The Texas legislature is deliberating a law that would allow all citizens with concealed handgun licenses to carry handguns on college campuses. Most debates about the impact of gun ownership on crime generate much heat but little light and this debate appears no different. Little evidence is presented to support a position. I have four objectives in this post. First, I will do a very quick review of the literature on the relationship between gun ownership and crime. Next, I will present a simple model that incorporates both positive and negative consequences of allowing concealed handguns on college campuses. I will also present my prior beliefs about the effects of gun ownership on crime. Finally, I will also suggested a method of phasing in laws allowing concealed weapons that could be reversed if data suggests that the laws increased rather than decreased crime on college campuses.
My review of the literature on the relationship between gun ownership and crime will of necessity be short. I know little about it. What I know is that the current assertion that crime decreases as gun ownership in a community increases is based on the influential work of John Lott. His book, “More Guns, Less Crime,” neatly summarizes his empirical findings. Before his research, the conventional wisdom held that there was a direct causal relationship between gun ownership and crime. Controversial research sparks additional research to confirm or disprove results. Ian Ayres and John Donohue published results that found no relationship between gun ownership and crime (“Shooting Down the ‘More Guns, Less Crime’ Hypothesis,” Sanford Law Review, Vol. 55, 1193, 2003; “The Latest Misfires in Support of the ‘More Guns, Less Crime’ Hypothesis,” Sanford Law Review, Vol. 55, 1193, 2003). Ayres and Donohue’s position seems to represent what might be called the academic “consensus” if it exists although research showing increased gun ownership having a positive or negative effect on crime exists (See also Ayers, “Super Crunchers”).An econometric model could be applied to measure the impact of any change in the use of conceal carry laws, but I will apply it to the current legislation which would allow concealed weapons on college campuses in Texas. A simple version of the model assumes that there are both direct and externality benefits and costs associated with increased gun ownership. Direct benefits include a student, staff or faculty member using a concealed weapon to stop a crime on campus. A positive externality results when someone with criminal intent reduces activities on campus out of fear that the envisioned victims might be able to protect themselves with guns. A direct cost includes a student acquiring a concealed carry license to plan a crime against a student or faculty member. A negative externality includes accidental shootings and crimes of passion.
My prior belief is that the direct benefits and costs would be low and would be overwhelmed by the externality benefits and costs. My father was a cop and provided anecdotal evidence. He told me that he never responded to a call in which someone had successfully protected themselves or their families with a gun, but that he responded to many calls in which a person shot a friend or family member fearing that they were a criminal. I also do not believe that the number of students or faculty who plan murderous escapades will change much with expanded rights. The level of crime will move depending on changes in the positive and negative external effects. If the positive effects were larger than the negative, then the law would be beneficial. If not, the law is harmful.
But why is opinion important when the impact of this law can be measured? A phased in law would create a natural experiment. It might work something like this. Twenty five percent of campuses, selected randomly, would allow faculty to carry concealed weapons. Annual data on campus related crime would be compared to crime rates on these campuses prior to the new law, and with the crime rates of campuses without the new right. If statistical evidence showed that the new law increased crime, the law would be rescinded. If the law reduced crime, faculty at all campuses would be allowed to carry concealed weapons and 25 percent of campuses would be selected to expand the right to carry concealed weapons to students as well. Annual data would again be collected. If the expansion of conceal carry rights to students increased crime, that portion of the law would be rescinded but faculty and staff could still carry concealed weapons. If the law reduced crime, it could be expanded to include students on all campuses. A phased in version of conceal carry laws accompanied by measurement of impact would take the guess work and some of the heat out of the debate.
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