UPDATE:This story originally appeared in December 2007. Thursday the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a handgun ban in Washington, D.C., asserting the constitutional right for individuals not connected to a militia to own a gun.
A new look at two controversial approaches to violent crime — the federal Brady Law restricting sales of firearms, and state laws allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons — finds neither has lived up to their advocates' assertions.
Neither gun-control nor gun-rights advocates have been reticent about seeing success in their approaches. The National Rifle Association claims on its Web site that right-to-carry laws result in "less crime." The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence declares on its Web site: "Handgun Crime Declines and Lives are Saved after the Brady Law Takes Effect."
"Both sides are often prone to simplistic thinking," said James M. LaValle, an associate professor of sociology at Murray State University in Kentucky, who based his study on the 2005 National Academy of Sciences Research Council report "Firearms and Violence: A Critical Review."
"Both those for and against gun interventions expect the results to be robust and immediate."
In fact, the results have been neither, according to LaValle's analysis of the data.
The Brady Law, enacted in 1994, has produced a slight but statistically significant reduction in homicide rates, he said. While failing to keep guns out of the hands of career criminals, the law has apparently kept some dangerously unstable people from obtaining weapons, he said.
Right-to-carry laws, which have been enacted in 40 states, have had absolutely no effect on the homicide rate, LaValle found. The hopes of gun-rights advocates that they would prevent crimes, and the fears of gun-control advocates that they would turn American cities into lawless Wild West frontier towns, have both proven unfounded.
"The problem with this body of research is, symbolically, guns mean very different things to different people," said LaValle. "For some, they represent blood lust incarnate – a symbolic representation of our inability to solve problems with civility and intelligence. To others, they represent a willingness to die for your beliefs and protect your family.
"I was raised around guns. I am comfortable with them. But the polemics surrounding the issue really bother me. We just can't get anywhere."
In his paper, published in the December 2007 issue of the Criminal Justice Policy Review, LaValle examines homicide rates in 20 major American cities from 1990 to 2000. His more recent research, which extends the data back to 1970 and forward to 2005, confirms and strengthens his earlier conclusions, he said.
Right-to-carry laws, which were in effect in only 10 states before 1987, have spread rapidly in the past 20 years; they are currently in effect in 40 states. Most mandate state authorities to issue a permit to carry a concealed weapon to anyone who meets certain specific requirements, including a background check and firearms training.
LaValle concluded these laws "neither increase nor decrease violent crime," largely because there are "very, very small numbers of people who actually obtain a concealed-carry permit. In a given jurisdiction, only 1 or 2 percent of people might exercise their option to carry a gun. Also, people who get right-to-carry permits tend to keep their guns in their sock drawer 60 percent of the time."
And when those gun owners remove the weapons from their sock drawers, they almost never use them to hold up liquor stores.
"Reported rates of criminal activity with those guns is almost universally zero," LaValle said, adding that the reasons for this are self-evident.
"To get a concealed-carry permit in any of the states that have them, you have to take a written test and a range test and undergo an extensive background check," he said. "All of your personal records go on file — including, in some jurisdictions, the serial number of the gun and a spent round from the factory. So you wouldn't commit a crime unless you wanted to be in that book of the world's stupidest criminals."
The federal Brady Law went into effect in 1994. It requires federally licensed firearms dealers to complete a background check on potential buyers before selling a gun. Such checks are meant to keep guns out of the hands of people who are not legally allowed to purchase them, including those convicted of a serious crime, fugitives from the law, persons committed to a mental institution by a court and illegal aliens.
The law has not kept career criminals from obtaining firearms, according to LaValle. "Most criminals either steal their guns; they're given guns by another criminal; or they ‘borrow' them from a family member," he said, citing the respected research of James Wright and Peter H. Rossi, authors of the 1986 book Armed and Considered Dangerous: A Survey of Felons and Their Firearms.
So why is there a small but significant correlation between the law's enactment and a decrease in the homicide rate?
LaValle believes that while illegal gun markets are widespread, amateur criminals — and disturbed, angry people who decide to take revenge on some perceived enemy — often have no idea how to find them. Thus, he concluded, it is fair to say that the Brady Law, by screening out some of those people, has saved lives.
While LaValle sees no need for major new gun-control legislation, he would like to see the Brady Law strengthened to screen out more people with mental and emotional disorders. He cited the case of Seung-Hui Cho, the emotionally troubled student who massacred 32 people at Virginia Tech University last spring. He legally purchased both of his guns from licensed dealers, even though federal law prohibits gun sales to people judged "mentally defective," and that in 2005, a Virginia judge had declared him "an imminent danger to himself because of mental illness" and ordered outpatient treatment.
That he slipped through is a mini-study of bureaucracy in action. The Brady-mandated background checks use an FBI database, which largely comprises information provided by the 50 states. It is up to the individual states to decide what mental-health data to provide the federal authorities. Virginia, at the time, only notified the FBI of people who had been involuntarily committed to a mental institution. So Seung-Hui Cho was not on the list.
The Virginia law has been changed in response to that tragedy. In addition, the Washington Post reported on Nov. 30, a number of states have stepped up their reporting, increasing the FBI's database of "mentally defective" people from 175,000 to nearly 400,000.
On Dec. 19, Congress approved a bill that has the support of both the NRA and gun-control advocates. It clarifies which mental-health records must be reported by state and federal agencies to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, and offers a variety of incentives to states to provide more thorough and timely mental-health-related background check information to the FBI. President Bush signed the bill into law on Jan. 8.
"What this research supports, more than anything else, is (this legislation is) appropriate and helpful," LaValle said. "The Brady Law has had a modest effect. (With this modification) it is likely to deter a specific type of crime we find particularly repellent — these spree-killings of our children we send to school to get an education."