| John R. Lott, Jr., former chief economist at
the U.S. Sentencing Commission, teaches at the University
of Chicago Law School and is the author of "More
Guns, Less Crime".
THE AMERICAN ENTERPRISE, JULY/AUGUST 1998
Published in "Is This the Face of the Twenty-First
Century?" (Unavailable for purchase) July/August
The rash of public shootings America has been suffering
recalls killings that took place in earlier decades
in Israel. Over and over, groups of innocent victims
were killed in terrorist machine-gun attacks. Police
were rarely in the right place to stop them. Then
Israel found a way to make such shootings extremely
rare: permit law-abiding citizens to carry handguns.
The tragic deaths of seven Israeli girls last
year on a Jordanian island proves the point. As
the Los Angeles Times noted, the Israeli chaperones
travelling with the girls had "complied with
Jordanian requests to leave their weapons behind
when they entered the border enclave. Otherwise,
they might have been able to stop the shooting,
several parents said."
By contrast, when three terrorists in Jerusalem
tried to machine-gun a crowd in 1984, they managed
to kill only one victim before being shot down
by handgun-wielding citizens around them. Israeli
criminologist Abraham Tennenbaum reports that
when the surviving terrorist was interviewed by
the press, he "complained that his group
had not realized that Israeli citizens were armed,"
and so the groups plan to "machine-gun
a succession of crowd spots
before the police
or army could arrive" failed.
In America, mass public shootings rightly leave
us shocked and appalled. On the surface, they
seem to present a strong argument for restricting
private gun ownership. But the truth is, guns
wielded by private citizens have saved lives in
such incidents, including some of the most recent
ones. Recall the Pearl, Mississippi school shooting
last October. When the firing began, the assistant
principal ran to his car, got his gun, and subdued
the shooter, ordering him to the ground four-and-a-half
minutes before the police arrived. God only knows
how many other deaths might have occurred if he
hadnt been armed.
Similarly, in this Aprils Edinboro, Pennsylvania
shooting at a school dance, which left one teacher
dead, 14-year-old Andrew Wurst was stopped only
after banquet hall-owner James Strand pointed
a shotgun at him when he started to reload his
gun. Strand "coaxed" him into dropping
his gun and surrendering peacefully. The police
did not arrive for another ten minutes.
Of course, more than a few case histories will
be needed to resolve the debate over how best
to prevent mass killings. Thats why my colleague
William Landes and I made a careful statistical
study of all the multiple-victim public shootings
in the U.S. from 1977 to 1995. We included every
incident where at least two people were killed
or injured in a public place. To focus on the
sorts of rampages like the Oregon school shootings
or the Long Island Railroad massacre recently
dramatized for TV by Barbra Streisand, we excluded
gang wars, organized crime "hits," or
shootings that were a by-product of other crimes
like robberies or drug dealing.
The results of this study were the starkest and
most surprising Ive ever encountered in
a lifetime of research: When states enacted death
penalty laws, we observed no effect on mass shootings.
When states succeeded in raising their arrest
rates for murder, there was no effect. When states
required a waiting period before a gun may be
purchased, or lengthened their existing waiting
periods, there was absolutely no effect.
Only enactment of one type of law correlated
with a significant drop in multiple killings:
a so-called "shall-issue" gun law. This
type of law dictates that if a citizen meets certain
objective criteriafor instance, an age requirement,
no history of crime or mental illness, sometimes
a training requirementthen he shall be issued
a permit to carry a concealed handgun if he applies
The empirical history in states that adopted
such a law is astonishing. In states where data
are available before and after the passage of
shall-issue laws, the death rate from mass shootings
absolutely plummets, as the nearby graph shows.
Some potential shooters are deterred from attempting
massacres, and those who do try are often stopped
before they can do as much harm as they would
have without armed citizens acting in self-defense.
