There are no gun-free, safe zones

Published May 13, 2003, in The Plain Dealer

There are no gun-free, safe zones

By John R. Lott Jr.

The tragedy of the attack on Friday at Case Western Reserve University left one person murdered and two injured. What can be learned from the attack? Some take the attack as confirmation that guns should be banned from certain areas such as schools and universities.

The attack on Friday took place in an area where guns were already banned, a so-called "gun-free safe zone." Yet, suppose you or your family are being stalked by a criminal who intends on harming you. Would you feel safer putting a sign in front of your home saying "This Home is a Gun-Free Zone"?

It is pretty obvious why we don't put these signs up. As with many other gun laws, law-abiding citizens, not would-be criminals, would obey the sign. Instead of creating a safe zone for victims, it leaves victims defenseless and creates a safe zone for those intent on causing harm.

Many Americans have learned this lesson the hard way. In 1985, just eight states had the most liberal right-to-carry laws - laws that automatically grant permits once applicants pass a criminal background check, pay their fees and, when required, complete a training class. Today the total is 35 states. My new book, "The Bias Against Guns," examines multiple-victim public shootings in the United States from 1977 to 1999 and finds that when states passed right-to-carry laws, these attacks fell by 60 percent. Deaths and injuries from multiple-victim public shootings fell on average by 78 percent.

No other gun control law had any beneficial effect. Indeed, right-to-carry laws were the only policy that consistently reduced these attacks.

To the extent attacks still occurred in right-to-carry states, they overwhelmingly happened in the special places within those states where concealed handguns were banned. The impact of right-to-carry laws on multiple-victim public shootings is much larger than on other crimes, for a simple reason. Increasing the probability that someone will be able to protect themselves, increases deterrence. Even when any single person might have a small probability of having a concealed handgun, the probability that at least someone will is very high.

Unfortunately, the concealed handgun legislation now being considered for Ohio has a long list of so-called gun-free safe zones.

People's reaction to the horrific events displayed on TV is understandable, but the more than 2 million times each year that Americans use guns defensively are never discussed - even though this is five times as often as the 450,000 times that guns are used to commit crimes over the last couple of years. Seldom do cases make the news where public shootings are stopped or mothers use guns to prevent their children from being kidnapped. Few would know that a third of the public school shootings were stopped by citizens with guns before uniformed police could arrive.

Last year, the morning and evening news broadcasts on the three main television networks carried almost 200,000 words on contemporaneous gun crime stories. By comparison, not one segment featured a civilian using a gun to stop a crime. Newspapers are not much better.

Police are extremely important in deterring crime, but they almost always arrive after the crime has been committed. Annual surveys of crime victims in the United States continually show that, when confronted by a criminal, people are safest if they have a gun. Just as the threat of arrest and prison can deter criminals from committing a crime, so can the fact that victims can defend themselves.

Gun control advocates conveniently ignore that the nations with the highest homicide rates have gun bans. Studies, such as one conducted recently by Jeff Miron at Boston University, which examined 44 countries, find that stricter gun control laws tend to lead to higher homicide rates. Russia, which has banned guns since the communist revolution, has had murder rates several times higher than that of the United States; even under the Communists, the Soviet Union's rate was much higher.

Good intentions don't necessarily make good laws. What counts is whether the laws ultimately save lives. Unfortunately, too many gun laws primarily disarm law-abiding citizens, not criminals.

Lott is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Home (description of book, downloadable data sets, and discussions of previous controversies)

Academic papers:

Social Science Research Network

Book Reviews:

For a list of book reviews on The Bias Against Guns, click here.

List of my Op-eds

Posts by topic

Appalachian law school attack

Baghdad murder rate

Arming Pilots

Fraudulent website pretending to be run by me

Ayres and Donohue

Stanford Law Review

Mother Jones article

Vin Suprynowicz quote


Craig Newmark

Eric Rasmusen

William Sjostrom

Dr. T's

Interview with National Review Online

Lyonette Louis-Jacques's page on Firearms Regulation Worldwide

The End of Myth: An Interview with Dr. John Lott

Cold Comfort, Economist John Lott discusses the benefits of guns--and the hazards of pointing them out.

An interview with John R. Lott, Jr. author of More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws

Some data not found at

Updated Media Analysis of Appalachian Law School Attack

Since the first news search was done additional news stories have been added to Nexis:

There are thus now 218 unique stories, and a total of 294 stories counting duplicates (the stories in yellow were duplicates): Excel file for general overview and specific stories. Explicit mentions of defensive gun use increase from 2 to 3 now.

Journal of Legal Studies paper on spoiled ballots during the 2000 Presidential Election

Data set from USA Today, STATA 7.0 data set

"Do" File for some of the basic regressions from the paper