The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

More guns, less crime? Not exactly.

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Over the weekend, a federal judge struck down the District's ban on carrying handguns in public, the last such law in the country to fall as gun-rights advocates have been accumulating victories. Shortly afterward, Alan Gura, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs in the case, told The Post this:

I believe the city is absolutely safer. Make no mistake about it. This is a fantastic improvement in public safety. Yes, we have a problem in America with gun violence. But no, that problem is not the result of law-abiding people carrying guns.

That prediction — Washington will be safer without the gun ban — stems from what's known as the "more guns, less crime" hypothesis. It argues that violent crime declines in places where more legal gun owners carry the weapons in public, both because those people are capable of self-defense, and because would-be criminals know they're out there. "More guns, less crime" has been an incredibly potent idea in local policy debates over gun laws. But is there evidence that it's true?

The District, which is considering an appeal of the decision, isn't buying it.

The theory has largely been fueled by a deeply contested 1997 paper by economists John Lott and David Mustard, who concluded that "concealed handguns are the most cost-effective method of reducing crime thus far analyzed by economists." If states without concealed-carry laws had them back in 1992, Lott and Mustard calculated, that year they could have avoided hundreds of murders, thousands of rapes and tens of thousands of assaults.

Today, all 50 states have some kind of concealed-carry law (Illinois became the last to enact one earlier this year).

"John Lott’s research was in my opinion very instrumental over decades in having more states pass laws to make it easier to get permits to carry concealed loaded guns, and to lessen the barriers for those permit holders to take guns in ever more places, whether it's bars, or places of worship, or schools," says Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. "It’s all based upon Lott’s scholarship that has been completely discredited."

I had reached out to Webster in search of data on the relationship between crime and concealed-carry laws. "There has been a lot of research," he told me, "much of it bad." And, in fact, the web is full of it. The idea that more guns lead to less crime appears on gun policy "fact sheets," as evidence debunking gun control "myths," in congressional committee reports. It's regularly stated as a causal fact proven by the twin trends that 1) the number of people with concealed-carry permits has been growing, and 2) crime has been on the decline.

The theory, as it turns out, has grown more entrenched in public policy over time as the evidence behind it has grown more suspect among researchers. Numerous studies have critiqued the methodology of the original paper. In 2005, the Nation Research Council published a large report including a section that was designed to definitively resolve the question. All but one of the panel's 18 members concluded that existing research was insufficient to say much of anything about a causal connection between crime and right-to-carry laws.

A more recent paper ("the best study on the topic" by Webster's account), written by Stanford's Abhay Aneja and John J. Donohue and Hopkins' Alexandria Zhang, goes one step further. It methodically picks apart the existing literature — including Lott's — and reaches a dramatically different conclusion:

Overall, the most consistent, albeit not uniform, finding to emerge from both the state and the county panel data models conducted over the entire 1977–2006 period with and without state trends and using three different models is that aggravated assault rises when [right-to-carry] laws are adopted.

In other words, let more people carry concealed guns, and assaults go up (Aneja et al. found no consistent impact on other kinds of crime). The explanations for this are about as plausible as they are for the opposite theory: Put more guns in circulation, and more bad things are bound to happen.

"My opinion is that I think there’s greater evidence that they probably have had some harmful impact," Webster says of concealed-carry laws.

What he'd like to know is whether those harmful effects are stronger in states with particularly lax standards for who can have a concealed-weapon permit (an aside: all of what we know about this and related gun-policy topics has been seriously hampered by the federal prohibition on funding for gun research). This is the piece of policy that we don't talk about enough: The impact of right-to-carry laws is tied to how easy it is to gain access to that right. Some states have no eligibility requirements. Others are stringent. Some states grant permits to gun owners with a history of domestic violence. Others don't.

"That sort of gets lost on people," Webster says, "because the way this issue is portrayed is that we have one group of people — legal gun owners — and the assumption is that these are law-abiding, god-fearing, church-going people. They’re not to be feared. Then on the other side are all the career criminal folks, and that’s who we’re defending ourselves against.

"But the world doesn’t really look like that. The world is full of all kinds of gray areas."