by Dave Kopel
Denver Post. April 20, 1997. More by Kopel on right to carry.
If it saves one life, it's worth it, gun control advocates have told legislators for many years. They have also urged that we treat guns like cars. The Colorado Legislature will soon send Gov. Romer a major gun law reform, which does treat guns like cars, and which will save lives. The legislation is concealed-handgun licensing reform. The legislation proposes to make obtaining a license to carry a concealed handgun in public areas similar to obtaining a license to drive a car on public streets, except more difficult. For both the gun and the automobile license, one must pass a safety test. One must also pass a background check (the gun permit has more disqualifying conditions than the auto permit) and pay a fee (the gun permit is much more expensive). Just as you can't be denied a driver's license because a motor vehicle clerk thinks you don't need a car and thinks you should instead rely only on buses, you can't be denied a gun permit based on a bureaucrat's assessment of your need.
In most Colorado counties - such as Boulder and El Paso - the legislation will have little effect, because, as The Post has reported, most Colorado sheriffs are already issuing permits in accordance with the spirit of the legislative proposal. If an adult has a clean record and has passed a safety training class, then most sheriffs will give her a permit.
So if Gov. Romer allows the statewide legislation to become law, the effect in most counties will just be to make the permitting process more bureaucratic, time-consuming and expensive. The law would also impose new restrictions, preventing permitees from carrying guns in various places. In the small number of counties where permits are almost impossible to obtain (particularly Denver and Larimer counties), the new law would help citizens protect themselves. And since the police cannot protect everyone all the time, it is hardly fair for citizens to be denied the practical ability to protect themselves. Indeed, it is thoroughly inappropriate for police administrators who carry guns off-duty to claim that other people don't need a gun for protection.
Thirty-one other states - including Arizona, Utah, Oklahoma and Wyoming - already have similar laws, so it is easy to predict what the results of carry reform will be in Colorado. No more than 4 percent of the adult population - probably closer to 1 percent - will actually decide to obtain a permit. This gun-carrying minority will be different from the general population of the state in one major respect: It will be much more law-abiding.
This makes sense. The law against carrying a concealed gun is easy to violate and carries a very low risk of detection, as long as the violator doesn't walk through airport security. After all, the gun is concealed. The kind of people who are willing to let themselves be fingerprinted, pay more than $100 in fees, pay more money for classes and spend hours attending those classes are an extremely law-abiding bunch. They're willing to go through a cumbersome, expensive process, just so the government will give them a little card that says they can do what they could have done anyway, with virtually no chance of getting caught. People who get the permits are not angels, but they're about as close as any large group of people can be. In Florida, for example, the violent crime rate of people who have gun permits is only one-three hundredth of the violent crime rate of people who don't have permits. If everyone were as law abiding as the permit-holders, nobody would need to carry a gun.
Antigun lobbyists typically paint gruesome scenarios of incompetent gun-toters killing innocent bystanders on public streets by accident or slaughtering other motorists during traffic jams. Yet these dire scenarios have never - not even once - come to pass in any of the 31 states with liberal carry laws. Why would Colorado be any worse?
While there is no danger from liberal carry laws, we do know that in liberal states, there are documented cases every year of permit-holders using their guns for lawful protection from violent felonies. Thus, carry reform offers at least a small gain for public safety.
Could carry laws have a more significant impact in reducing crime? In a 1995 article in the Tennessee Law Review, Clayton Cramer and I analyzed homicide rates in states that had enacted concealed-handgun laws. In Florida, the homicide rate began falling precipitously the year the law was enacted. In the other 12 states, the homicide rate fluctuated within normal patterns.
Another study, by University of Maryland researchers, looked at before and after data from only five cities. They said they found an increase in homicide, but this result was created by the odd way they defined the before and after period. (They said that before was the average of the entire period from the late 1980s all the way back to 1973, rather than simply the year before carry law went into effect.)
Far more significant than my 13-state study, or the other researchers' five-city study, is the new research from University of Chicago professor John Lott, recently published in the Journal of Legal Studies. Lott analyzed data from all 3,054 counties in the United States, tracking changes over a 15-year period, and controlling for dozens of variables (such as demographic changes, arrest rate changes, or changes in other gun laws).
He found that concealed-handgun laws result in a 5 percent to 8 percent decrease in violent felonies such as murder, rape and robbery. At the same time, there is a statistically significant increase in nonconfrontational property crimes, such as larceny. Apparently some folks get out of the mugging business and start stealing car stereos instead, when they decide that the occupational hazards of mugging are too high.
Ironically, as Lott explains, the biggest beneficiaries of concealed handgun reform will be its biggest opponents. Most people who spend the money and go through the training classes will never actually need to draw their gun in self defense.
But because the handguns are concealed, criminals don't know which potential victims could be armed. So noncarriers enjoy the anti-crime deterrent effect just as much as gun carriers.
Dave Kopel is research director of the Independence Institute in Golden.