By John J. Donohue / Special to The Washington Post
In one of its major decisions this term, the Supreme Court struck down a 109-year-old New York law that said that only people who could demonstrate a compelling need to carry a gun could do so. Simply living in a dangerous neighborhood and wanting to protect oneself from crime wasn’t good enough, New York said; a judgment the court deemed unconstitutional, as it announced “an individual’s right to carry a handgun for self-defense outside the home.”
Whatever one’s view of the best way to interpret the Second Amendment, we unfortunately know what effects this ruling will have in the relatively few states that still restrict the carrying of weapons (such as New York, California, New Jersey and Massachusetts). It will cause a spike in violent crime, lead to more guns being stolen and result in the police solving fewer violent-crime cases. We know that’s true because research has established that that’s what has happened in other states that have liberalized their gun-carry laws. No doubt, as gun-rights advocates never tire of arguing, people carrying guns are able to thwart some small number of crimes. But the data shows that those positive effects are swamped by a more general rise in violent gun crime and related negative outcomes.
In the last five years, more than a dozen empirical studies have concluded that right-to-carry laws increase violent crime. The latest found that, of the 47 largest cities in the United States, those in the states adopting right-to-carry laws experienced a roughly 30 percent increase in firearm-related violent crime (that is, homicide, aggravated assault and robbery). This city-based research — conducted by me, Stanford researchers Matthew Bondy and Samuel Cai, and Philip J. Cook of Duke — buttresses earlier findings, rooted in state-level data, of increased violent crime.
Researchers can identify the effects of right-to-carry laws because they have been slowly adopted over several decades. As of 1987, 16 states and the District of Columbia banned concealed carry, and 26 states heavily restricted such carrying of weapons. (Even Texas largely banned the carrying of firearms outside the home from 1870 to 1995.) But the gun lobby has campaigned to expand the “right to carry” to every state in the union, and the resulting staggered adoption by many states of these laws aids researchers in the effort to ascertain their impact.
Our study drew on data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reports and Supplementary Homicide Reports, from 1979 to 2019. As a first step in the study, we determined that the passage of right to carry (RTC) laws wasn’t a reaction to a rise in crimes in the cities we examined. If that had been true, it would complicate teasing out the cause and effect of the passage of these statutes. Passing a law in response to a temporary spike in crime — such as one induced by a pandemic — might appear to be effective when crime returns to normal as the pandemic recedes; conversely, if a law were enacted in response to an upward trend in crime, one might conclude that the policy was ineffective if crime continued to rise; even if the law in fact restrained the subsequent crime increase.
In some cases, we were surprised by what we did not find. Astonishingly, as more states embraced the right to carry, the rate at which Americans used a gun in response to a criminal threat didn’t budge. People confronted by criminals used guns 0.9 percent of the time, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey for 1992-2001 as well as for 2007-11. Let that sink in: As the proportion of the U.S. population covered by RTC laws expanded to 67 percent across the nation and as the number of permits rose across almost all states, there was no increase in the likelihood that a “good guy with a gun” would defend themselves against an assailant.
Naturally, our paper looked closely at the impact of RTC laws on levels of overall violent crime, as well as, separately, firearm and non-firearm crime. Whether one looked at all violent crime or specifically at homicide, robbery and aggravated assault, there was one consistent finding (although not every result was statistically significant): Overall crime always rose, and firearm-related crime rose even more significantly. Our methods don’t allow us to determine the precise mechanism by which crime is increasing, but clearly routine conflicts — road rage incidents, for example — are far more likely to end badly when so many citizens are armed. Furthermore, the widespread carrying of guns further incentivizes criminals to make sure they are packing. The latter fact likely explains why firearm robbery showed the single highest rate of growth of any crime; a highly statistically significant increase of roughly a third.
Our paper highlighted two important costs of gun carrying that have largely been overlooked. First, RTC laws lead to a dramatic 35 percent increase in gun thefts. Police reports from around the country attribute the bulk of this theft to guns left in often unlocked cars. Our research found that the level of gun carrying in RTC states during the period we studied transferred, via theft, about 100,000 guns from “good guys” to criminals each year. With the new Supreme Court decision, that figure will grow. This free path to gun ownership is a great bonanza for criminals.
The second novel contribution of our paper is the discovery that police clearance rates for violent crimes drop as RTC policies take effect. Remarkably, we found that in the wake of RTC adoption, the ability of police to close the books on cases fell by a statistically significant 13 percent. This is not simply a product of more crime overwhelming the police, we know, because even when we control for the higher levels of crime caused by RTC laws, we still see statistically significant decreases in crime clearance rates. Right-to-carry laws lead to more criminals being out on the streets because they have not been identified and apprehended.
Police effectiveness in solving crime is impaired, we propose, because officers have to deal with an abundant set of challenges with a more armed public. Simply processing the enormous jump in gun thefts expends police resources that could be devoted to fighting crime. Additionally, every inadvertent discharge of a weapon outside the home, even those that do not lead to injuries, generates a police response that diverts law enforcement from their crime-fighting duties. And in ways both subtle and less subtle, police may decline to intervene in situations in which they fear getting shot — they are trained to internalize that shootings are the biggest risk they face — which leads more criminals to get away with their misdeeds.
Of course, rising crime is not the only consequence of creating a situation in which many people on the street are armed. The likelihood of police shootings — both justified and unjustified — rises. When police show up at an active crime scene and find guns drawn, it is not often clear who are the miscreants, leading to tragic errors. The police shoot more quickly when they think weapons are present; just think of the Philando Castile case in Minneapolis, where an officer shot Castile during a traffic stop, after Castile told him he was (legally) carrying a weapon, although he was reaching for his wallet. Both the changes in police behavior and the community anger that the police shootings generate undermine law enforcement efforts at fighting crime.
The myth that letting more law-abiding citizens carry firearms increases safety and decreases crime has proved stubbornly hard to dislodge, although it is refuted by many studies. Because of that myth, gun sales and gun carrying are sure to increase in previously restrictive states, But their citizens will largely be wasting money buying guns (and lugging them around), as violent crime around them increases. (There are signs the Supreme Court may be cognizant that the empirical evidence demonstrates that greater gun carrying harms rather than promotes public safety. In the majority opinion in Bruen, Justice Clarence Thomas declared that henceforth courts should entirely disregard the purported benefits of gun safety regulations in evaluating their constitutionality; ostensibly because the only issue is whether they run afoul of the Constitution. But it seems unlikely he would have ruled out the use of empirical studies if they showed that more guns led to less crime.)
Of course, there are other measures besides gun safety regulations that reduce crime. If states want to pay for these measures, they could presumably offset the greater firearm violence that Bruen will unleash. Gun license fees, for instance, could be imposed to help police departments hire more detectives, which could help elevate sagging clearance rates. Research also shows that hiring more police (and training them better) reduces crime. If government wants to take a longer-term (and more humane) approach, it can enact policies to improve the early life experience of children, which can cost-effectively bring major crime reduction benefits.
It’s unarguable, however, that with Bruen the Supreme Court has taken an important crime-fighting tool away from the few remaining states that still had restrictive gun-carry laws. It’s unarguable that the court has made the already-difficult job of fighting crime that much harder.
John J. Donohue is the C. Wendell and Edith M. Carlsmith professor of law at Stanford University, and a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research.