut in front of him and enraged him, and he just took out his gun, which he had a concealed-carry permit for, and shot her in the head and just drove off – killed her.
Then a couple of days later, in Seattle, a guy was riding home in an Uber from a wedding, and he had had too much to drink, and he and his wife got into a heated argument and he just took out a gun and shot her in the head. I suspect both of these cases would not have happened had the guy not had a concealed carry permit. There wouldn’t have been a gun around, and you know if you get really angry carrying a gun, it’s more likely something bad will happen.
But there are also so many other ways in which carrying concealed handguns creates problems. One huge way is that guns are much more likely to be stolen when you’re taking them around town and walking around. We see this quite a bit in California over the last couple of years. A number of incidents in San Francisco got a lot of headlines when somebody left their gun in their car – a permit holder – and somebody breaks into the car and steals the gun and within a day or so, or even a number of hours, murders someone on the street.
So the one thing we know is that permit holders do an amazing effectively job of arming criminals with their lost and stolen guns.
That obviously causes a lot of problems. And then, you also cause a lot of problems for police, and anything that causes problems for police tends to make all crime go up, because the police are such an important force in restraining crime.
We’ve seen this with the Philando Castile case in Minneapolis. The guy was a permit-holder and as soon as the cop heard he was carrying a gun, you could see that he became much more nervous and ended up shooting Castile, because he thought he was reaching for the gun when he was in fact reaching for his driver’s license.
So I don’t think it’s any surprise that police in the United States kill a lot more people than police in other industrialized nations -- not that they have fewer criminals than we have; there are just many fewer people walking around with guns, and police feel a lot more nervous when they’re meeting angry people with guns than they would in England or France or Germany or Japan, where they’re meeting angry people, but the worst that’s going to happen is they’re carrying a knife.
The gun rights people might say, look, we need better police training then. We need more mental health services for people who may get guns when their mental problems would suggest that they shouldn’t.
It certainly is true that we should spend more money in that way. The one thing that the NRA don’t always note is that they make the problem worse, and therefore it might be helpful if they were willing to pay for making the problem worse. You don’t hear the NRA saying, yes, we realize we are driving up costs in society and therefore we are advocating a gun tax that gun owners would pay each year to go into a fund to help police training and deal with other negative consequences of gun-carrying. That would be a sensible policy position, but of course they’re doing quite well in getting their policies implemented as is, and they’re not really inclined to think what would be good from a socially optimum strategy.
Were the data hard to come by? Was there something you would have liked to have that you didn’t have access to?
As a researcher, I always would like better data on everything. One thing for this particular paper would have been nice to have is just better information about the people who commit crimes who have right-to-carry permits. And the NRA has done quite an effective job in getting laws passed to prevent the release of that information. They obviously do it because they think it will hurt their image to have right-to-carry permit holders identified as criminals.
Is there something you hope would come out of your research?
It’s very hard to know exactly what will happen with this paper. I do think it’s being offered as evidence to support restrictions that California maintains on carrying concealed weapons, which the NRA is currently challenging in federal litigation.
And you are an expert witness the state of California has called to speak in this case?
Yes. They just asked me to write a report on what I thought the impact of allowing citizens to have a largely unrestricted right to carry guns outside the home would be. And so I [referenced] the major findings of the paper in that report and then [was] deposed actually by the NRA and the NRA hired an expert to criticize my views.
Did they land any punches, do you think?
Were there any findings that surprised you?
Yes. Whenever you do these analyses there are lots puzzles and surprises. I would have thought that the increase in murder would have been bigger than it was, although I suspect that part of the reason why the increase in murder was not as large as the increase in overall violent crime was that the police are better at restraining murder than they are at restraining overall violent crime. And the right-to-carry states hired a lot more police after they adopted these laws than other states.
But apparently the politicians realized fairly quickly that crime was showing upward pressure in the states that passed right-to-carry laws, and they responded to that by greater increases in police that we saw in the states that did not adopt these laws.
For California, do you have any conclusions or projections about right to carry and the lobbying here?
I do think that it’s an interesting issue of whether the preferences of Californians not to have right to carry will be overturned by NRA litigation efforts, or by congressional decisions to grant reciprocity to those who get right-to-carry permits in other states. One of those things could override the preferences of the California Legislature on right to carry, and it’ll be up to both Congress and the courts to decide whether that would happen.
And of course many of these right-to-carry states will provide the permit to anyone from anywhere in the country, and so that would then present the problem: that would mean that everyone in California who wanted to carry a gun would suddenly just write to Florida and get a Florida concealed-carry permit and be walking around the streets of Los Angeles or San Francisco with a gun.
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