The Cold Hard Facts About Guns

by John R. Lott Jr.
University of Chicago School of Law
(Originally published in The Chicago Tribune, May 8, 1998; Used here with permission from Author.)

America may indeed be obsessed with guns, but much of what passes as fact simply isn't true. The news media's focus on only tragic outcomes, while ignoring tragic events that were avoided, may be responsible for some misimpressions. Horrific events like the recent shooting in Arkansas receive massive news coverage, as they should, but the 2.5 million times each year that people use guns defensively are never discussed--including cases where public shootings are stopped before they happen.

Unfortunately, these misimpressions have real costs for people's safety. Many myths needlessly frighten people and prevent them from defending themselves most effectively.

Myth No. 1: When one is attacked, passive behavior is the safest approach.

The Department of Justice's National Crime Victimization Survey reports that the probability of serious injury from an attack is 2.5 times greater for women offering no resistance than for women resisting with a gun. Men also benefit from using a gun, but the benefits are smaller: offering no resistance is 1.4 times more likely to result in serious injury than resisting with a gun.

Myth No. 2: Friends or relatives are the most likely killers.

The myth is usually based on two claims: 1) 58 percent of murder victims are killed by either relatives or acquaintances and 2) anyone could be a murderer.

With the broad definition of "acquaintances" used in the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, most victims are indeed classified as knowing their killer. However, what is not made clear is that acquaintance murder primarily includes drug buyers killing drug pushers, cabdrivers killed by first-time customers, gang members killing other gang members, prostitutes killed by their clients, and so on. Only one city, Chicago, reports a precise breakdown on the nature of acquaintance killings: between 1990 and 1995 just 17 percent of murder victims were either family members, friends, neighbors and/or roommates.

Murderers also are not your average citizen. For example, about 90 percent of adult murderers have already had a criminal record as an adult. Murderers are overwhelmingly young males with low IQs and who have difficult times getting along with others. Furthermore, unfortunately, murder is disproportionately committed against blacks and by blacks.

Myth No. 3: The United States has such a high murder rate because Americans own so many guns.

There is no international evidence backing this up. The Swiss, New Zealanders and Finns all own guns as frequently as Americans, yet in 1995 Switzerland had a murder rate 40 percent lower than Germany's, and New Zealand had one lower than Australia's. Finland and Sweden have very different gun ownership rates, but very similar murder rates. Israel, with a higher gun ownership rate than the U.S., has a murder rate 40 percent below Canada's. When one studies all countries rather than just a select few as is usually done, there is absolutely no relationship between gun ownership and murder.

Myth No. 4: If law-abiding citizens are allowed to carry concealed handguns, people will end up shooting each other after traffic accidents as well as accidentally shooting police officers.

Millions of people currently hold concealed handgun permits, and some states have issued them for as long as 60 years. Yet, only one permit holder has ever been arrested for using a concealed handgun after a traffic accident and that case was ruled as self~defense. The type of person willing to go through the permitting process is extremely law-abiding. In Florida, almost 444,000 licenses were granted from 1987 to 1997, but only 84 people have lost their licenses for felonies involving firearms. Most violations that lead to permits being revoked involve accidentally carrying a gun into restricted areas, like airports or schools. In Virginia, not a single permit holder has committed a violent crime. Similarly encouraging results have been reported for Kentucky, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Tennessee (the only other states where information is available).

Myth No. 5: The family gun is more likely to kill you or someone you know than to kill in self-defense.

The studies yielding such numbers never actually inquired as to whose gun was used in the killing. Instead, if a household owned a gun and if a person in that household or someone they knew was shot to death while in the home, the gun in the household was blamed. In fact, virtually all the killings in these studies were committed by guns brought in by an intruder. No more than four percent of the gun deaths can be attributed to the homeowner's gun. The very fact that most people were killed by intruders also surely raises questions about why they owned guns in the first place and whether they had sufficient protection.

How many attacks have been deterred from ever occurring by the potential victims owning a gun? My own research finds that more concealed handguns, and increased gun ownership generally, unambiguously deter murders, robbery, and aggravated assaults. This is also in line with the well-known fact that criminals prefer attacking victims that they consider weak.

These are only some of the myths about guns and crime that drive the public policy debate. We must not lose sight of the ultimate question: Will allowing law-abiding citizens to own guns save lives? The evidence strongly indicates that it does.

- John R. Lott Jr.


Right to Carry WILL NOT "put more guns on the street."

Right to carry laws are statistically insignificant in terms of gun sales. Ironically, the most dramatic "rush" in gun sales is attributed to the 1994 "assault" weapons ban, which, according to data on federal excise tax collections on gun and ammo sales compiled by the Internal Revenue Service resulted in a 300 percent increase in gun sales in late 1994 and 1995, when the ban, which actually restricts bayonet lugs, folding stocks and flash hiders, not guns, was debated and took effect.

In terms of actual carry, the only guns right to carry will put on the streets are those legally possessed by law abiding citizens who have passed extensive police background checks, graduated from approved training courses on safe and legal use of defensive force and received a permit from law enforcement.

Right to Carry WILL NOT increase unjustified shootings because "guns will be more accessible."

Unjustified shootings are illegal acts of gun violence. Since Florida adopted a right-to-carry law, firearm homicide declined 37 percent and handgun homicide declined by 41 percent. At the same time nationally, firearm homicide increased 15 percent and handgun homicide increased 24 percent.

