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Concealed Handgun Permits

By David Kopel.

Issue Backgrounder Number 99-A. Jan. 14, 1999. More by Kopel on licensed carry.

What states have concealed handgun permit laws? Thirty-one states have strong protections for the right of citizens to carry handguns for lawful protection. Of these 31 states, 29 have "shall issue" laws, which mandate that an adult who meets certain criteria "shall" be issued a permit to carry a handgun for protection. Vermont requires no permit at all. Idaho requires a permit in Boise, and no permit in the rest of the state.

Do Colorado's neighbors have such laws? Oklahoma, Arizona, Wyoming, and Utah do. The Kansas legislature passed a "shall issue" bill which was vetoed; a majority of Nebraska's unicameral legislature and Nebraska's governor support a "shall issue" bill, but the bill was filibustered in the closing days of the 1998 and 2000 Nebraska legislature.

How risky are people with handgun permits? The most detailed data are available from the Florida Secretary of State, where a "shall issue" law has been in effect since 1988. The data show that people with handgun carry permits are perhaps the most law-abiding population in the United States. Floridians who have permits commit violent crimes at a rate of only 1/300th of Floridians without permits. If everyone were as law-abiding as permit holders, not even police officers would need to carry guns for protection. It makes sense that people with handgun permits would be extremely law-abiding; after all, they are a group that chooses to pay a fee and fill out paperwork just to get a permit to do something which they could do anyway (carry a concealed gun), without anyone ever noticing.

Do "shall issue" laws lead to traffic shoot-outs? In the 31 states with shall issue laws, there has been only one case of a driver shooting another driver. That case, in Texas, was ruled to be a justifiable homicide; one driver had caused an accident, and then jumped out of his truck and began attempting to kill the other driver. The victim lawfully used his handgun to resist a deadly attack.

What happens to crime rates? University of Chicago professor John Lott studied 18 years worth of data from every county in the United States. He accounted for dozens of sociological variables, such as changes in income or in arrest rates. Lott found that when a state enacts "shall issue" legislation, murder falls by 10%, rape by 3% and aggravated assault by 6%.

What variables influence the drop in crime? The title of Professor Lott's book says it all: More Guns, Less Crime. The more people who acquire handgun carry permits, the greater the drop in crime. The crime-reductive effect of additional gun carrying by women in several times larger than the crime-reductive effect of additional gun carrying by men. While crime starts dropping immediately, the full effects of the concealed handgun law take place over the next five years; this makes sense, since typically there is a large increase in permits when the law first takes effect, and then a further long, slow increase over the next several years.

What about mass killings in public places? The enactment of a "shall issue" law leads to a sharp decline in mass killings (two or more deaths) in public places--since the risk of armed resistance sharply reduces the possibility that a suicidal would-be mass killer will achieve his objective of killing a lot of people. In California, for example, mass murderer Burford Furrow investigated various Jewish centers, and found that they were protected by armed guards; so he ended up committing his crime at a school which had no protection. Mass killers are attracted to places where they know it is illegal for law-abiding people to have guns. 

Should certain areas be off-limits to gun permit holders? Under most "shall issue" laws, private property owners retain their full constitutional rights to exclude anyone they want. Since the experience of other states shows that permit holders are highly law-abiding, there is no public safety benefit from using the force of law to declare certain areas off-limits to law-abiding permit holders. Indeed, it would be very dangerous for a law to make hospitals, schools, universities, churches, or any other places into "safe zones" for criminals. The vast majority of mass killings take place in such "safe zones."

What about the level of fees and background checks? Lott's research show that the more people who receive permits, the more than crime will go down. Thus, setting permit fees at high levels will harm public safety, by discouraging applicants. Since poor people tend to live in higher-crime neighborhoods, excessive fees can be especially dangerous. A basic records check will suffice for the background check; there is no need to waste money by allowing field interviews or other time-consuming projects.. The public revenue gain from high fees is much smaller than the public safety benefits of lower crime levels.

Prepared by Dave Kopel
Research Director, Independence Institute

More writings from the Independence Institute on licensed handgun carrying.


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