By Jacob Sullum
A front-page story in today's The New York Times tries to stir up alarm about liberalized carry permit laws, which let people carry concealed handguns if they meet a short list of objective criteria. To illustrate the hazards of that policy, the Times cites crimes committed by permit holders in North Carolina. How many crimes? Excluding traffic offenses, the Times counts 2,400 over five years, of which 200 were felonies.
More relevant (since critics of nondiscretionary permit laws worry that they contribute to gun violence), "More than 200 permit holders were also convicted of gun- or weapon-related felonies or misdemeanors, including roughly 60 who committed weapon-related assaults." That's a dozen gun assaults a year. How many permit holders are there in North Carolina? According to the story, "more than 240,000." So 0.2 percent of them are convicted of a non-traffic-related offense each year, about 0.017 percent are convicted of a felony, and only 0.005 percent are convicted of a gun assault. The Times concedes that the number of permit holders convicted of crimes "represents a small percentage of those with permits."
More like "tiny." By comparison, about 0.35 percent of all Americans are convicted of a felony each year--more than 20 times the rate among North Carolina permit holders. It seems clear these people are far more law-abiding than the general population, a finding consistent with data from other states. Such data are not surprising, since law-abidingness, as measured by a clean criminal record, is one requirement for a carry permit.
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Between horror stories that suggest letting people carry guns in public fosters violence, theTimes admits there is little evidence to substantiate that fear:
Researchers acknowledge that those who fit the demographic profile of a typical permit holder --middle-age white men--are not usually major drivers of violent crime. At the same time, several states have produced statistical reports showing, as in North Carolina, that a small segment does end up on the wrong side of the law. As a result, the question becomes whether allowing more people to carry guns actually deters crime, as gun rights advocates contend, and whether that outweighs the risks posed by the minority who commit crimes.
Gun rights advocates invariably point to the work of John R. Lott, an economist who concluded in the late 1990s that the laws had substantially reduced violent crime. Subsequent studies, however, have found serious flaws in his data and methodology.
A few independent researchers using different data have come to similar conclusions, but many other studies have found no net effect of concealed carry laws or have come to the opposite conclusion. Most notably, Ian Ayres and John J. Donohue, economists and law professors, concluded that the best available data and modeling showed that permissive right-to-carry laws, at a minimum, increased aggravated assaults. Their data also showed that robberies and homicides went up, but the findings were not statistically significant.
In the end, most researchers say the scattershot results are not unexpected, because the laws, in all likelihood, have not significantly increased the number of people carrying concealed weapons among those most likely to commit crimes or to be victimized.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the people who are most inclined to commit crimes are the ones who are least inclined to worry that carrying a gun without a permit is illegal. But that undeniable reality does not stop the Times from insinuating otherwise with scary anecdotes, some of which are not even relevant. For example, the Times cites a permit holder who "shot his neighbor to death with a rifle in 2008 over a legal dispute." In what sense was that crime facilitated or encouraged by the fact that the attacker was legally allowed to carry a concealed handgun in public?