Ballistics by the inch

Concealed-carry.

For reasons I’ll discuss sometime later, I was digging around in some of my old archive writings this afternoon. And I came across an essay which was intended to be a companion piece to an op-ed I had written for the St. Louis Post Dispatch about 16 years ago (they declined to run it). It’s curious to see how little my opinions have changed in the interim, but also how what I had to say then was somewhat predictive to how things have actually played out, here and elsewhere around the nation. For this reason, I thought I would share it here.

Jim Downey

Cross posted to my personal blog.

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Concealed-Carry

Recently, I had a column here concerning the radical NRA leadership, and the danger that their attitude of ‘anything goes’ with weapons and ammunition poses to police, federal agents, and the average American. So it may come as a bit of a surprise that I favor legislative efforts to allow most people to carry a concealed firearm.

I do not see a contradiction here. What the NRA leadership is doing to demonize and discredit law enforcement makes us all less safe. Having more law-abiding citizens trained in the safe handling of firearms, and duly licensed to carry those firearm for self defense, would make us more safe. Sure, the ideal solution would be to rid society of all firearms, or at least all handguns. But that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon, with a huge number of firearms already in private hands. Certainly, the criminals aren’t going to give up their weapons. And a crime-fearing public doesn’t want to relinquish their guns, though they rarely carry them in violation of current law.

A concealed-carry law would change the calculus of crime in a very fundamental way.

The calculus of crime is pretty straight-forward: people will turn to crime when they feel that the chances of reward are greater than the risks. Of course, how risk is estimated depends on what one has to lose. If a person has few options other than crime (either in reality or in perception), the threshold of acceptable risk is lower, and the incentive to turn to crime is greater.

There are a number of ways of affecting this equation. A strong moral incentive to not commit crime raises the level of risk. If you believe that you face a final judgement before an omniscient deity, you know that you cannot escape the consequences of committing a crime. Or if violating what you believe to be ‘right’ makes you uncomfortable, the rewards are diminished, and you are less inclined to resort to crime.

A greater probability of being caught and convicted by the criminal justice system likewise raises the threshold of risk. More police, wider law enforcement powers, and mandatory sentences are all efforts in this direction.

A high standard of living raises the threshold of risk (since the potential criminal has more to lose). Attempts to reduce poverty, provide job training, and give people opportunity and hope are based on this part of the equation.

Reducing the incentive also makes sense. This is one of the major premises behind arguments to legalize (and control and tax) some drugs. Legalization would greatly reduce the profit potential for dealers, and keep prices down for addicts, so that they wouldn’t have to turn to crime to support their habit.

These are all general, society-wide efforts. Businesses also tend to employ the same principles. Tighter inventory and accounting control reduce the threat of loss through employee theft and embezzelment, alarms and similar security systems are aimed at stopping burglary, and keeping a limited amount of cash on premises reduces the potential reward to a criminal.

Likewise, individuals apply the same understanding, whether we do so consciously or not. We are more nervous when we are carrying a large sum of cash, because we know that this increases the potential reward to a robber. We avoid dark alleys because this lowers the threshold of risk for the criminal, since there is less chance of that criminal being caught and convicted by the criminal justice system.

If concealed-carry laws were in effect, and a significant number of people availed themselves of such permits, this would also change the equation at both the individual and societal level. The threshold of risk to the criminal would rise. Instead of being relatively assured that a law-abiding (and hence unarmed) victim would be unable to respond to a threat of violence, the criminal would have to consider what the chances were that a likely victim would not only be armed, but trained in the proper use of a firearm.

Training would be the key. The military (and a number of states which already allow citizens to carry concealed firearms) have training regimens designed to teach people how to safely use and care for their weapons, when it is appropriate to use them, and what the ramifications of use are. Completing and passing such a training regimen, including periodic qualification on a shooting range, would be necessary to obtain a permit to carry.

And the weapon to be used would need to be licensed. A sample of that weapon’s unique ballistic profile could be put on file for future reference. Carrying a weapon not so licensed should be grounds for immediate revocation of the permit to carry. And there should be draconian punishments for carrying a weapon without the proper permit and training. Police should have broadened rights to search for a concealed weapon using hand-held metal detectors or other new scanning equipment.

What about crimes of passion? Wouldn’t adding more firearms, having them even more handy, increase the number of this variety of murders?

I don’t think so. There are already more than 100 million firearms in this country. Allowing people to carry a small fraction of that number would not increase the risk much. In fact, because of the requirement of training in the safe handling and proper use of concealed weapons, this risk might very well drop.

The experience in those states which have had concealed-carry laws on the books for a few years indicates that there are very few instances of improper use by citizens who hold such permits. And while it is difficult to establish the causal connection directly, the data also suggests that those states have experienced a drop in crime rates greater than the drop in the national average.

Lastly, allowing citizens who have a background clean of criminal activity and mental health problems to obtain a permit to carry a concealed weapon would do more than just change the calculus of crime. It would shift responsibility. The police really cannot protect us from predators. Often, the most they can do is be there after the fact, to help pick up the pieces of a shattered society, and to try and locate the perpetrators of a crime. A citizen who has a permit to carry a concealed weapon is empowered, with at least some greater control over his or her own fate in the face of crime. This is why many women have sought and obtained permits to carry in those states where such permits are legal.

A concealed-carry law would not be a panacea, any more than any of the other efforts to affect the calculus of crime have been a panacea. But a concealed-carry law could make a significant difference, and it is high time that we give our citizens the tools and training to protect themselves.

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May 22, 2009 - Posted by | Anecdotes, Discussion.

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