Be skeptical about claims of benefits of concealed carry permits

Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones has used his campaign to increase the number of concealed carry permits in the county to enhance his political visibility and fuel his run for Congress. But politicians don’t always shoot straight when it comes to controversial gun issues.

In a 2013 speech, Jones told his approving audience that no one has ever “been shot by a holder of a concealed weapons permit issued by this office.” Yet only a few months earlier, on Oct. 31, 2012, a letter signed by Jones revoked the permit his office had granted to Hun Chu Saelee after Saelee shot a college student in the head at a Halloween party a few days earlier.

Although examples abound from around the country of permit holders who have unlawfully shot and killed others, easier permitting of concealed weapons could still make sense if this policy had more offsetting benefits from deterring criminals or thwarting mass shootings. While Jones argues that armed citizens could have prevented the terrorist shootings in Orlando and San Bernardino, the best evidence from the FBI shows how unlikely such a beneficial use is.

John Donohue 1
Professor John J. Donohue

A 2013 FBI study of 160 “active shootings” over 13 years found that only one was stopped by an armed individual who was neither a police officer nor a security guard. But even this case in 2008 in a Nevada bar was not any average permit holder but an active-duty Marine, who was able to kill a shooter who had stopped to reload – underscoring the value of limits on the size of gun magazines.

Since 2007, the website Concealed Carry Killers has documented 885 homicides, accidental deaths and suicides attributed to permit holders, including 29 mass shootings that killed 139. The Orlando shooter likely had a concealed carry permit when he murdered 49, but it is hard to know because NRA-backed secrecy laws are designed to keep the public from knowing how much mayhem is caused by permit holders.

Could armed citizens provide some deterrent benefits and perhaps justify an increase in issuing permits? It’s possible, and there are incidents of armed citizens, most typically in their homes rather than carrying in public, have thwarted criminal activity. But looking at aggregate crime data, it is hard to find support for the view that concealed carry offers any net benefits. In fact, the evidence on violent crime and particularly aggravated assaults is not particularly encouraging in states that adopt the type of regime that Jones seems to favor.

To see this, let’s look at crime data from 1977 to 2012, a period heralded for the long-term drop in crime, and compare what has happened to violent crime in the 36 states that adopted right-to-carry laws vs. the 10 states that did not adopt these laws. The 10 states enjoyed a 38.1 percent drop in violent crime rate, while the 36 right-to-carry states had almost no change in violent crime – a decline of 2 percent.

Two states that have done particularly well in reducing gun deaths – New York and California – have been among the most aggressive in restricting gun access. Of course, this raises the question of whether it is the gun restrictions (universal background checks, bans on high-capacity magazines, restrictions on assault weapons, etc.) in addition to the refusal to grant easy access to concealed weapons permits, or yet other anti-crime measures or demographic or economic factors that explain a better record in reducing violent crime. The 10 states without right-to-carry laws tend to be more affluent and solidly blue states, so it may be economic gains or other progressive policies that are driving success in reducing violent crime.

The bottom line is: Beware of anyone who trumpets the simplistic view that more guns lead to less crime. This is a complicated area, but there is more reason to be skeptical about easy access to concealed carry permits than there is to be enthusiastic about it.

Professor John J. Donohue is an economist as well as a lawyer and is well known for using empirical analysis to determine the impact of law and public policy in a wide range of areas, including civil rights and antidiscrimination law, employment discrimination, crime and criminal justice, and school funding.

This op-ed was originally posted by The Sacramento Bee on October 6, 2016.