Philip Cook comments on More Guns, less Crime

This is an extract from: Perspectives on Crime and Justice: 1997-1998 Lecture Series

Ted Gest, Senior Editor, U.S. News & World Report, Washington, D.C.: Could you comment on two unrelated deterrence theories that have been advanced for the decline in youth violence? First, does the threat of increased incarceration under laws like "three strikes and you're out" work? Second, many States have made it easier for law-abiding people to obtain concealed weapons permits for self-defense. What role do either or both of those developments play in the recent decline in youth violence?

P.C.: In terms of the three-strikes legislation, you are talking about a group, particularly with adolescents, who are not directly affected because they have not accumulated the first "two strikes" at this stage of their lives. These laws probably would be more effective for an older group of offenders than the ones we are looking at. The groups that experienced the largest increase in homicides, proportionately speaking, are not particularly affected by the big increase in incarceration rates in this period.

To summarize the evidence on concealed-carry permits, a number of States in the last decade or so introduced "shall issue" laws that required local officials to issue these permits to everyone who applied for them--unless they were explicitly prohibited because of a criminal record or they were underage. Some of these States left it at that; other States required applicants to take a training course and pay a substantial fee, for example, $80. These legal changes made concealed-carry permits more readily available to people than they had been previously. In many States, these permits were issued at the discretion of the local sheriff.

John Lott, a University of Chicago economist, evaluated the effect that the changes in these laws had on different types of crime in States that passed them.[23] He concluded that the laws were remarkably effective in reducing different types of crime, including homicide, and if every State would adopt such legislation, thousands of lives would be saved every year. He claims this would provide a low-cost intervention that has the capacity to dramatically change the homicide picture in this country. He doesn't end there, of course. If you follow his career, you'll find a recent op-ed piece by him in the Wall Street Journal about how we should arm teachers as a solution to Jonesboro-type problems and so forth.[24]

These proposals strike many to be perverse and dangerous. The empirical evidence in this area is no better than mixed. Lott has his results; there have been similar studies--some using exactly the same data--that have reached contradictory conclusions. The work I like best was done by Jens Ludwig. He used what amounts to a natural control group.[25] No State allows anyone under 18 to obtain a concealed-weapon permit. Ludwig found that adolescents under 18 (who presumably receive no protection from these laws) have experienced the same sorts of declining homicide rates as adults over 21 during the same time period.

Lott's findings do not add up empirically. What is the common-sense analysis of this situation? Basically, you start with a situation in which 5 to 10 percent of the adult population already carries guns without benefit of State law or a permit. You create a permit system, and who shows up? The answer, at least in North Carolina where we have done some analysis, is less than 1 percent of the adult public, and those are primarily middle-age whites. Some of them were presumably already carrying guns, but now the change in law makes it legal. So in my estimation the plausible effect of such laws, especially on the homicide victimization rate for minority youths, is likely to be negligible.

23. Lott, John, Jr., More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

24. Lott, John, Jr., "The Real Lessons of the School Shootings," Wall Street Journal, March 27, 1998.

25. Jens Ludwig, "Concealed-Gun-Carrying Laws and Violent Crime: Evidence from State Panel Data," International Review of Law and Economics, in press.

Last modified: Thu Jun 24 05:38:56 GMT 1999