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 group’s 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 hadn’t been armed.
Similarly, in this April’s 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. That’s 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 I’ve 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 criteria—for instance, an age requirement, no history of crime or mental illness, sometimes a training requirement—then he shall be issued a permit to carry a concealed handgun if he applies for one.
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 fbi’s 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 areas—currently suffering from the most restrictive gun controls—are 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 don’t 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-abiding—I 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 can’t easily show us the vastly more common cases—numbering in the hundreds of thousands to millions each year—where law-abiding citizens brandish a gun and cause criminals to flee (as they do 98 percent of the time).
But why do 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, "I’m going to count to ten. If the cash register isn’t open, I’m 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 preach 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.
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 1998