The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Most Americans are wrong about whether concealed carry makes us safer

Terry Eyler walks around looking at handguns as thousands of customers and hundreds of dealers sell, show, and buy guns and other items during The Nation's Gun Show at the Dulles Expo Center on Saturday, October 03, 2015. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

A majority of Americans -- 56 percent -- say that America would be safer if more people carried concealed firearms, according to a just-released Gallup poll.

"Suppose more Americans were allowed to carry concealed weapons if they passed a criminal background check and training course," the question went. "If more Americans carried concealed weapons, would the United States be safer or less safe?"

That 56 percent said "safer" represents something of a surprising shift away from the ambivalence toward concealed carry that previous surveys have shown. Ten years ago, for instance, Gallup found that only 27 percent of Americans said "any private citizen" should be able to carry a concealed weapon. And nearly two-thirds said they would feel less safe in a public place where they knew concealed weapons were allowed.

More recently, a 2012 Christian Science Monitor survey found that only 49 percent of Americans said concealed carry should be allowed, with 46 percent opposing. And an overwhelming majority of 91 percent said that a special license should be required to carry a concealed gun.

That licensing bit is important, and it's one of the keys to understanding the new Gallup question. It supposes that a concealed carry permit is preceded by a criminal background check and a training course. But in recent years a growing number of states have adopted so-called "constitutional carry" laws, which allow residents to carry firearms without any permit or instruction required.

Kansas and Maine passed constitutional carry laws this year, joining Alaska, Arizona, Vermont and Wyoming. Similar bills have been introduced recently in Colorado, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Nevada, Texas, and a handful of other states.

In short, more and more states are eliminating the permitting and training requirements that support for concealed carry is predicated on in the new Gallup poll.

Independent researcher and gun rights advocate John Lott introduced the notion of "more guns, less crime" to the national debate  in 1998 with a highly influential book of the same name. Using county-level crime data, Lott argued that "allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons deters violent crimes and it appears to produce no increase in accidental deaths."

But that was nearly 20 years ago, and gun policy research has come away with far different conclusions since then. Some criminologists now consider that early work to be "completely discredited," in the words of the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

In more recent years, academics investigating the relationship between concealed carry laws and public safety have found:

  • There are "no statistically discernible relationship between concealed carry policies and the public’s perceptions of the number of firearm carriers." Since the supposed deterrent effect of concealed carry laws "assumes that potential assailants are aware of the distribution of firearm carriers in the potential victim population... the data suggest easing concealed carry cannot deter crime" (Fortunato, 2015)
  • "Right-to-carry laws are associated with substantially higher rates" of aggravated assault, robbery, rape and murder. (Aneja, Donohue and Zhang, 2014)
  • "No support to the hypothesis that shall-issue laws have beneficial effects in reducing murder rates" (Grambsch, 2012)
  • At the city level, there is "no evidence that [right-to-carry] laws reduce or increase rates of violent crime" (Kovandzic, Marvell and Vieraitis, 2005)
  • "A 'shall issue' law that eliminates most restrictions on carrying a concealed weapon may be associated with increased firearm homicide rates" (Rosengart et. al., 2005)
  • "No statistically significant association exists between changes in concealed weapon laws and state homicide rates" (Hepburn, Miller, Azrael and Hemenway, 2004)
  • "Changes in gun ownership are significantly positively related to changes in the homicide rate" (Ludwig, 2002)

All of this is in addition to a host of studies that came out in the immediate aftermath of Lott's original research, some seeming to corroborate it and others finding significant flaws in it.

Lott, for his part, still stands by his idea, although he has nuanced it a bit. He's recently argued that studies critical of right-to-carry laws have failed to properly account for state-level differences in how difficult it is to acquire a handgun permit.

"Many who have empirically examined the impact of these laws assume that these laws are the same across states and over time," he writes. "The laws are not the same, however, because states differ widely as to how easily permits can be obtained... failing to take these differences into account results in inaccurate measurement of the laws’ impact on crime."

But as Evan DeFilippis and Devin Hughes recently point out at The Traceeven more recent research from Texas A&M looked at the number of permits issued, not just the passage of various laws. Philips found "no significant effect of concealed handgun license increases on changes in crime rates... this research suggests that the rate at which CHLs are issued and crime rates are independent of one another—crime does not drive CHLs; CHLs do not drive crime."

In other words, whether a state issues a lot of concealed handgun permits or just a few, effects on crime are nil, according to this research.

At any rate, it's clear that "more guns, less crime" is at best a misleading simplification of the relationship between concealed carry and public safety, and at worst a "completely discredited" notion. But the persistence of the idea, seen most recently in Gallup's survey, is testament to gun rights advocates' success in selling it.