, Research Paper
Loosen restrictions on handguns?
There is currently much debate surrounding the issue of gun control. Much of this debate is centered around the nondiscretionary concealed-handgun laws, also known as “conceal and carry” laws, that have become increasingly popular. Proponents of concealed handgun laws state that the laws lower the rate of violent crime, while detractors claim that raising the number of guns in society can only raise the crime rate. The question of whether or not these laws raise the rate of violent crime and handgun-related injuries has also been raised.
Currently, thirty-one states have enacted nondiscretionary laws, and there are substantial statistics available regarding the crime rates both before and after the passing of these laws. Several researchers have used this data to determine the costs and benefits associated with nondiscretionary laws. Of particular note among these studies is one conducted by John R. Lott, Jr. of the University of Chicago. Using complex multiple regression models, Lott was able to determine the following benefits to society gained by implementing nondiscretionary laws:
Gains to the Welfare of Society:
* Violent crime rates would fall by the following:
- murder reduced 8%
- rape reduced 5%
- aggravated assaults reduced 7%
* For 1992, this would result in:
- 1400 fewer murders
- 4200 fewer rapes
- 60000 fewer aggravated assaults
* When monetary values are assigned to these values, society saves:
- $4.2 billion from murder
- $347 million from rape
- $1.4 billion from aggravated assault
There are increases in the rates of property crime associated with nondiscretionary concealed-handgun laws, but these increases are very small when compared with the gains made from reductions in violent crime. No significant effects on the number of handgun-related accidents were noted in Lott s study.
As demonstrated in studies such as Lott s, implementing nondiscretionary concealed-handgun laws increases the welfare of society by decreasing the number of violent crimes.
The Effects of Concealed-Handgun Laws
The crime rate in the United States has increased substantially over the past few decades. This disturbing trend has prompted the research into and creation of an array of laws and regulations, which may or may not be effective. Many of the laws and regulations designed have dealt with the issue of gun control. In the past, it has generally been the consensus that crime rates would decrease if the number of guns in existence would also decrease. Only recently has information contrary to this point been brought to light.
Over the past decade, many states have adopted laws that allow citizens who meet certain minimum criteria (lack of a criminal record, age restrictions, fees, training, lack of mental illness) to obtain a permit to carry a concealed weapon. These nondiscretionary laws, known also as “conceal and carry,” “right to carry,” or “shall issue” laws, have greatly increased the number of handguns in circulation among the general population. Currently, thirty-one states have enacted nondiscretionary concealed-handgun laws. Many of these states have had the laws on the books for about ten years, which means that researchers now have enough data to properly analyze the effects nondiscretionary laws may have on the rates of various crimes. By utilizing the information on the change of crime rates, researchers have been able to address the question of whether or not enacting nondiscretionary concealed-handgun laws decreases the rate of violent crime (murder, aggravated assault, rape, and robbery) and thus increases the welfare of society. While it has been proposed that these laws lower the rate of violent crime, it is also thought that they may increase the incidence of property crimes (auto theft, larceny, and burglary) and accidental gun-inflicted injuries.
The reason that nondiscretionary concealed-handgun laws lower the incidence of violent crime and raise the rates of property crime is simple. Criminals, like everyone in society, make the choice to engage in activities that will provide them the greatest net benefit. When an increased number of citizens arm themselves, it becomes more dangerous for criminals to engage in violent crimes, because there is an increased likelihood that a potential victim is armed. This makes violent crimes less attractive, encouraging criminals to engage in property crimes instead. This phenomenon is known to economists as the “substitution effect.”
Several studies have been conducted in the past few years that have lent great support to the argument that enacting nondiscretionary concealed-handgun laws lowers the rate of violent crime. At the same time, the studies have affirmed the notion that these laws increase the number of property crimes. Little evidence exists to support the idea that laws that are more lenient increase the frequency of gun-related accidents. The authors of the studies have been able to determine that the nondiscretionary concealed-handgun laws increase the welfare of society, and therefore should be adopted by all states. To reach this conclusion they have used cost-benefit analyses that determine the costs and benefits associated with the implementation of policies, which are then weighed against one another to determine which is greater.
If the crime rates before and after the implementation of a crime-control law were compared, the results would most likely vary greatly. Therefore, in order to determine the true effect of a nondiscretionary concealed-handgun law on the crime rate, we must do much more than simply compare the crime rates before and after the enacting of the law. Because many variables effect the crime rate, researchers must use a much more complex method to gauge the changes in crime levels. Factors such as population, population density, population age, per-capita income, percent minority population, and arrest rates must all be accounted for when determining the effects of any changes in the law in any given area. This complex analysis is carried-out using multiple regression. Multiple regression is a tool by which an existing data set is used to construct an equation that is able to predict for variables of similar data sets.
