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Should You Carry A Gun?

A new study argues for concealed weapons

By Romesh Ratnesar

TIME magazine

(TIME, July 6) -- Is a gun-carrying nation a safer nation? Fearful of being victimized by indiscriminate violence, many Americans are gnawed by a dilemma: Should I or shouldn't I carry a gun? The question is a real one for a growing number of Americans because the tally of states with "right to carry" laws has gone from eight to 31 since 1985. These states will issue a concealed-weapon permit to any citizen without a criminal record who wants one--no questions asked.

But here's one: Do those laws really protect people and cut crime? A study published in 1995 showed that guns were used defensively about 2.5 million times a year and that in only 5% of cases were defenders harmed after they brandished their gun. But such findings were based on narrow surveys whose scope, upon re-examination by gun-control advocates, could easily have been exaggerated. Thus, discerning the benefits of packing heat has largely remained a matter of conscience, not science.

Now, however, the author of a new book, More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws, has analyzed crime rates in the 10 states that passed right-to-carry laws from 1977 to 1992. He contends that after more relaxed concealed-carry laws were enacted, murders fell an average of 8%, rapes 5% and aggravated assaults 7%. (For the same period in the entire country, the number of murders went up 24%, and rapes 71%. Assaults more than doubled.) The purported reason: would-be criminals were deterred from choosing victims who just might have a pistol tucked in their purse. Increases in accidental deaths by handguns--on the whole relatively rare--were barely noticeable, fewer than one death a year. With the National Rifle Association flacking the book to members, it sold out its first printing in three weeks.

More Guns, Less Crime has touched off furious protests from gun-control lobbyists and criminologists, who call the book's research spurious, its statistics suspect and its conclusion--that "allowing law-abiding citizens to carry concealed handguns will save lives"--dangerous. Part of what's threatening about the book is its author: John Lott, a wonkish University of Chicago economist who has never been an N.R.A. member and prior to writing the book did not own a gun. (He has since bought a .38-cal. pistol.) "If I had really strong views about guns," he says, "I wouldn't have waited until I was 40 to write this."

The book claims to be the most comprehensive look ever at the effect of gun laws on crime, examining data from all 3,054 U.S. counties over a span of 18 years. The findings are startling. Not only did violent crime drop after states relaxed concealed-weapon laws, but it tumbled more precipitously the longer the laws were on the books: after five years, murder was down 15%, rape 9%. The two groups most vulnerable to violent crime--women and blacks--benefit the most after the easing of the laws. And in right-to-carry states, the average death rate from mass public shootings dropped 69%. After the school shooting in Springfield, Ore., in May, Lott argued that teachers should be allowed to tote guns to school.

It all sounds a bit apocalyptic to critics. "A heavily armed public," says Duke University public-policy professor Philip Cook, "could easily lead to a more heavily armed army of robbers and assaulters who will fire first and ask questions later." Jens Ludwig, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University, contends that the book does not account for fluctuating factors like poverty levels and policing techniques, which might affect crime rates even more than gun laws.

Other critics raise questions about whether Lott massaged the numbers. One arcane quarrel: for statistical purposes, Lott dropped from his study sample any counties that had no reported murders or assaults for a given year. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University took Lott's figures and analyzed crime rates only in counties with populations above 100,000. Using this yardstick, right-to-carry laws reduced aggravated assaults 67% in Maine--but increased murders 105% in West Virginia. Still other critics note that in concealed-carry states, only about 2% of people have even bothered to get a permit, and they tend to be white males in suburban counties, hardly the population most at risk. After Philadelphia passed a concealed-carry law in 1995, the number of people with such permits rose by 10,000 in two years. But the murder rate remained as high as it had been for the previous decade. Despite all these inconveniences, Lott stands by the thoroughness of his research: "No study on crime has attempted to control for anywhere near as many factors as I have."

However debatable their effectiveness in practice, concealed-carry laws appeal to citizens grown skittish over lethal violence--if only because measures to restrict access to weapons don't seem to have ended the bloodbaths. Last month the Missouri legislature put a concealed-carry referendum on next April's ballot, and lawmakers in Michigan are scheduled to vote on a similar measure soon. "Carrying a gun does not guarantee you won't get hurt," says Suzanna Gratia Hupp, a Texas legislator who crusaded for her state's law, "but it changes the odds." Many Americans will take them.

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: July 6, 1998

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Should You Carry A Gun?
Guns In The Courtroom
Have Gun, Will Travel
China Photo-Op Diplomacy
Tripp's Turn to Talk
Mission Impossible
The Notebook: No Rest For The Prez

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