Perhaps the most predictable fallout of mass shootings is the response of opposing interest groups. Gun control supporters blame the event on easy access to firearms, while gun industry lobbyists recite the now familiar refrain, “[t]he only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.

Few were surprised, then, when Charles L. Cotton wrote that the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney was partially responsible for his death and the death of eight of his parishioners–because, as a state legislator, Pinckney voted against a law that would allow people to carry concealed firearms in South Carolina churches.

On its face, the claim that increasing the number of gun carriers would reduce crime seems logical (at least to an economist). If more people carry guns, then criminals would understand that the likelihood of their victims defending themselves with a gun is higher and would therefore be less likely to commit crime. In simple economic terms, easing concealed carry seeks to increase the cost assailants pay to commit a crime, so they choose not to, we hope.

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But scientific research on the ability of concealed carry to reduce crime has yielded mixed results. A few studies suggest these policies are effective, but even more suggest that making concealed carry easier does not reduce crime and may even increase instances of firearm injury. Why is this the case? My research (gated final, ungated draft) suggests an explanation.

The ability of concealed carry to reduce crime is dependent on almost perfect information. This is how the policy should work:

  • A new law makes it easier to legally carry a concealed firearm
  • More people choose to carry firearms
  • Criminals observe (or infer) that more people are carrying firearms
  • Criminals choose not to commit crime, because they understand that the price of crime has increased because there are more firearm carriers

But if people do not believe that there are more firearm carriers because concealed carry laws have gotten more permissive, then they do not register that the price of crime has increased, and therefore crime rates will not fall.

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My article presents evidence that this second result is likely the case. I surveyed 1,000 Americans and asked them how many people they believed carry guns in their state. I then compared their responses to how difficult their state makes it to legally carry a firearm.

The data suggest that there is no relationship between a state’s concealed carry laws and the number of firearm carriers people believe there are in that state. So what does predict how many firearm carriers are believed to be in the state? Gender, income, and population density. You are likely to believe there are fewer firearms carriers if you are male, more wealthy, and live in a city.

While my study has its weaknesses–a larger sample would be preferable–it does provide a simple and reasonable explanation for why our concealed laws have not been demonstrably effective and why they deserve a second look.

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Perhaps most interestingly, I find very strong evidence that making it easier to carry concealed weapons does substantially increase the number of people who carry guns–but I found no evidence that that changes public perceptions of how many people are carrying guns.

Many would consider this outcome the worst-case scenario. There is a cost to having more people carry guns. More people carrying guns means more opportunity for conflicts that may otherwise end peacefully to end in tragedy and more opportunity for accidents (like when a state legislator accidentally discharged their weapon in the Kentucky Capitol building last year). The data suggest that many states are paying these costs, but are not deterring crime in exchange.

Would events in Charleston have played out differently if one of the victims had been carrying a gun? Perhaps, but it is very unlikely that tragedy would have been averted entirely if Pinckney had voted in favor of concealed carry.

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