Overall, citizens who have acquired permits are among the least likely to commit ANY crime. Since Texas' carry law took effect, 163,000 permits have been issued and only 371 have been revoked for any reason. Less than two one-hundredths of 1 percent of Florida carry licenses have been revoked because of firearm crimes committee by licensees. (That's about two licenses for every 10,000 permits issued)

Right To Carry WILL NOT increase violence on our streets.

Texas, like other states that have adopted carry laws, have not experienced increases in violence or crime. Texas' homicide rate is declining, and after the first year of its carry law, was lower than at any time since 1975. Texas' homicide rate is less than half of what it was in 1980, when citizens were denied to right to carry firearms for protection.

Right to Carry WILL NOT put guns in schools.

School age children are not old enough to possess guns and the permit system DOES NOT CHANGE state prohibitions against taking guns on school property, churches or government buildings.

Right to Carry WILL NOT allow "everyone to carry guns everywhere".

Applicants must be 21 years of age, a U.S. citizen, and a resident of Missouri for at least 6 months.

Applicants must not have pled guilty to any felony, or a misdemeanor involving a firearm or explosive weapon;

Applicants must not be a fugitive from justice for felony charges anywhere in the United States;

Applicant can not have been dishonorably discharged from the armed services;

Applicants must not be frequently intoxicated by alcohol or a known controlled substance abuser;

Applicant can not have been deemed mentally incompetent or mentally ill;

Applicant can not have exhibited violent behavior towards others, except in self-defense, in the last 5 years;

The applicant will also have to pass an approved handgun safety course that includes at least 12 hours of instruction.

Applications for permits will be made to the local sheriff. Applicants will pay an $80 processing fee for the three-year permit. Renewal fees will be $35. All fees go to the local sheriffs department.

Applicants will submit a set of fingerprints as part of the state and federal criminal background checks. The sheriff may have access to juvenile court records and make inquiries into the accuracy of statements made on the application as part of the background checks.

The sheriff will issue the permit to carry a concealed firearm within 45 days of the application to any qualified applicant. In cases where the sheriff refuses to issue or to act on an application for a permit, the refusal must be in writing, stating the reasons for the refusal. The applicant may appeal the permit refusal within 45 days of receiving the written denial to the small claims court upon proper petition. The petition form is provided in the bill.

Information involving the checks and permits will be included in the Missouri Uniform Law Enforcement System.

Permits DO NOT allow individuals to carry firearms into schools, churches, or government buildings, such as courthouses.

Permits do not allow individuals to carry firearms onto any business or property posted against carrying weapons.

To revoke or suspend a permit, any competent person age 21 or older may swear out an affidavit in a court of competent jurisdiction that a permit holder is no longer in compliance because of allegations that include stalking, domestic violence or reckless endangerment involving a firearm. The law defines small claims court as the court of competent jurisdiction. If the court finds that the permit holder is no longer in compliance, it has the authority to suspend or revoke the permit.


"I lobbied against the law in 1993 and 1995 because I thought it would lead to wholesale armed conflict. That hasn't happened. All the horror stories I thought would come to pass didn't happen. No bogeyman. I think it's worked out well, and that says good things about the citizens who have permits. I'm a convert." -- Glenn White, President of the Dallas Police Association, Dallas Morning News, December 23, 1997.

"The preponderance of the evidence suggests that the vast majority (of permit holders) act responsibly." -- State Sen. Jerry Patterson, R-Pasadena, author of Texas' firearm carry law.

"To set the record straight... The process is working... The statistics show a majority of concealed firearms or firearm licensees are honest, law-abiding citizens exercising their right to be armed for the purpose of lawful self defense.---- Sandra B. Mortham, Florida Secretary of State.

"Allowing citizens to carry concealed firearms deters violent crimes and it appears to produce no increase in accidental deaths. If those states which did not have right to carry concealed gun provisions had adopted them in 1992, approximately 1,570 murders, 4,177 rapes and over 60,000 aggravated assaults would have been avoided yearly." -- Professor John R. Lott, Jr., and David B. Mustard, University of Chicago.

"From a law enforcement perspective, the licensing process has not resulted in problems in the community from people arming themselves with concealed weapons." -- Commissioner James T. Moore, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Memo to the Governor, 3/15/95.

"As we have seen in other states and had predicted would occur in Texas, all the fears of the naysayers have not come to fruition. A lot of critics argued that the law-abiding citizens couldn't be trusted... But the facts do speak for themselves. None of these horror stories have materialized." -- Sheriff David Williams, Tarrant County, TX, Fort Worth Telegram, 7/17/96.

"Some of the public safety concerns which we imagined or anticipated a couple of years ago, to our pleasant surprise, have been unfounded or mitigated." -- Fairfax County VA Police Major Bill Brown, The Alexandria Journal, 7/9/97.

"I was wrong. But I'm glad to say I was wrong." -- Arlington County VA Police Detective Paul Larson, previously an opponent of Right to Carry, The Alexandria Journal, 7/9/97.

"Virginia has not turned into Dodge City. We have not seen a problem." -- Virginia Public Safety Secretary Jerry Kilgore, The Fredricksburg Freelance Star, 2/2/96.

"The concerns I had - with more guns on the street, folks may be more apt to square off against one another with weapons - we haven't experienced that." -- Charlotte-Mecklenburg NC Police Chief Dennis Nowicki, The News and Observer, 11/24/97.

"The facts are in and the record is clear: Right to Carry gives law enforcement, their families and our communities real protection from violent criminals." -- James J. Fotis, Executive Director, Law Enforcement Alliance of America.

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