Gun Control in Missouri (Or lack thereof)

If you read the comments to any Post Dispatch story about an assault on a sympathetic victim, you are certain to see somebody lamenting the fact that the victim wasn’t armed. There are a lot of issues where city Democrats and rural Republicans disagree, but few of those issues are as emotionally charged as the gun control debate. And considering the extreme levels of gun violence in St. Louis, you can’t reasonably have a conversation about crime without bringing up the subject of gun control. The debate goes like this: Democrats believe that the prolific gun culture in the United States contributes to the incredibly high violent crime rate within poor urban areas. The Republicans believe that an armed society is a polite society. Guns in the hands of law abiding citizens decreases the violent crime rate, not to mention the fact that the right to bear arms is a constitutional right, not to be infringed upon by anybody, especially naïve Democrats who have never held a gun in their lives.

I’ll admit that I stand on both sides of this issue. I hunt and own guns and, frankly, I think they’re fucking awesome. I feel safer going to sleep at night knowing that I have a shotgun on standby. On the other hand, I feel uneasy with Missouri’s rapid march towards gun ubiquity. I see a lot of stupid people on a daily basis, and the thought that they could all be carrying a lethal weapon is terrifying.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, with the passage of SB 656, it is no longer necessary to possess a conceal and carry permit in order to carry a weapon on your person in the state of Missouri. You are still limited in the areas to which you can bring that gun, but that list of places is being pruned considerably. With HB 630 you will be able to bring your gun into theme parks (the zoo, for example), school buses, polling places, and churches. The pro-gun lobby makes it no secret, they want guns everywhere. Considering the overwhelming control that the Republicans have in the MO government, I don’t doubt they’ll get there eventually.

Do Right to Carry (RTC) laws decrease violent crime like the Republicans claim?

Your first instinct might be to look at the difference in violent crime rates between RTC and non-RTC states. Doing this, you will find that violent crime rates between 1977 and 2000 decreased slightly for RTC states and decreased greatly in non-RTC states. The National Research Council showed this in their review, “Firearms and Violence: A Critical review.” Here is a link to that review. The data I’m talking about are on page 149. At first glance, it looks like RTC laws are not beneficial.

Of course these naïve results can’t be trusted. For starters, how can we tell whether RTC laws make crime worse, or if RTC laws are passed in response to worse than average crime? We can’t in a “no controls” model.

One of the most cited studies on RTC laws effects on violence is this one by John Lott and David Mustard. They used a variety of control variables to solve the problems in the previous model. They controlled for demographic differences (black men are more likely to be homicide victims, women are more likely to be rape victims), income differences (poor neighborhoods have more crime), and other similar controls. Using these controls they found, by looking at county arrest and offense data from a combination of FBI UCR resources and phone surveys of police departments and state offices, that violent crime decreased and property crime increased. The argument was that, with a heavily armed citizenry, criminals didn’t want to risk getting shot in an assault, so they switched to non-confrontational property crimes.

Of course, as you might imagine, the results change depending on which control variables you use, as is mentioned by the NRC in the “Firearms and Violence” review. They state, “whether one concludes that right-to-carry laws increase or decrease crime based on models of this sort depends on which control variables are included. Such laws have no obvious effect in the model without controls (and therefore no clear level effect in the raw data). Moreover, as demonstrated above, seemingly minor changes to the set of control variables substantially alter the estimated effects. Given that researchers might reasonably argue about which controls belong in the model and that the results are sensitive to the set of covariates, the committee is not sanguine about the prospects for measuring the effect of right-to-carry laws on crime.” In short, there’s a similar problem with gun control case studies as there are with minimum wage case studies.

An example of a paper using different controls and getting different results can be found here. Donohue, Aneja, and Weber had a problem with Lott/Mustard’s control variables. Using their own set of control variables, they found that violent crime in RTC states actually increased 15%. In contradiction to this contradiction, Clayton Cramer again disagrees in this paper, claiming that RTC laws do not increase gun violence. Carlisle Moody finds no effect one way or the other.

Clearly, the jury is still out.

However, despite the jury being out… here in Missouri we are marching towards gun ubiquity. The pro-gun lobby has complete control over Jefferson City and those of us who feel uneasy about it don’t really have any say. All of our arguments are anemic against the pro-gun folks. The right to keep and bear arms is explicitly stated in the constitution. If a constitutional right is to be taken away, that requires extraordinary evidence of public harm. That evidence doesn’t exist.

Here’s some interesting, yet imprecise, “back-of-the-envelope” calculations. Don’t flip out, this part is just for fun.

The Violence Policy Center has data on the number of people killed by concealed carry holders in non-justifiable homicides in each state. This source, page 10, gives the number of active permits in each state. Taking four of those states as an example:

Missouri has 171,000 active permits with 6 non-justifiable homicides over 10 years. That gives a total of 0.035 unjustified homicides per 10k permits, per year.

Texas has 708,048 active permits and 55 non-justifiable homicides in 10 years. That gives 0.077 unjustified homicides per 10k permits, per year.

Washington has 456,270 active permits, 21 non-justifiable homicides in 10 years = 0.046 unjustified homicides per 10k per year

Florida has 1,278,246 active permits, 77 non-justifiable homicides in 10 years = 0.060 unjustified homicides per 10k permits, per year.

This gives an average of 0.05 homicides per 10k active permits per year. Put in other words, for every 200k concealed carry permits, 1 person dies in an unjustifiable homicide every year.

Just to put this in perspective: The VPC claims that 1082 people have been killed by CC holders over 10 years. That’s an average of 108.2 per year. The FBI UCR data states that there’s been an average of 295.2 justifiable homicides per year over the last 5 years. This means that there’s 187 more justifiable homicides vs non-justifiable homicides by conceal and carry holders every year. So the argument could be made that 187 people kept their lives that wouldn’t have were it not for RTC laws.

This information doesn’t mean much. Who knows if the rate of unjustified murders increases exponentially with a higher density of armed citizens or linearly, or if the protective effects of conceal and carry will outpace the risks. I guess we’ll just have to keep gathering and analyzing the data.

Just something to keep in mind the next time the gun control debate flairs up. Nobody really knows what works and what doesn’t, so let’s at least try to keep things civil.