Right-to-carry laws lead to more violent crime: Isn't that a huge surprise?

The NRA wants everyone to buy guns and carry them — but research shows that violence rises when people pack heat

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published January 24, 2018 4:59AM (EST)

 (Getty/Michael B. Thomas)
(Getty/Michael B. Thomas)

One of the most contentious arguments within the larger gun control debate is over whether right-to-carry laws that make it legal for gun owners to carry loaded weapons in public, usually concealed on their person, make people safer. Gun rights advocates argue that packing heat is a prevention against crime and violence, invoking slogans like, "An armed society is a polite society." Gun control proponents, however, argue that a proliferation of loaded weapons is bound to lead to more violence, if only because people have easier access to the means to harm others.

John Donohue, a legal researcher who works for Stanford Law School, has been working on this question for the better part of two decades. "Turns out it’s a tricky question to answer through statistical means," he told Salon. But now "this data [has] become complete enough, and some of the new statistical techniques have been implemented," he continued.

The correlation between the passage of right-to-carry or RTC laws and violent crime has long been documented, Donohue explained, but as anyone with even the most basic knowledge of statistics understands, correlation is not causation. Now, with a combination of sophisticated statistical analysis techniques, Donohue and his team believe they have been able to document a causal relationship.

"Ten years after the adoption of RTC laws, violent crime is estimated to be 13-15 percent higher than it would have been without the RTC law," explains the paper, published at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

There are a number of different reasons why violence has apparently increased under right-to-carry laws, which is why the negative effects of these laws tend to be compounded over time.

“The most obvious problem is people get into disputes that, without guns, would at the most lead to a bloody nose," Donohue explained. If one or both parties are carrying guns, such conflicts "can now lead to death." 

A high-profile killing in Minnesota last week offers a good example. A 25-year-old man named Alexander Weiss, who had a bumper sticker on his car that read "Gun Control Means Hitting Your Target," was arrested for allegedly shooting 17-year-old Muhammed Rahim to death after a traffic accident. Witnesses describe the two young men as confrontational, and Weiss has claimed he was acting in self-defense. But it's hard to imagine the incident would have ended in death if Weiss hadn't been carrying.

While impulsive violence is an issue, Donohue said, perhaps the bigger problem is that  "when you start carrying guns, you make them much more likely to be stolen," which means that right-to-carry laws offer a steady supply of guns to people who are already inclined to commit crimes. 

"American gun owners, preoccupied with self-defense, are inadvertently arming the very criminals they fear," explained Brian Freskos at The Trace, kicking off his November investigative report on the way stolen guns have become a major component of the gun crime problem.

More than 237,000 guns were stolen from legal gun owners in 2016 alone, though Freskos believes that is a drastic underestimate, as many gun owners never report thefts to the police. One reason gun theft is so common is because right-to-carry laws and NRA propaganda encourage gun owners to have their firearms accessible at all times: in their cars, in their homes or on their person. If people kept guns locked up (as responsible firearms owners did for generations), this problem largely wouldn't exist. But when guns are on coffee tables, in glove compartments or carried in holsters, they become easy targets for thieves. Reliable estimates suggest as many as 3.5 million stolen guns have entered the black market over the past decade.

The gun industry profits from all those stolen guns, since many people who have a gun stolen are back in the store the next day, buying a replacement. So the NRA has every incentive to encourage people to carry guns or otherwise store them in places where they can easily be stolen. That ends up boosting profits for manufacturers, whom the NRA represents first and foremost.

Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that the NRA has been eagerly pushing "permitless carry" laws. Getting a concealed carry license is already laughably easy. It took NBC News reporter Mike Stuckey less than 22 minutes to successfully complete the application. More than half of American states let someone get a concealed carry permit without spending any time at a gun range to make sure they can fire the damn thing safely. But even those barriers are considered too high for the NRA, which has aggressively lobbied to lift even even minor permit requirements. Such a change opens up a new market for the gun industry: People who want to feel tough and walk around strapped, but can't be bothered to learn to shoot the thing or answer a few simple questions first.

On Wednesday, the Indiana General Assembly will have a committee hearing on just such a proposal, HB 1022, introduced by state Rep. Jim Lucas, which would repeal the law requiring any permit whatsoever in order to carry a handgun in the state. Gun control activists, who have testified previously against this proposal, plan to show up in force at the hearing.

"Our handgun licensing requirement helps law enforcement prevent people with histories of violent or emotionally unstable behavior, weapons offenders and people who have never passed a criminal background check from carrying a loaded handgun in public," Rachel Guglielmo, the volunteer leader of the Indiana chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, told Salon.

"The state is forcing innocent people to fill out lengthy forms," Rep. Lucas told the IndyStar in October, defending his bill.

But most reasonable people don't see filling out a form, as one must do to renew a driver's license or file a tax return, as some kind of outrageous punishment. Instead, it's viewed as a common-sense regulation to ensure some amount of control over who has guns on the street. A survey commissioned by Everytown for Gun Safety found that 90 percent of Indiana residents surveyed supported mandatory licenses for those who carry handguns in public. This is in a state where 16 percent of adults have a carry permit, the second-highest rate in the nation.

The reality is that carrying guns may make people feel safer, but all the available evidence suggests that it makes society less safe. Having guns everywhere makes lethal violence more likely, and also has a psychological effect, making it seem more socially acceptable — desirable, even — to resolve conflicts with violence instead of diplomacy. We all need to heed the immortal words of Johnny Cash: "Don't take your guns to town, son/ Leave your guns at home."

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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