By David Kopel
Los Angeles Times, Feb. 19, 1996, Monday, p. B-5. More by Kopel on right to carry.
The California Assembly approved vastly expanding the availability of concealed handgun permits to citizens who pass background checks and safety training classes. The measure now goes to the state Senate, but given the political history in other states, it is almost inevitable that California eventually will have a "shall issue" law, directing local law enforcement officials to issue permits to most people who apply. While the measure has had both intense support and opposition, the ultimate effects probably will be less significant than proponents hope or opponents fear.
Twenty-eight states currently have liberal concealed weapons laws. These laws do not return states to the Old West; only 1% to 4% of the population ends up getting handgun permits. About a quarter of permit-holders are women; women's lobbying plays an enormous role in making this issue so successful in state legislatures.
Will a concealed carry law have much effect on crime in California? After Florida enacted such a law in 1987, starting a national trend, the homicide rate fell sharply, the handgun homicide rate even more so. Florida went from being a state where people were 40% more likely to be murdered than the national average to a state about equal to or slightly safer than the national average. Florida's rates for other violent crimes, already the worst in the nation, continued to increase, although at a slower rate than the national rate of increase.
Research comparing crime trends in states with concealed carry laws with trends in demographically similar states without such laws has found strong support for the hypothesis that they reduce homicide and weaker but still positive support for a reduction in aggravated assault and robbery.
The National Rifle Assn. cites figures showing that concealed carry states have much lower violent crime rates than other states. While the figures are correct, they imply a cause-and-effect relationship that may not exist. Florida excepted, many of the concealed carry states had low crime rates before they changed their handgun laws.
Of course, there are numerous anecdotal cases of permit holders using their licensed firearms to protect themselves and others from violent crime. And there are no known cases of a permit holder accidentally shooting the wrong person. But even a large number of defensive uses does not necessarily add to a statistically significant change in total crime rates.
What we can say with some confidence is that allowing more people to carry guns does not cause an increase in crime. In Florida, where 315,000 permits have been issued, there are only five known instances of violent gun crime by a person with a permit. This makes a permit-holding Floridian the cream of the crop of law-abiding citizens, 840 times less likely to commit a violent firearm crime than a randomly selected Floridian without a permit.
Gun prohibition groups cite a recent study in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology that claimed to find an increase in gun homicide rates in four of the five cities studied after concealed carry laws were adopted. But this study stretched the "before" period all the way back to early 1970s. If we instead define "before" as the year before the law went into effect and "after" as the most recent year for which we have data (1994), then we find that homicide declined in three of the five cities.
American state and local governments have no legal duty to protect citizens from crime, nor do police departments claim that the police can stop a majority of violent crimes in progress even when those crimes are committed in public places. Is it fair, then, to deny Californians the right to self-protection enjoyed by the people in every state bordering California and half of the rest of the country?
More on the carrying of handguns for lawful protection.