Freedomnomics

Article published Sunday, December 27, 2015, at Columbia Daily Tribune.

Magnets for murderers

By John R. Lott, Jr.

Would you post a sign announcing that your home is a gun-free zone? Would you feel safer? Criminals don’t obey these signs. In fact, to criminals, gun-free zones look like easy targets.

In the Tuesday Tribune, Edward Lawlor argued such signs make us safer. He claimed the research of one of the authors here, John Lott’s “More Guns, Less Crime,” has been “refuted.” But he ignores that more than two-thirds of the peer-reviewed research by criminologists and economists that look at national data support those findings and that not a single study finds a bad effect on murders, rapes or robberies.

Since at least 1950, all but two public mass shootings in America have taken place where general citizens are banned from carrying guns. In Europe, there have been no exceptions. Every mass public shooting has occurred in a gun-free zone. And Europe is no stranger to mass shootings. It has been host to three of the six worst K-12 school shootings and by far the worst mass public shooting perpetrated by a single individual.

With dozens of cases where permit holders have clearly stopped what would have been mass public shootings, it is understandable that killers avoid places where they can’t kill a large number of people.

What might be surprising is how killers often openly talk about their desire to attack where guns are banned. The Charleston killer’s first choice was to target the College of Charleston, but he chose the church instead because there were armed guards at the college.

Just a few months ago, the diary of the Aurora, Colo., “Batman” movie theater killer, James Holmes, was finally released. He turned down his first choice, an airport, because he was concerned about its “substantial security.” Out of seven theaters showing the Batman movie premiere within 20 minutes of the suspect’s apartment, he attacked the only one that had banned concealed handguns.

Or take a couple of cases from last year. Elliot Rodger, who shot to death three people in Santa Barbara, Calif., explained his own choice. In his 141-page “Manifesto,” Rodger turned down targets because he worried that someone with a gun would cut short his killing spree. Justin Bourque shot to death three people in Canada. His Facebook page made fun of gun bans, with pictures of defenseless victims explaining to killers that they weren’t allowed to have their guns.

Lawlor puts emphasis on polls of people who have no expertise in the area. Policeone, the country’s largest private organization of police, with 450,000 members, found that 80 percent of their surveyed members thought that letting permit holders carry at schools would likely reduce casualties.

In late 2013, Ron Noble, the secretary general of Interpol, noted two means of protecting people from mass shootings: “One is to say we want an armed citizenry; you can see the reason for that. Another is to say the enclaves [should be] so secure that in order to get into the soft target, you’re going to have to pass through extraordinary security.”

But Noble now realizes it was virtually impossible to stop killers from getting weapons.

There is extensive evidence to back this up. I joined University of Chicago economist Bill Landes in studying the effects of 13 types of gun control laws on public mass shootings from 1977 to 1999. Permitted concealed handgun laws were the only effective measures in preventing or reducing the harm caused by these attacks. Attacks occurred in those tiny areas where victims weren’t able to protect themselves.

Today, 12 states mandate that permit holders are allowed to carry guns on public college campuses. An additional 21 states leave it up to the universities. But these legal restrictions didn’t exist before the early 1990s.

Lawlor fears that students with permits will lash out violently at others, but he can’t point to one time that has happened at schools where permits have been allowed. Despite Lawlor’s concerns, there has never been a case where a student with a permit has threatened a professor over grades or anything else. The same concerns were raised for permit holders generally before Missouri enacted concealed-carry in 2004; after 10 years of experience, permit holders have proved to be extremely law-abiding.

Indeed, a study this past year by the Crime Prevention Research Center found that college-age permit holders in Michigan, Nevada and Texas (three states that break down revocation data by age) are at least as responsible as older permit holders.

Accidents over the decades are exceedingly rare. There were four accidental discharges by teachers or staff — one each at universities in Colorado, Idaho, Mississippi and Utah. All cases involved very minor injuries. None involved others getting a hold of the guns.

Gun-free zones are a magnet for murderers. But a year after permit holders are allowed to defend themselves and others, everyone will wonder what all the concerns were about.

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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