Since mass public shootings are still relatively
uncommon compared to other offenses, my colleague
and I have also performed a much more comprehensive
study of violent crime. We analyzed the fbis
crime data for all 3,054 counties in the United
States from 1977 to 1994, examining a large variety
of gun laws, such as waiting periods and background
checks, as well as other methods of deterrence
like the death penalty.
Our exhaustive analysis of the data found the
same pattern for other violent crimes as we found
for mass public shootings. Waiting-period gun
laws like the Brady bill did no discernible good
in reducing violent acts, nor did background check
requirements and other old-fashioned gun-control
laws. Even increasing penalties for using a gun
to commit a crime had only a small benefit.
Permitting non-criminals to carry guns, however,
put big dents in violent crime rates across the
country. Five years after jurisdictions had legalized
handgun carrying, murders declined by an average
of 15 percent, rapes by 9 percent, and robberies
by 11 percent (after factoring out other influences
like improved arrest rates). I estimate that if
those states without right-to-carry laws had adopted
such legislation in 1992, about 1,500 Americans
now dead would have lived, and 4,000 women would
have avoided rapes.
Even better, when shall-issue laws are passed,
the benefits of self-defense accrue disproportionately
to those groups most in need of relief. One additional
woman carrying a concealed handgun, for example,
reduces the female murder rate three to four times
more than an additional man arming himself reduces
the murder rate for men. And urban areascurrently
suffering from the most restrictive gun controlsare
the very places that have benefited most after
shall-issue laws pass. Better still, reductions
have been greatest in those urban areas with the
highest crime rates, the largest and most dense
populations, and the greatest concentration of
minorities. And of course, shall-issue laws achieve
their dramatic crime-fighting effect at very little
cost to the taxpayer.
Given all these crime-reduction benefits, most
Americans would probably be willing to accept
small rises in gun accidents and suicides if those
were side effects of more legal concealed gun-carrying.
But fortunately, those negative trade-offs dont
happen. Our research found no evidence that the
increased availability of guns brought any of
the states involved an increase in suicides or
accidents with guns. Indeed, permit-holders have
proven extremely law-abidingI have found
no case where someone with a concealed-carry permit
was convicted of murder using his gun, and the
number of permit-holders who have had their permits
revoked for any reason whatsoever is in the hundredths
of 1 percent.
In state legislative hearings, the most commonly
raised fears have been that armed citizens will
accidentally shoot a police officer, or that they
will attack each other in the heat of the moment
following car accidents. These fears have proven
unfounded. Although 31 states have shall-issue
laws, some decades old, there is only one recorded
incident of a permitted concealed handgun being
used in a shooting following a traffic accident,
and a court found the permit-holder had acted
in self-defense. Also, no permit-holder has ever
shot a police officer, while many officers have
had their lives saved by an armed permit-holder.
The media understandably play up graphic gun
attacks by outlaws. They cant easily show
us the vastly more common casesnumbering
in the hundreds of thousands to millions each
yearwhere law-abiding citizens brandish
a gun and cause criminals to flee (as they do
98 percent of the time).
But why does the press usually ignore cases where
private men and women use their guns defensively
to stop a potential massacre? Just last fall,
for example, in Jacksonville, Florida, someone
pulled out a gun in a restaurant, demanded money,
and the cashier collapsed to the floor, frozen.
The criminal said, "Im going to count
to ten. If the cash register isnt open,
Im going to start shooting people."
When the criminal got to "eight," two
people in the restaurant with concealed-handgun
permits stood up and shot him. Their brave self-defense
barely made the local news. Yet if the criminal
had shot people in the restaurant, it would have
been national news.
The media preaches helplessness in the face of
crime. But in fact innocent citizens need not
be passively victimized. There is overwhelming
evidence that permitting law-abiding citizens
to carry concealed handguns will bring stark reductions
in mass murders and other violent crimes.
Obviously, bad things can happen with guns, but
guns can also prevent bad things from happening.
Police are an important deterrent to crime, but
they cannot be everywhere. Without permitting
citizens to own guns, we risk leaving many victims
as sitting ducks.