Researchers used this method to assess the changes brought about by nondiscretionary concealed-handgun laws in various areas of the country. Using data (crime rate data as well as data on factors that influence crime rates) obtained before the passing of the nondiscretionary laws, regression equations were constructed that were able to predict for future crime rates while accounting for changes in other variables. Once the regression equations had been formulated, the data regarding the period of time after the enactment of the nondiscretionary laws was plugged into the equations. With this, they obtained predicted values for the various crime rates. Through further computations, a measure of the fit of the actual value to the predicted value was obtained. If this measure of the fit of the actual value to the predicted value was significantly small, it is an indication that something other than the variables that had been accounted for caused the crime rate to decrease.
John R. Lott, Jr., a professor of law and economics at the University of Chicago, recently completed the most extensive research concerning gun control and nondiscretionary concealed-handgun laws. He carried-out many different multiple regressions, each accounting for various factors whose effects on crime rates are undetermined. The most convincing data brought to light by Lott concerns his analysis of county-level data for the whole United States. In his examination of counties in states that passed concealed-handgun laws he was able to determine that murders fell by about 8 percent, rapes fell by 5 percent, and aggravated assaults fell by 7 percent. Lott gathered the 1992 crime rate data for counties without nondiscretionary laws and reported the following numbers: 18,469 murders; 79,272 rapes; 538,368 robberies; and 861,103 aggravated assaults. The data derived from the regression equations suggest that if these states had been forced to issue handgun permits, the number of violent crimes in the nation would have decreased (murders would have fallen by about 1,400; rapes by 4,200; robberies by 12,000; and aggravated assaults by 60,000).
It has been proposed by some that while nondiscretionary laws may decrease the rate of violent crimes, they will cause the rate of property crimes to increase through a substitution effect (if criminals are not committing violent crimes, they will move on to less-risky property crimes). Using methods similar to those used for the violent crime rate data, Lott concluded that property crimes would increase by 2.7 percent. An increase of this size would have resulted in 247,000 more property crimes in 1992.
As well as examining the effects of nondiscretionary laws on the rates of violent and property crimes, Lott also determined how adopting more lenient gun control laws would affect the rate of accidental deaths in states without these laws. He calculated the rate of accidental deaths from handguns would increase by 0.48 percent. Considering that there were 200 accidental gun deaths in the nation in 1988 (the last date for which nationwide data is available), this would indicate that implementing nondiscretionary laws may increase accidental deaths by less than one. The effect of nondiscretionary laws on the number of suicides was weighed as well, but no significant evidence was found.
The Effects on Social Welfare
It is difficult to gauge the change of social welfare caused by implementing nondiscretionary concealed-handgun laws by simply comparing the numbers of crimes committed. It is possible, however, to assign monetary values to each crime category. This allows the gains accumulated by reducing violent crime to be weighed against the losses suffered due to the increase in the number of property crimes.
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ), which is the research and development agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, was established by Congress to prevent and reduce crime by sponsoring research projects. The NIJ examined the costs to victims of different types of crimes by measuring lost productivity, out-of-pocket expenses, and losses from fear, pain, suffering, and lost quality of life. Combining Lott s estimated reduction in crime with the National Institute of Justice s estimates results in a gain of $5.7 billion for allowing concealed handguns. This represents a gain of $6.2 billion ($4.2 billion from murder, $1.4 billion from aggravated assault, $374 million from rape, and $98 million from robbery), while the increase in property crimes represents a loss of $417 million ($343 million from auto theft, $73 million from larceny, and $1.5 million from burglary).
These numbers clearly show a net benefit to the welfare of society when concealed handgun laws are adopted. Of course, the actual value of the net benefit is dependant on the costs assigned to the various crimes. Lott believes that there are additional benefits not accounted for in the National Institute of Justice s study that would increase the actual net benefits of implementing nondiscretionary laws. Taking all of these numbers into account, it is difficult to oppose nondiscretionary concealed-handgun laws. For so long people have reflexively opposed these laws because increases in the number of guns in our society have always been associated with increased crime rates. John Lott s information, which has been supported by William Bartley, whose extreme bound analysis has proved the validity of Lott s calculations, may be hard for some to accept. But information such as this must be headed if we expect to make progress in the field of crime prevention.
Bartley, William Alan & Cohen, Mark A. (1998). The effect of concealed weapons laws: an extreme bound analysis. Economic Inquiry, 36, 258-265.
Justice Technology Information Network. NLECTC JustNet-What is NIJ? [Online] Available http://www.nlectc.org/who/who_nij.html, February 19, 1999.
Lott, John R. More Guns, Less Crime. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Philipson, Tomas J. & Posner, Richard A. (1996). The economic epidemiology of crime. The Journal of Law and Economics, 39 (2), 405-434.
Taubes, Gary (1992). Violence epidemiologists test the hazards of gun ownership. Science, 258, 213-215.