“Experience is a dear teacher,” said Benjamin Franklin, “but fools will learn at no other.” Give some credit to fools: At least they eventually learn from experience. What would Franklin say about people who don’t?
By that, I refer to gun control advocates alarmed that the Illinois legislature may vote to let licensed individuals carry concealed handguns. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence calls the measure “dangerous.” Kristen Rand of the Violence Policy Center says that it would lead to Tucson-style mass shootings as well as the killing of police.
But concealed-carry, as it is known, is not a radical notion in most of the country. Thirty-seven “shall-issue” states grant permits to carry to anyone meeting certain requirements, and 48 allow citizens to carry guns under some circumstances. The two holdouts? Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker has endorsed the idea, and Illinois, where Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn has not.
But Quinn has vexed many downstate Democrats by abolishing capital punishment and allowing same-sex civil unions. So speculation is that he may have to make it up to them by going along on concealed weapons.
The opponents rely on a litany of horribles. The Violence Policy Center in Washington claims that since May 2007, individuals licensed to carry guns killed 286 private citizens and 11 law enforcement officers and committed 18 mass shootings. This gory record, it asserts, destroys the myth that permit holders are generally law-abiding folks who behave responsibly.
In fact, VPC’s own data, when inspected closely, doesn’t dent the case for gun rights. Over the past four years, there have been more than 60,000 homicides in the United States. The slayings carried out by permit holders amount to fewer than one of every 200 murders. For every licensee who killed someone, there are more than 20,000 who didn’t.
Nor does the evidence indicate that allowing people to carry pistols causes crime. Many of the shootings done by permit holders took place in their homes — where you don’t need a concealed-carry license to keep a gun.
Some of the killings weren’t even done with firearms: Among the cases cited by the VPC is a 2008 strangling in Florida, allegedly by a man who was licensed to carry. How can strangulation be blamed on a concealed weapon permit? If a fisherman kills someone, do we ban fishing rods?
Often, notes Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck, the murders were premeditated or committed during the course of other serious crimes. In those cases, the license was irrelevant — unless you assume that someone willing to break the laws against murder or rape would not be willing to break another law by packing a sidearm.
What is extremely rare is a homicide committed by a permit holder in a public place in a fit of anger. Reviewing an earlier two-year database compiled by VPC, Kleck found only five cases “where possession of a carry permit may have contributed to the occurrence of the killing.” Such episodes are not quite flying pigs, but almost.
What the gun control groups don’t tabulate is how many homicides have been averted by a licensed, concealed handgun. Kleck, who has done extensive research on the topic, says it is “quite reasonable to expect that thousands of lives are saved by defensive gun use by persons who carried guns in public places.” Even if he’s wrong, it would take only a handful of such incidents to offset the homicides “caused” by concealed-carry laws.
The problem for opponents is that they have sown fear from the beginning, only to harvest a meager crop. A generation ago, few states allowed concealed-carry. When Florida captured national attention by legalizing it in 1987, critics forecast mass carnage. When other states followed suit, the same predictions were heard.
But they turned out to be false alarms. Instead of an epidemic of violence, the nation saw a drop. Since 1991, the murder rate has been cut nearly in half. You don’t have to believe that “shall-issue” laws caused the decline to grasp that they certainly didn’t get in the way.
The record of the past two decades demonstrates that you can strengthen the right of law-abiding adults to protect themselves against crime without making the world more dangerous. That knowledge is helpful in Illinois, to those willing to learn from experience.
Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.