COMMENTARY: How, why we analyzed handgun carry permits
By: Jake Jost, Investigative Producer
Date created: 11/1/2007 425 AM
Last updated: 11/1/2007 425 PM
This commentary references anchor John Becker's story that will air on 10 News Nightbeat, tonight at 11. We hope you will join us for the story. Stay tuned to wbir.com for interactive features allowing you to see the profile for your neighborhood, as well.Advertisement
--Jake Jost, Online and Investigative producer
In April, we requested the state of Tennessee's registry of handgun carry permit holders. The database containing that information is public record.
We had little idea at the time what an undertaking such a project would become.
At the time of our request, there were 177,881 valid permits in the state of Tennessee. The data include the names and addresses of each of the permit-holders. We set out to analyze the geographical and social trends among those who have registered to carry a handgun.
What we found
When we mapped the bulk of the addresses, the individual points covered the entire state, with the exception of state and national parks. In a general sense, folks are carrying guns everywhere in Tennessee.
Summarizing by area, we saw rural areas have a significantly higher number of permits per capita than urban areas. Perhaps most interesting was the clear contrast between Tennessee's major cities and the suburbs around them.
Knoxville, Chattanooga, Nashville, and Memphis all show a striking pattern of a low permit rate within the city limits and much higher permit rates in the suburbs around them. The permit rates in the suburban areas were also generally higher than those in rural areas.
With that clear visual trend, we wondered what social trends lay beneath the surface.
Using 2000 Census socioeconomic data, we ran a Pearson's correlation to match up the permit rate and other social and economic factors.(If you're interested in more in-depth information on this, e-mail me, and I can send you the tables.)
If permit-holders are anything like the people who live around them, they probably tend to be white, and middle-to-upper-middle-class. They would also generally tend to own their own homes, where they'd live with their families.
The next paragraph gets a bit more detailed for the stats enthusiasts.
More specifically, there was a moderate, positive correlation between the percentage of an area's population that was white and the number of permits, along with a moderate, negative correlation between the percentage of an area's population that was white. There was a moderate, positive correlation between the percentage of the population living in a family household and the number of permits. The correlations on income were negative or weak for incomes below $50,000. The correlation becomes postive and grows stronger until $100,000, where it trails off and becomes weak around $150,000. Correlations with education levels were, in short, all over the place. There was no clear pattern.
The data did not include gender information, but we did analyze names on an informal basis. Based on a permit-holder's first name, we determined whether that person was likely a man or a woman.
It appears men have more permits, by a margin of four to one. "James" is the most common name for a carrier. There are 8,500 permits bearing that first name.
There are 40 Ednas licensed to carry a gun.
How we analyzed the data
Using the addresses provided by permit holders, we geocoded them using GIS software. We ran the addresses through two address locators based on major road networks, then manually matched as many remaining addresses as possible. The end result was that approximately 160,000 permits were located on our map.
We then summarized by Census tract and manually computed correlations in a spreadsheet. The first names present in the database were deemed as male, female, or "too close to call" based on the Social Security Administration's list of popular names for boys and girls.
Only 161,744 of the state's permit holders could be mapped, which comes out to about 91 percent of the state's valid permits at the time. The bulk of the addresses that could not be resolved were in rural areas. Additionally, the socioeconomic data used is from the year 2000; some demographic shifts have certainly taken place in seven years.
This analysis, while as thorough as possible, is primarily for news purposes. While we have made our best effort to study this phenomenon in a thoughtful way, it certainly will not be the final word in such a hot topic. I am not a professional cartographer or statistician; I am a full-time nerd.
Why we did it, final thoughts, and an appeal for openness
In recent years, more and more states have adopted a policy of issuing permits for residents to carry handguns for self-defense. It is an intriguing prospect to dissect, from a public policy standpoint.
Both gun-control advocates and gun-rights advocates are likely to state their goal as decreased gun violence. Gun control aims to alter the availability of firearms to those who would do ill with them; carrying a gun for self-defense aims to provide a powerful disincentive for those who would do ill with firearms.
Does it work? Frankly, it's hard to say. Objective proof is hard to come by. Even with 177,881 folks carrying guns in Tennessee, it is only 3 percent of the population. The percentage of people who are a victim of violent crime annually is also quite small. And our analysis suggests that those who obtain permits don't fit the socioeconomic profile of the bulk of crime victims.
We hear anecdotal interactions of would-be criminals and the people they've targeted who happen to be carrying guns, but the appearance is that the two don't interact with great frequency.
The academic studies we've read suggest that handgun carriage by permit is not a widespread enough phenomenon for its effects to be determined one way or another. If anyone has information on relevant studies, please link to them in the comments below.
Ultimately, this story is about fostering dialogue on a topic close to all of us: safety.
Finally, an appeal for openness. This story was possible only through Tennessee's open records laws. There has been talk in recent years of the legislature closing the record on handgun carry permits.
A closed record would make analysis such as this impossible. An intelligent debate over policy is unlikely without good information. Without strong public records laws, we can't provide you with good information.