More Guns, Same Amount of Crime?
Analyzing the Effect of Right-to-Carry
Laws on Homicide and Violent Crime

By Robert VerBruggen. October 20, 2022


The past 40 years have seen nothing short of a revolution in Americans' right to carry a concealed firearm in public. In 1980, the vast majority of states either did not grant concealed weapon permits or offered them only on a "may-issue" basis, meaning that authorities retained discretion to deny applications. Since then, many states have adopted "shall-issue" laws, under which anyone who meets certain objective requirements—such as passing a background check, paying a fee, and getting some training—is guaranteed a permit. In recent years, more than 20 states have decided not even to require permits, though restrictions based on age, criminal history, etc., still apply. And earlier this year, in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution protects the right to public carry while striking down New York's requirement that permit applicants demonstrate a special need to carry, but allowing states to continue to require objective criteria.

Now that right-to-carry (RTC) is becoming universal, the purpose of this brief is to ask what the policy's consequences for crime rates have been thus far. In many ways, it is the perfect "natural experiment." One by one, most of the states throughout the country decided to make it much easier to carry guns in public; if either side of the gun debate is correct, these policy changes should have led to sizable shifts in crime rates. In theory, measuring such shifts should be easy because during times when some states were changing their laws, others were not—and the latter may serve as a handy control group for the former. With so many experiments running for so many years, the results should be clear by now, both in the raw data and with the aid of modern statistics.

That is not how things have played out. Twenty-five years after the first rigorous studies on RTC were published, social science has not resolved the issue. Different researchers, often using the same basic methods in slightly different ways, have long reached varying conclusions. Over time, findings that RTC reduces crime have become less common, and findings that it increases crime have become more common—but recent work still contains plenty of null results, meaning that any effect was too small to measure. In a sense, we are actually losing ground because some of those basic methods—used for decades to address this topic and many similar ones—have technical flaws that only recently have come to light.

This is a story about the limitations of modern social science more than a story about the potential of guns to create or solve problems. But for states that are being forced into a right-to-carry era that they would have preferred to avoid, the fallout from the ruling is likely to be subtle; gun-rights supporters' hopes, as well as gun-control proponents' fears, about RTC have been largely misplaced. Further, the Supreme Court left these states a lot of leeway to minimize the number of civilians who receive permits and to restrict the behavior of civilians who do receive them, meaning that any negative consequences seen in voluntary RTC states can be minimized in states now forced to change their laws. These states do not have to charge into RTC with the gusto that other states, with different cultures and very different attitudes toward guns, have chosen to exhibit. Indeed, in the short time since the ruling, several states have already acted to keep their gun-permit regimes as strict as legally allowed. .....
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