In all the discussion surrounding Texas' open-carry law when it was being considered by the state legislature last spring, the issue of individual liberty and Second Amendment rights came up a lot. The notion that allowing handguns to be carried en plein air might seriously reduce crime was a comparatively minor talking point. It was out there, to be sure, but the assertions tended toward the hypothetical rather than the empirical, i.e., imagining would-be robbers and murderers stopped in their tracks by law-abiding gun owners.
But when Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick appeared on Meet the Press Sunday morning to discuss Texas' new open-carry law, which went into effect on Friday, he came armed with data. "Everywhere that we have more citizens carrying guns, crime is less," he told moderator Chuck Todd. "There's a study showing that where states have open carry or concealed carry, crime is down 25 percent, murders are down. Having law abiding citizens having guns is a good thing."
It's only natural to wonder why, if Patrick's statistic is true, it wasn't a bigger part of the sales job at the Legislature. If open-carry backers had concrete proof that their policy would cause a full quarter of Texas' crime to disappear, they presumably would have been crowing it from the top of the Texas State Capitol dome. And yet, they weren't.
The reason is that the analysis Patrick relies upon is about as superficial as analysis can get. The source of Patrick's 25 percent statistic appears to be a state representative from Florida, who compared violent crime rates from the 42 states that allow open carry with the eight states that do not. His finding: violent crime (i.e., murder, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault) is 23 percent lower in open-carry states. Politifact did the math and found that the numbers checked out. States without open carry had a violent crime rate of 434 per 100,000 people. Those with open carry had a violent crime rate of 352 per 100,000.
But proving that states with open carry had one year of lower crime rates is hardly the same thing as saying that open carry caused the lower crime rates. In fact, there are so many confounding variables that the comparison is effectively meaningless. For example, five of the non-open carry states circa 2012 (New York, Texas, California, Illinois, Florida) are also some of the most populous and most urban and so have a different experience of crime than, say, Delaware or Alaska. And it's not like the non-open carry states aren't carrying a lot of guns. Texas, Florida and South Carolina have higher-than-average rates of gun ownership and robust concealed-carry programs. Parsing the impact of concealed carry, versus any of the other factors that impact crime rates, would take much more careful analysis.
Others have attempted these analyses, but on balance the results don't indicate much connection between open-carry policies and crime rates. The most forceful and frequently cited advocate of open-carry in academia is John R. Lott Jr., president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and author of More Guns, Less Crime. In the book, Lott analyzed violent crime data for each of the United States' 3,054 counties from between 1977 and 1994. "For each additional year that a concealed handgun law is in effect, the murder rate declines by 3 percent, rape by 2 percent and robberies by over 2 percent," he said in an interview with his publisher, the University of Chicago Press, when the book was released 18 years ago. He certainly doesn't predict a 25 percent drop in crime. Lott wrote an op-ed for Fox News last week whose headline suggested a forceful endorsement of open carry but which was mainly about the benefits of concealed carry:
Open carry has an important drawback. It isn’t as effective as concealed carry in protecting people against terrorist attacks and mass public shootings. Criminals and terrorists can strike anywhere and at any time. They can attack someone who is openly carrying a gun. Alternatively, they can select another target or wait for a more opportune moment.
Concealed carry is the most effective way of counteracting this strategic advantage. A killer can’t attack a big grocery store in Texas without facing likely resistance. And, of course, an attacker has no idea who might be packing heat.
Other academics are less convinced that handguns, open or concealed, offer a clear-cut public safety benefit. In a 2004 critique of Lott's work, law professor John Donohue, then with Yale, crunched violent crime and concealed handgun data in several different ways and found Lott's conclusions unjustified. "All we can really say is that we know that there is no evidence of reduction in violent crime when (concealed carry) laws are passed, and that, although there is evidence of increases in property crime, the theoretical basis for such a finding is weak," he wrote.
The state of research hasn't changed much in the past dozen years. Charles D. Phillips, a a public health researcher at Texas A&M, recently published a study examining county-level data on concealed handguns and violent crime in Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Texas — the earliest adopters of concealed carry — from 1998 to 2010. The researchers found "no significant effect of CHL increases on changes in crime rates" and labeled the overall state of research on the topic as "inconclusive."
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Tomislav Kovandzic, a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, says that public health researchers often underplay the value of guns for self-defense. "The literature is unanimous on the finding that victims who resist attackers, especially with guns, are less likely to be injured and/or lose their property (public health folks choose to ignore this body of literature but it needs to be acknowledged if there is to be a serious debate on the gun ownership," he wrote in an email.
That said, there's a big difference between what people carrying guns means for the people who are victims of attacks and what it means for overall crime rates. Like Phillips and Donohue, Kovandzic's research has found no connection between CHL laws and violent crime. "This finding isn't all that surprising when you consider that the vast majority handgun permits holders report no change in their level of gun carrying after obtaining a permit, i.e. CHL holders are simply legalizing what they previously did illegally. As a result, there is little to no change in the risk of a criminal coming into contact with an armed victim after states enact right-to-carry concealed handgun laws." Lott is the main source of research concluding otherwise, and his "papers are plagued with numerous methodological infirmities that render the results uninterpretable at best (& you have to be well-versed in quantitative methods to appreciate most of them)."
But the push for expanded gun rights in Texas and elsewhere has never really been about considerations of data. It's about fear of violent crime and the hope that owning, and then being able to carry, and now being able to brandish a gun offers a form of immediate protection that law enforcement cannot. The percentage of Americans who view guns as an effective check on violent crime is growing, polling shows. That's what Patrick is tapping into.