Freedomnomics

Article published Friday, October 19, 2007, at Tech Central Station Daily.

Teachers Packing Heat?

By John R. Lott, Jr.

Good intentions do not necessarily make good rules. What counts is whether the laws ultimately save lives. Unfortunately, too many gun laws primarily disarm law-abiding citizens, not criminals. Banning guns from schools seems like the obvious way to keep children safe. But a teacher, Shirley Katz, in Medford, Oregon, is proposing the exact opposite and is stirring up debate across the nation. Recently the first round of a legal battle went to the teacher, since the judge would not accept the school district's claim that her case should simply be dismissed.

Ms. Katz, who has a concealed handgun permit and regularly carries her handgun with her when not at school, wants to be able to do the same on school property because she fears either another public school shooting of the kind that have become all too familiar or an attack from her former husband. Ironically, the day before her hearing four people were wounded at a high school in Cleveland, Ohio.

While Oregon's law allows permitted concealed handguns on school property, some school districts in the state have attempted to get around the law by including a prohibition in teachers' conditions of employment. Yet, the state law seems pretty clear in forbidding any restrictions, not just some types of restrictions, by local or district governments.

The school district and other opponents point to problems that might arise from Katz carrying her gun. But we can do more than hypothesize about what might happen, since Americans actually have a lot of experience with permit holders being able to carry guns.

In general, permit holders are law-abiding and careful. They lose their permits for any firearms related violation at hundredths or thousandths of one percentage point and even then for usually the most trivial reasons. In Florida for example, almost 1.3 million different people have been issued permits since 1987, but only 162 have had them revoked for any firearms related violation. Almost all those revocations occurred for one reason: permit holders accidentally tooks their guns into gun-free zones such as schools.

More importantly, there is a lot of experience with permitted concealed handguns on school property. Prior to the end of 1995 when the Federal Safe School Zone Act was passed, states with concealed handgun permits allowed permit holders to carry guns on school property. Many of these states allowed this practice for many decades. Even since 1995, Oregon, New Hampshire, and Utah have let permit holders carry guns anywhere at school. Many other states enacted limits such as allowing a gun only in the school parking lot or only when someone is going to pick up a student.

Yet, with all this experience there is not a single example of an accidental gun shot or any improper use of a permitted concealed handgun on elementary, middle, of high school property.

Katz's school, though, has offered parents a way to show their disapproval by allowing them to transfer their children to other teachers. Out of 170 students in her classes, only one asked to be transfered and many more have offered to transfer in if any slots open up.

But hypothetical stories about what might go wrong are only part of the picture. Consider an analogy: Suppose a criminal is stalking you or your family. Would you feel safe putting a sign in front of your home saying, "This Home Is a Gun-Free Zone"? Probably not, because such a sign would merely tell criminals that they have little to worry about.

In 1985, just eight states had right-to-carry laws laws that automatically grant permits for concealed weapons once applicants pass a criminal background check, pay their fees and, when required, complete a training class. Today, 40 states do.

This applies whether one is talking about a lone woman being stalked or a multiple victim public shooting. Katz has understandable fears from a ban at her school. Disarming her at school not only leaves her unprotected there, but also means that she will be disarmed when she is on her way to or from school.

The benefit from concealed handguns on multiple-victim public shootings is particularly large. Examining all the multiple-victim public shootings in the United States from 1977 to 1999 shows that on average, states that adopt right-to-carry laws experience a 60% drop in the rates at which the attacks occur, and a 78% drop in the rates at which people are killed or injured from such attacks.

To the extent that such attacks still occur in right-to-carry states, they overwhelmingly take place in so-called "gun-free zones," such as the attack at the Cleveland High School.

The effect of right-to-carry laws is greater on multiple-victim public shootings than on other crimes for a simple reason: increasing the probability that someone will be able to protect himself increases deterrence. Though it may be statistically unlikely that any single person in a crowd is carrying a concealed handgun, the probability that at least one person is armed is high.

For multiple-victim shootings, the biggest factor determining the amount of harm is the length of time between when an attack starts and when someone with a gun can stop the attack. The longer the delay, the more are harmed.

*John Lott is the author of the book, Freedomnomics and is a Senior Research Scientist at the University of Maryland.

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