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With Concealed-Carry Laws, the Danger Is in the Details

New research finds states that do not give law enforcement discretion in granting permits have higher homicide rates.
A man shows a holster at a concealed-carry permit class put on by USA Firearms Training on December 19th, 2015, in Provo, Utah.

A man shows a holster at a concealed-carry permit class put on by USA Firearms Training on December 19th, 2015, in Provo, Utah.

The trend is clear: More and more states are allowing citizens to carry concealed handguns. And if Congress passes a bill currently under consideration, they'll be able to do so even when visiting states with more stringent restrictions.

If that sounds dangerous, it's for good reason: A new study suggests particularly permissive concealed-carry laws may have deadly consequences. It reports states that give local law-enforcement authorities discretion to deny permits to questionable applicants have significantly lower homicide rates than states where police do not have that power.

"The trend toward increasingly permissive concealed-carry laws is inconsistent with public opinion," writes a research team led by Michael Siegel of the Boston University School of Public Health. "(It) may also be inconsistent with the promotion of public safety."

In the American Journal of Public Health, the researchers analyze homicide rates in all 50 states for each year between 1991 and 2015. They note for each year whether the state had a "may-issue" law, "which gives law-enforcement officials wide discretion over whether to issue concealed firearm carry permits or not;" or a "shall-issue" law, which mandates such permits must be granted so long as the applicant meets certain guidelines, such as not being convicted of a violent crime.

At the end of 2015, 32 states had "shall-issue" laws on the books, while nine had "may-issue" statutes. (Another nine allowed citizens to carry a concealed handgun without a permit.) "May-issue" states include California, which states that applicants must be of "good moral character" and must have "good cause" to carry a concealed gun; and Hawaii, which insists the applicant must be both qualified to use the weapon safely and be a "suitable person" to be licensed.

This final layer of scrutiny appears to make a difference: The researchers found the overall homicide rates of shall-issue states were, on average, 6.5 percent higher than those of may-issue states. Rates of homicides involving firearms were 8.6 percent higher, while rates of homicides specifically involving handguns were 10.6 percent higher.

"This finding is inconsistent with the hypothesis that permissive concealed-carry laws deter crime by increasing the presence of armed individuals," Siegel and his colleagues write.

The researchers caution that these results do not prove that looser laws directly cause higher homicide rates. It is possible that states with more violent crime just happen to have looser gun laws.

But that notion is challenged by the fact that these findings hold true "even when the analysis is restricted to states that started with may-issue laws (in 1991) and adopted shall-issue laws" between 1991 and 2015. In other words: same state, more concealed weapons, more handgun-related homicides.

These results are consistent with those of a working paper released in June. In it, Stanford University law professor John Donohue found that, 10 years after a state adopted a right-to-carry law, its rate of violent crime was around 13 to 15 percent higher than it would be had the law not gone into effect.

"There is not even the slightest hint in the data that right-to-carry laws reduce overall violent crime," that study concluded.

That said, this new research suggests lumping all such laws together may not present a full picture of their negative impact. The primary problem, it seems, are statutes written in such a way that local law enforcement has little or no say regarding who gets a permit, and who doesn't.