No Smoking Guns: Dispelling the Myths Surrounding Right to Carry Laws

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

Since 1986 the number of states making it legal to carry concealed weapons has grown from nine to 31. Contrary to the claims of opponents to right-to-carry laws, liberalized concealed carry has not endangered public safety. Rather, right-to-carry laws have contributed to widely reported declining crime rates - which is good news for Coloradans who may soon be allowed to carry concealed firearms more easily than under current law.

Some opponents of concealed carry laws argue that there are no good reasons to carry a handgun. The reality is that criminals commit nearly 10 million violent crimes a year in the United States. And nationwide, with only than 75,000 to 80,000 police officers on duty at any one time, police are simply unable to prevent most of the crimes that occur.

This means that citizens are ultimately responsible for their own defense. Fortunately, research shows that they are often up to the task. Victims use firearms approximately 2.5 million times each year in self-defense, according to Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck.

Others argue that concealed weapons won't deter crime. However, studies have found that robbery and rape victims who resist with a gun are only half as likely to be injured as those who do not resist. And, in his book More Guns, Less Crime, University of Chicago's John Lott demonstrates that right to carry concealed handgun laws reduce murder by 8.5 percent and rape by 5 percent. Had right-to-carry prevailed throughout the country, there would have been 1,600 fewer murders and 4,200 fewer rapes.

Vermont has long had both the least restrictive firearms carry laws, allowing citizens to carry guns either openly or concealed without any permit, and among the lowest violent crime numbers in the country. For instance, in 1980, when murders and robberies in the U.S. had soared to 10 and 251 per 100,000 population, respectively, Vermont's murder rate was 22 percent of the national murder rate and its robbery rate was 15 percent.

However, not every state has seen the drop in crime that has accompanied the liberalization of concealed carry laws. States like Colorado which allow concealed carry but grant local officials the discretion to issue concealed carry permits have issued relatively few. These states suffer a 30 percent higher murder rate and a 19 percent higher incidence of rape than states with more liberal laws. This should change for the better with the new law.

Opponents of concealed carry have claimed that it would boost impulsive killings. Yet FBI data show that at the same time as the number of persons carrying concealed handguns has increased, killings as a result of arguments continue to decline as a share of all homicides. And some opponents have been convinced by experience with liberalized concealed carry laws. For example, The Dallas Morning News quoted, Glenn White, President fo the Dallas Police Association, "I lobbied against the law in 1995 because I thought it would lead to wholesale armed conflict. That hasn't happened. All the horror stories I though would come to pass didn't happen. No bogeyman. It think that it has worked out well, I'm a convert."

Opponents of concealed carry also argue that such laws put guns in untrained hands. However, civilians are even more careful with firearms than police officers -- while there are only about 30 mistaken civilian shootings nationwide each year, the police commit more than three times as many erroneous killings as civilians.

Furthermore, Dade County, Florida, kept meticulous records for six years, and of 21,000 permit holders, there was no known incident of a permit holder injuring an innocent person. In addition, since Virginia passed a right-to-carry law more than 50,000 permits have been issued, but not one permit holder has been convicted of a crime and violent crime has dropped.

Finally, opponents have objected that right-to-carry laws would increase accidental gun deaths. There has been no increase in accidental shootings in counties with right-to-carry laws. Nationally, there are about 1,400 accidental firearms deaths each year -- far fewer than the number of deaths due to medical errors or automobile accidents. The death rate from firearms continues to decline even though 22 more states have instituted right-to-carry laws. The fatal firearm accident rate has declined more than 19 percent in the last decade and the number of firearms-related accidents among children fell to an all-time low of 185 in 1994, a 64 percent decline since 1975.

Former Governor Rohmer vetoed previous attempts to liberalize Colorado's concealed carry laws. He evidently feared armed citizens more than criminal violence. In contrast, Governor Owens apparently recognizes that advocates for gun control have none of the facts on their side. Keeping honest, law-abiding people unarmed and at the mercy of armed and violent criminals was never a good idea.

This Op Ed ran in the Colorado Springs Gazette March 8, 1999.