Do Concealed Handgun Laws Save Lives?

by John R. Lott, Jr.
March 26, 1998
States from Michigan to Nebraska to California, as well as the federal government, are considering new rules on letting law-abiding citizens carry guns. Does allowing citizens to carry concealed handguns deter violent crimes? Or does this cause otherwise law-abiding citizens to harm each other? Thirty-one states now have guaranteed their citizens the right to carry concealed handguns if applicants do not have a criminal record or a history of significant mental illness. So what have the results been?

The numbers tell the story

Using the FBI's crime-rate data for all 3,054 U.S. counties by year from 1977 to 1992, I co-authored a study in the January 1997 Journal of Legal Studies. We found that concealed handguns deter violent crimes and produce no significant increase in accidental handgun deaths. The accompanying figures show how dramatic this drop is by illustrating how different violent crime rates change before and after the adoption of these laws. The size and timing of the decline coincide closely with the number of concealed-handgun permits issued. Counties issuing the most new permits had the greatest drops in crimes.

The study considered arrest and conviction rates, prison-sentence lengths and changes in many other handgun laws such as waiting periods, as well as income, poverty, unemployment and changing demographics. Thousands of observations made it possible to control for a whole range of other factors never included in any previous crime study. 

The estimated benefits indicate that if those states without right-to-carry concealed handgun provisions had adopted them in 1992, at least 1,500 murders would have been avoided yearly. Similarly, rapes would have declined by more than 4,000, robbery by more than 11,000 and aggravated assault by more than 60,000.

Benefits all around

Surprisingly, the largest drops in violent crimes occurred in the most urban counties with the highest crime rates. Further, the benefits of concealed handguns were not limited to those who carry the weapons. By the nature of these guns being concealed, criminals cannot tell whether a potential victim is armed, thus making crime less attractive when it involves direct contact with people. Citizens who have no intention of carrying a concealed handgun benefit from the crime-fighting efforts of their fellow citizens.

While allowing either men or women to carry concealed handguns deters murder, the impact is particularly dramatic for women. The findings imply that for each additional woman carrying a concealed handgun the murder rate for women falls by three to four times more having an additional man carrying a concealed handgun lowers the murder rate for men. With women typically being weaker physically, providing a woman with a gun has a much bigger effect on her ability to defend herself.

People willing to go through the permitting process also tend to be law abiding. In Florida, almost 444,000 licenses were granted from 1987 to 1997, but only 84 people have lost their licenses for using a firearm in a felony. Most cases appear to have involved accidentally carrying a gun into restricted areas like airports or schools.

During Texas' first two years of issuing permits in 1996 and 1997, permit holders were arrested for violent crimes at less than one-sixth the rate of other adult Texans, and these arrests rarely involved guns. Likewise, in Virginia, not a single permit holder has been involved in a violent crime. Similar results have been observed in states such as Kentucky, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.

Listen to the men in blue

While most police have supported concealed-handgun laws, many opponents have changed their minds after adoption. For example, Glenn White, president of the Dallas Police Association, recently summarized his change of heart: "I lobbied against the law in 1993 and 1995 because I thought it would lead to wholesale armed conflict. That hasn't happened. All the horror stories I thought would come to pass didn't happen. No bogeyman. I think it's worked out well, and that says good things about the citizens who have permits. I'm a convert."

Permit holders are unusually law-abiding citizens who fear for their personal safety. The police are simply not able to protect everyone all the time. As a former opponent of concealed handgun laws, Campbell County, Ky. Sheriff John Dunn says: "I have changed my opinion ... These are all just everyday citizens who feel they need some protection."

The evidence clearly indicates that we are all better off when law-abiding citizens are given a chance to defend themselves. 

John R. Lott Jr. is the John M. Olin Law and Economics Fellow at the University of Chicago School of Law. His book, More Guns, Less Crime is forthcoming in May from the University of Chicago Press.