John R. Lott, Jr. teaches criminal
deterrence and law and economics at the University
of Chicago Law School, where
he is the John M. Olin Visiting Law and Economics Fellow.
He was the chief economist at the United States
Sentencing Commission during 1988 and 1989. He has
published over 70 articles in academic
More Guns, Less Crime is
published by the University
of Chicago Press. Any
republication of this interview is subject to
Q: What does the title mean: More Guns, Less
A: States with the largest increases in gun ownership
also have the largest drops in violent crimes. Thirty-one states
now have such laws--called "shall-issue" laws. These laws allow
adults the right to carry concealed handguns if they do not have a
criminal record or a history of significant mental illness.
Q: It just seems to defy common sense that crimes likely
to involve guns would be reduced by allowing more people to carry
guns. How do you explain the results?
A: Criminals are deterred by higher penalties. Just as
higher arrest and conviction rates deter crime, so does the risk
that someone committing a crime will confront someone able to
defend him or herself. There is a strong negative relationship
between the number of law-abiding citizens with permits and the
crime rate -- as more people obtain permits there is a greater
decline in violent crime rates. For each additional year that a
concealed handgun law is in effect the murder rate declines by 3
percent, rape by 2 percent, and robberies by over 2 percent.
Concealed handgun laws reduce violent crime for two reasons.
First, they reduce the number of attempted crimes because
criminals are uncertain which potential victims can defend
themselves. Second, victims who have guns are in a much better
position to defend themselves.
Q: What is the basis for these numbers?
A: The analysis is based on data for all 3,054 counties
in the United States during 18 years from 1977 to 1994.
Q: Your argument about criminals and deterrence doesn't
tell the whole story. Don't statistics show that most people are
killed by someone they know?
A: You are referring to the often-cited statistic that
58 percent of murder victims are killed by either relatives or
acquaintances. However, what most people don't understand is that
this "acquaintance murder" number also includes gang members
killing other gang members, drug buyers killing drug pushers,
cabdrivers killed by customers they picked up for the first time,
prostitutes and their clients, and so on. "Acquaintance" covers a
wide range of relationships. The vast majority of murders are not
committed by previously law-abiding citizens. Ninety percent of
adult murderers have had criminal records as adults.
Q: But how about children? In March of this year four
children and a teacher were killed by two school boys in
Jonesboro, Arkansas. Won't tragedies like this increase if more
people are allowed to carry guns? Shouldn't this be taken into
consideration before making gun ownership laws more lenient?
A: The horrific shooting in Arkansas occurred in one of
the few places where having guns was already illegal. These laws
risk creating situations in which the good guys cannot defend
themselves from the bad ones. I have studied multiple victim
public shootings in the United States from 1977 to 1995. These
were incidents in which at least two or more people were killed
and or injured in a public place; in order to focus on the type of
shooting seen in Arkansas, shootings that were the byproduct of
another crime, such as robbery, were excluded. The effect of
"shall-issue" laws on these crimes has been dramatic. When states
passed these laws, the number of multiple-victim shootings
declined by 84 percent. Deaths from these shootings plummeted on
average by 90 percent, and injuries by 82 percent.
For other types of crimes, I find that both children as well as
adults are protected when law-abiding adults are allowed to carry
Finally, after extensively studying the number of accidental
shootings, there is no evidence that increasing the number of
concealed handguns increases accidental shootings. We know that
the type of person who obtains a permit is extremely law-abiding
and possibly they are extremely careful in how they take care of
their guns. The total number of accidental gun deaths each year is
about 1,300 and each year such accidents take the lives of 200
children 14 years of age and under. However, these regrettable
numbers of lives lost need to be put into some perspective with
the other risks children face. Despite over 200 million guns owned
by between 76 to 85 million people, the children killed is much
smaller than the number lost through bicycle accidents, drowning,
and fires. Children are 14.5 times more likely to die from car
accidents than from accidents involving guns.
Q: Wouldn't allowing concealed weapons increase the
incidents of citizens attacking each other in tense situations?
For instance, sometimes in traffic jams or accidents people become
very hostile--screaming and shoving at one another. If armed,
might people shoot each other in the heat of the moment?
A: During state legislative hearings on
concealed-handgun laws, possibly the most commonly raised concern
involved fears that armed citizens would attack each other in the
heat of the moment following car accidents. The evidence shows
that such fears are unfounded. Despite millions of people licensed
to carry concealed handguns and many states having these laws for
decades, there has only been one case where a person with a permit
used a gun after a traffic accident and even in that one case it
was in self-defense.
Q: Violence is often directed at women. Won't more guns
put more women at risk?
A: Murder rates decline when either more women or more
men carry concealed handguns, but a gun represents a much larger
change in a woman's ability to defend herself than it does for a
man. An additional woman carrying a concealed handgun reduces the
murder rate for women by about 3 to 4 times more than an
additional man carrying a concealed handgun reduces the murder
rate for men.
Q: Aren't you playing into people's fears and prejudices
though? Don't politicians pass these shall-issue laws to mollify
middle-class white suburbanites anxious about the encroachment of
urban minority crime?
A: I won't speculate about motives, but the results tell
a different story. High crime urban areas and neighborhoods with
large minority populations have the greatest reductions in violent
crime when citizens are legally allowed to carry concealed
Q: What about other countries? It's often argued that
Britain, for instance, has a lower violent crime rate than the USA
because guns are much harder to obtain and own.
A: The data analyzed in this book is from the USA. Many
countries, such as Switzerland, New Zealand, Finland, and Israel
have high gun-ownership rates and low crime rates, while other
countries have low gun ownership rates and either low or high
crime rates. It is difficult to obtain comparable data on crime
rates both over time and across countries, and to control for all
the other differences across the legal systems and cultures across
countries. Even the cross country polling data on gun ownership is
difficult to assess, because ownership is underreported in
countries where gun ownership is illegal and the same polls are
never used across countries.
Q: This is certainly controversial and there are certain
to be counter-arguments from those who disagree with you. How will
you respond to them?
A: Some people do use guns in horrible ways, but other
people use guns to prevent horrible things from happening to them.
The ultimate question that concerns us all is: Will allowing
law-abiding citizens to own guns save lives? While there are many
anecdotal stories illustrating both good and bad uses of guns,
this question can only be answered by looking at data to find out
what the net effect is.
All of chapter seven of the book is devoted to answering
objections that people have raised to my analysis. There are of
course strong feelings on both sides about the issue of gun
ownership and gun control laws. The best we can do is to try to
discover and understand the facts. If you agree, or especially if
you disagree with my conclusions I hope you'll read the book
carefully and develop an informed opinion.
For information on purchasing the book--from bookstores or here
online--please go to the webpage for More
Guns, Less Crime.