Do armed citizens deter crime?

0 Comment Duane Ruth-Heff...
January 12, 2010

Guns--cause of crime or means for the innocent to protect themselves? It's one of those questions most voted likely to turn a pleasant discussion into a shouting match, but one that Duane Ruth-Heffelbower takes on in this Scholars Speak.

There’s a lot of discussion around the Fresno County Sheriff’s policy of freely granting concealed weapon permits to qualified citizens. The incident that triggered this discussion was the murder of a delivery truck driver who was shot while doing his early morning rounds.

Tragedies like this one always raise the question of what could have prevented them. Supporters of relaxed carry rules suggest that more armed citizens of good character could deter at least some of these crimes. Nationally others express the same thought, airline pilots included, so it is worth examining the research available to see if there is a correlation between more guns in the hands of good people and less violent crime.

In the interests of full disclosure, I grew up with guns and am a pretty good shot. As a Vietnam-era Air Force officer I qualified with a sidearm, putting 50 shots in an area the size of my fist. I have also worked around the world in places where order has broken down and have eaten dinner in hotels with people carrying automatic weapons.

One goal of research in this area of inquiry is to compare violent crime rates in areas with lots of guns and areas with few guns to see if there are differences. Brandon S. Centerwall did a study of homicide rates from 1976-80 in adjoining states and Canadian provinces. The provinces had one tenth as many handguns per capita as the states. Centerwall states: “No consistent differences were observed; criminal homicide rates were sometimes higher in the Canadian province, and sometimes higher in the adjoining US state.”

Mauser and Kates studied international data and summed up their study in 2006: “Our conclusion from the available data is that suicide, murder and violent crime rates are determined by basic social, economic and/or cultural factors with the availability of any particular one of the world’s myriad deadly instrument being irrelevant.”

Lott and Mustard examined a large data set of all U.S. counties and determined that easing carry laws to put more guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens did decrease violent crime. These findings were widely celebrated and resulted in passage of carry laws in a number of states.

Ayres and Donohue examined Lott and Mustard’s data set and added in data from states where eased concealed weapons rules made firearms more common. Their conclusion published in the 2003 Stanford Law Review was: “We conclude that Lott and Mustard have made an important scholarly contribution in establishing that these laws have not led to the massive bloodbath of death and injury that some of their opponents feared. On the other hand, we find that the statistical evidence that these laws have reduced crime is limited, sporadic, and extraordinarily fragile.”

Scholars continue to study this issue, which has large implications for our society. At present there are studies that seem to show less crime where more citizens are armed, but these results do not hold up well to scrutiny. Those places that freely grant concealed weapons permits are the test beds where theories meet data. Fresno, with 10 percent of California’s concealed carry permits, is one of those test beds.

The practical question is whether or not the citizens of Fresno are better off being a test bed for the proposition that more armed citizens deter crime. Ayres and Donohue go on to state that: “While we do not want to overstate the strength of the conclusions that can be drawn from the extremely variable results emerging from the statistical analysis, if anything, there is stronger evidence for the conclusion that these laws increase crime than there is for the conclusion that they decrease it.”

Social experiments are a necessary part of governing any society. The only way to find out whether a theory works is to try it. The more data you have from places that have already tested the theory the better your decision whether or not to try it yourself. Where the test results are as equivocal as they are in the area of arming private citizens, how does one decide which path to follow? Scholars will be glad to receive the data from the Fresno experiment, but at present there is not enough good evidence that freely granting weapons carry permits reduces crime, while there is some evidence that it increases crime.

About the author

Duane Ruth-Heffelbower, J.D. teaches criminal evidence and advanced criminal law in the criminology and restorative justice studies program of Fresno Pacific University. He also directs the graduate academic programs in peacemaking and conflict studies.

blog comments powered by Disqus