Guns and Bush

Recently, Martin Sheen has appeared in a commercial saying that George W. Bush has signed laws permitting Texans to carry concealed handguns, even into churches.

That is true. But the trouble with Sheen’s message is the suggestion that these laws were obviously the wrong ones to enact. Great Scott, people walking around with guns? In churches? In amusement parks? Perhaps unknown to Mr. Sheen, however, there is evidence about the effect of carrying guns, and it is not what he imagines or what most gun-control enthusiasts will accept. To them, allowing people to carry concealed guns is part of an NRA plot. If so, it must be some plot, because 31 states have similar laws.

“Shall-issue” laws require law-enforcement authorities, when requested, to issue permits to carry concealed weapons to every qualified applicant. In most states, you are qualified if you are an adult who has no significant record or criminality or mental illness and have passed a training course.

These laws raise two questions: Do they lead to an increase in shootings, and do they have any effect on the crime rate? They might cause more shootings if people get into an argument, pull a gun, and blaze away, or if they allow the guns to go off accidentally, or if they cause more suicides because the guns are carried by people coping with depression. They might drive up the crime rate if more people use guns to steal, or they might drive it down if the fact that some unknown fraction of all potential victims, being armed, would be able to resist an attack or a robbery.

John Lott at the Yale Law School has published an important book on these topics, titled More Guns, Less Crime, which, though bitterly criticized by gun-control advocates and intensely reviewed by academic skeptics, offers the best answers to these questions. It is the most scientific study ever done of these matters, using facts from 1977 through 1996 and controlling for just about every conceivable factor that might affect the criminal use of guns.

In a typical year there are roughly 200 deaths that result from an accidental shooting, roughly 42 of which involve children under the age of 10. (By comparison, 40 young children drown each year in water buckets and another 80 in bathtubs.) There is scarcely any difference in how many shooting deaths occur when one compares states with shall-issue laws to those with tough regulations about carrying guns. No one should be surprised: Accidental shootings are so rare that whatever laws we have on the books would not make much of a difference. And as yet the media have not called for new laws regulating the sale of water buckets and bathtubs.

Suicides are much more common than accidental shootings, but they are not significantly more common in states that make it easy to carry guns.

But even if such laws made a big difference, the key issue is how an increase in accidental shootings compares with a reduction in violent crime that is caused by people defending themselves. Lott’s work convinces me that the decrease in murder and robbery in states with shall-issue laws, even after controlling statistically for every other cause of crime reduction, is real and significant. Of the many scholars who were given Lott’s data and did their own analyses, most agree with his conclusions.

States that passed these laws experienced sharp drops in murder, rape, robbery, and assault, even after allowing for the effects of poverty, unemployment, police arrest rates, and the like. States that did not pass these laws did not show comparable declines. And these declines were not trivial—he is writing about as many as 1,000 fewer murders and rapes and 10,000 fewer robberies.

Carrying concealed guns reduces—it does not increase—the rate of serious crime, and that reduction is vastly greater than the generally trivial effect of gun-carrying on accidental shootings. Gov. Bush did a good deed for his state. Martin Sheen should learn that.

None of this means that there ought to be no gun-control efforts. I disagree with the view that gun’s don’t kill, only people kill. We do not have drive-by poisonings or drive-by knifings, but we do have drive-by shootings. I think that police and probation- and parole-officers should make a major effort to take guns away from people on probation or parole, street gangs should be placed under court orders barring them from carrying guns, and schools should make certain that students do not carry guns into schools. Every gun sold should have the marks it leaves on ammunition recorded so that gun owners can be identified when a spent bullet is recovered. Scientists should be urged to devise mechanisms that make it easier to detect concealed weapons so that people carrying guns can be asked, without violating their rights, to show their license.

All of these steps make more sense than inventing new devices to make it harder to sell guns, especially since, as Professor Philip Cook has shown, the Brady Law has had no effect on crime rates. If we want to get serious about protecting people, we have to combine reasonable self-defense by ordinary people with carefully targeted strategies to keep guns out of the wrong hands.