Concealed Carry Laws Increase Crime

On February 27th, the Oklahoma State Senate overwhelmingly passed HB 2597, a bill that would allow individuals to carry a concealed, loaded firearm in public without having to undergo training or even a background check. The bill was promptly signed by Governor Stitt, making my home state the 15th in the nation to enact some form of permitless carry, representing the culmination of a four-decades long, nationwide tectonic shift in gun policy.

Rewind to 1981: nineteen states prohibited carrying firearms, and most of the country had “May Issue” laws which granted local law enforcement discretion over who was allowed to carry a concealed handgun. Only two states had “Right to Carry” (RTC) laws that allowed individuals to carry concealed handguns as long as they passed a background check and minimum other qualifications such as passing a course. Vermont was the only state with “permitless” carry (which has since been rebranded as “constitutional” carry by RTC advocates.

Today, no states prohibit concealed carry, and May Issue laws are rare, with eight states and DC maintaining such a standard. RTC laws are the norm, with twenty-eight states adopting relatively lax standards for concealed carry. Fourteen states require no permit at all, a list that has rapidly expanded in the past few years.

Undergirding this nationwide reversal in concealed carry laws is a fierce and ongoing academic debate over the impact these laws have on violent crime. Crime, Deterrence, and Right-to-Carry Concealed Handguns, published in 1996 by John Lott and David Mustard, was the first attempt to quantify whether RTC laws increased or decreased crime on a national scale. Analyzing data from 3054 counties from 1977–1992, the authors concluded that, if RTC laws had been adopted nationally by 1992, 1,500 murders, 4,000 rapes, 11,000 robberies, and 60,000 aggravated assaults would have been avoided annually.

Despite the outsized impact this initial study had on the public debate, further research has reversed Lott’s findings. In fact, my organization GVPedia has conducted an in-depth review of the academic research, revealing that a significant majority of modern academic studies finds loosening laws governing concealed carry leads to an increase in violent crime.

Utilizing GVPedia’s database of more than 780 academic studies on gun violence, the review finds 59 studies and 20 other academic works from 1995–2018. A naïve count analysis with no quality control indicates a very divided literature. Of the 59 studies identified, twenty find that concealed carry laws increase crime, twenty find a decrease, sixteen find no effect, and three find mixed results.

However, a more detailed investigation reveals that the academic literature has evolved extensively over time. Although an initial wave of research supported Lott’s thesis that loosening concealed carry laws reduced crime, the National Research Council’s extensive report in 2005 dramatically shifted the research to the opposite conclusion: Right-to-Carry laws increase violent crime.

Indeed, examining the most recent literature reveals eleven out of eighteen national studies since 2005 indicate concealed carry increases crime, after controlling for scope and quality. In contrast, the literature showing concealed carry laws reduce crime is antiquated (only three national studies since 2005 still find that concealed carry laws are beneficial). While more research should be conducted to examine the link between RTC laws and crime, the existing literature paints a troubling picture with this nationwide experiment in the widespread carrying of firearms.

However, proponents of concealed carry could still contend that correlation is not causation. Simply because academic studies find an association between weakening concealed carry laws and an increase in violent crime doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a causal connection between the two. The studies could just be picking up statistical noise.

Yet the adage that correlation is not causation does not mean that further headway cannot be made to discern the impact of RTC laws on crime. Both sides of the debate can point to potential causal pathways, namely whether the laws result in deterrence or escalation of crime.

Proponents of weakening concealed carry laws rest their case on the two pillars of Deterrence Theory: direct and indirect deterrence. Direct deterrence occurs when, as the name suggests, a “good guy with a gun” directly confronts a “bad guy” thereby stopping a crime by using a firearm defensively. Indirect deterrence, on the other hand, occurs when criminals know that there are law-abiding individuals carrying firearms in public, and the mere threat of encountering such an armed person is sufficient to deter the criminal from carrying out a crime in that area. Both forms of deterrence, in theory, would cause RTC laws (and thereby more people carrying firearms in public) to reduce crime.

Neither form of Deterrence Theory is supported by the data. Widespread defensive gun use (DGU), which is a requirement for direct deterrence, is a myth. Small private surveys estimate approximately 2.5 million DGUs annually, however these surveys are plagued by severe false positive problems resulting in massive overestimates and mathematically impossible crime reduction numbers. Instead, the best available empirical data provided by the Gun Violence Archive finds approximately 2,000 verified DGUs a year. Police and media reports would have to miss more than 99.9% of all DGUs for the 2.5 million to be close to accurate, while the private surveys that produce those estimates would only need a false positive rate of 1% to result in a massive overestimate.

Similarly, indirect deterrence lacks empirical support, as it would require criminals to roughly know the distribution of people carrying concealed firearms in public. Yet a 2015 study by Dr. Fortunato surveyed 1,000 individuals about what they believed the prevalence of armed civilians was in their state. He then compared that data to the concealed carry policy of the state and the number of permits. He found no relationship, meaning that people generally had no idea what the actual prevalence of permits was. If people are unaware of the actual distribution of permit holders, it is not possible for them to be indirectly deterred by said permit holders.

On the flip side, RTC laws could potentially increase crime through direct or indirect escalation. Direct escalation would involve permit holders committing more crime than they would have absent their concealed handgun. Indirect escalation can result from criminals arming themselves in response to the threat of encountering “good guys with guns,” or by criminals stealing more firearms from permit holders and then going on to commit crimes with those guns.

While it is possible that there is some crime increase directly caused by permit holders, as permit revocation data significantly undercounts permit holder crime, the best available data indicate that cases of permit holder crime are too scarce to generate significant increases. Unless future data and research is produced revealing significantly more recorded crime by permit holders than currently exists, it is safe to conclude that direct crime escalation is not a sufficiently wide causal pathway for concealed carry laws to significantly increase crime.

However, it is highly likely that RTC laws increase crime by indirect escalation, primarily through firearm theft. In 2016, more than 237,000 firearms were reported stolen according to an FBI database, an increase from under 150,000 in 2005. This result is actually an underestimate, as it only counts reported thefts. According to a 2017 Harvard study, people who carried firearms at least once in the past month were three times more likely to have had a firearm stolen than other gun owners. Additionally, a 2003 study by Phillip Cook and Jens Ludwig found that communities with higher levels of gun ownership had significantly higher rates of burglary, indicating that firearms in the home are an inducement, not a deterrent, to crime.

Rather than continuing down the path of weakening concealed carry laws, public policy should be evidence based and rely on solid, academic studies. For example, replacing RTC laws with May Issue standards provides local law enforcement the discretion to double check whether a permit applicant is truly responsible before granting the permit. Increased training with an emphasis on deescalating conflicts and how to safely store firearms to avoid unintentional shootings and theft could also help reduce gun violence. Furthermore, the training should provide a clear-eyed assessment of the dangers that accompany owning and carrying a firearm. Studies clearly show that gun violence can be reduced by adopting an evidence-based approach to firearm policy and shifting towards proposals with significant academic evidence support such as Permit to Purchase, Extreme Risk Protection Orders, and funding community-led programs aimed at reaching at-risk individuals.

Devin Hughes, Founder


March 11, 2019