More than 900 black males between the ages of 14 and 17 killed somebody in 2007. Should we be scared of young black guys?
Of course not. There are roughly 3 million black males in that age group in the United States. It would be horribly unfair to toss around the first statistic without mentioning the second; doing so would be misleading, if not malicious.
Now consider this statistic: Concealed handgun permit holders have killed 107 people since 2007. That news, from the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C., sounds pretty bad -- until you put it in context. How many Americans have been issued a permit to carry a concealed weapon?
The Violence Policy Center doesn't say. And it's probably impossible to pin down a precise number, because records are kept on a state-by-state basis, and reporting criteria differ from state to state. But NRA estimates put the number in the neighborhood of 5 million, as of a couple of years ago. (The NRA adds that permit applications have jumped 50 percent since the 2008 elections -- which seems borne out at least here in Virginia. At present there are 211,435 active permits in the commonwealth. Just this year, Virginia courts have granted more than 62,000.)
If that's true, then the percentage of concealed-carry permit holders who have killed someone with a firearm comes to two one-thousandths of 1 percent. Yet to listen to the VPC's Kristen Brand -- who says "concealed handgun permit holders are killing people over parking spaces, football games, and family arguments" -- you'd think the cohort of permit holders was as dangerous as the gang at Rikers Island.
Now, the Violence Policy Center notes that its numbers might be incomplete: Because of the variations in state reporting criteria, it might have missed some cases in which a concealed-carry permit holder killed someone. Let's say the VPC missed a lot of cases -- nine out of 10, in fact. Using that generous standard, then the fraction of permit-holders who have killed someone with a firearm in the past couple of years comes to two one-hundredths of 1 percent. That still doesn't make much of case against permit holders, does it?
Here's another way to look at it: How many firearm homicides are there? It varies from year to year, but 10,000 is a conservative round number. That's a godawful lot, far too many. (Although out of 70 million firearms in the U.S., it also comes to less than two hundredths of a percent.) Again, the figures indicate concealed-carry permit holders are responsible for less than 1 percent of them.
And if you look into the details of the cases cited by the VPC, it's clear that the group is using the most expansive definition of "people killed by concealed-carry permit holders" possible. For example, a couple of the 107 cases involve accidental firearms discharges; in one, a young child accidentally shot himself with his father's pistol. That's a horrible, gut-wrenching tragedy. But you don't need a concealed-carry permit to keep a gun in the house.
Of course, homicide is not the only crime you can commit with a gun, and concealed-carry permit holders have committed other crimes, too. On the other hand, gun-rights groups point out that sometimes gun owners can stop or deter a crime.
Estimates of how often this happens vary wildly, from 108,000 times a year (the 1993 National Crime Victimization Survey) to 1.5 million (Department of Justice, 1994) to more than 3 million (a 1976 California study). Florida criminologist Gary Kleck may have produced the most scrupulous count, which he puts at 2.5 million annual defensive gun uses. Gun-rights groups also point out that after Florida adopted a "shall-issue" concealed-carry permit law, its homicide rate fell even as the national rate rose. Post hoc does not imply propter hoc. On the other hand, it's impossible to say, at least based on Florida's experience, that liberal gun laws lead inexorably to more murders.
Should states make it harder to get a permit? Perhaps -- but not because of the VPC's statistics, which make concealed-carry permit holders seem a lot safer to be around than, say, airbags.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, airbags have saved 25,000 people -- and killed 290. If a pharmacutical company came out with a new drug that killed more than one person for every hundred lives it saved, Washington would ban it in a heartbeat. Yet airbags are federally mandated. Maybe the Violence Policy Center should look into that.
The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.
--Judge Learned Hand.