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article image'More guns, less crime' hypothesis not supported by new research

By Aaron Jacklin     Dec 2, 2014 in Science
New research suggests that 'right-to-carry' (RTC) laws do not result in less crime in the U.S., contrary to arguments by the gun rights movement.
Not only that, but the research also found that RTC laws, also called concealed-carry laws, are actually linked to increases in violent crime. These findings run counter to studies that the National Rifle Association (NRA) and others have used to support these laws for nearly twenty years.
Stanford law professor John J. Donohue III, one of the working paper's co-authors, said that the findings applied to rates of aggravated assault, murder, robbery, and rape. However, these findings do not necessarily mean that the RTC laws caused an increase in violent crime rates, just that increased rates tended to go hand in hand with passing the laws.
"The totality of the evidence based on educated judgments about the best statistical models suggests that right-to-carry laws are associated with substantially higher rate(s)," he said in a news release.
Donohue and his co-authors — Stanford law student Abhay Aneja and John Hopkins University doctoral student Alexandria Zhang — used state-level data to look at the time periods of 1979 to 2010 and 1999 to 2010, which allowed them to take into account the violence that coincided with the crack cocaine epidemic of the late 1980s and early 1990s. They argue that the crack epidemic might have caused previous research, which used data from 1977 to 1992, to find higher rates of crime in states without RTC laws because the epidemic tended to hit those states harder. Both time periods showed violent crime increases in states after the passage of RTC laws.
Donohue said that researchers in this area struggle with which methods are best suited to the task.
"Trying to estimate the impact of right-to-carry laws has been a vexing task over the last two decades," Donohue said.
Research on RTC laws dates back to the late 1990s
The vexing task goes back to research published in 1997 in the Journal of Legal Studies that found that concealed-carry laws deterred violent crime. John R. Lott, Jr. and David B. Mustard co-authored that study. Lott expanded on the journal article the following year with More Guns, Less Crime, a book that dealt with the same U.S. county-level data from 1977 to 1992 that he and Mustard used in their article.
Other researchers took up the investigation, with some finding support for the hypothesis and others not. Donohue was among the second group when, in 2003, he co-authored a study with Ian Ayres, a Yale Law School professor. By updating the Lott and Mustard data and analyzing it, the two found that while Lott and Mustard's work was an "important contribution to the literature," their findings had not "withstood the test of time."
Describing that time, Donohue and his co-authors write in this new study that "even as the empirical support for the Lott and Mustard thesis was weakening, its political impact was growing." They argue that the subsequent research had cast doubt on "the claimed benefits of RTC laws." Meanwhile, they note that More Guns, Less Crime was cited by legislators who voted in favour of RTC laws and by proponents of a personal right to handguns.
In the Stanford news release, Donohue referred to a 2004 National Research Council (NRC) report that critically examined the Lott and Mustard research and the conflicting body of research that followed it. Sixteen academics from a variety of fields made up the committee that wrote the report. Fifteen of them argued that there was no statistical evidence to support claims that RTC laws either decrease or increase violence. The sixteenth member disagreed with the rest of the committee, specifically on the effects of RTC laws on homicide rates and argued that "the evidence presented by Lott and his supporters suggests that RTC laws do in fact help drive down the murder rate, though their effect on other crimes is ambiguous."
The rest of the committee reiterated their position, arguing that the dissenting member's summary of the evidence was partially inaccurate and that the argument was unconvincing.
Donohue and his co-authors on the new study critically examined the NRC report's data, methods, and conclusions.
Still unclear whether RTC laws cause changes in violent crime
Though Donohue's team found increases after the introduction of RTC laws while the NRC committee found neither credible increases or decreases, Donohue's team ended up agreeing with the NRC committee's conclusion that it was not yet possible to say — at the high level of certainty that academics strive for — whether RTC laws caused any change in violence. However, they cautiously argue that on a lower level of certainty, their findings do suggest that RTC laws cause increases in violence.
They write, "Since policymakers need to act, it is more useful to offer guidance as to which evidence is likely to be most reliable than to simply reject all evidence until the highest level of certainty has been obtained."
While there is no federal RTC law in the U.S., these laws currently exist at the state level in all 50 states.
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