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An Important Moment in the Gun Wars

by Dr. Michael S. Brown

July 2001 is a landmark for supporters of gun rights. Two more states, New Mexico and Michigan, join the ranks of states that issue permits allowing law-abiding citizens to carry concealed weapons. Two thirds (33) of the American states now fall into this category, if you include Vermont, which allows non-felons to carry for any lawful purpose without a special permit.

Laws that allow good citizens to carry concealed weapons are typically known as "right to carry" or "shall issue" laws. They put the burden of proof on the state to show why a citizen should be denied the right to carry a firearm, rather than requiring the citizen to show a special need.

In states where the old-style "discretionary" laws are still in effect, local government officials often issue permits only to their friends, political contributors and celebrities.

When the right-to-carry concept first made national headlines with passage of the Florida law in 1987, the mainstream liberal media considered it a bizarre and stupid social experiment. Anti-gun lobbyists boldly predicted that blood would flow in the streets as gun-crazed people shot each other over minor disputes. When the predicted carnage failed to materialize, the media lost interest. Reporting the success of the law did not fit their anti-gun agenda.

Many more states followed suit. In each case, the new state law was bitterly opposed by anti-gun groups using the same tired clichés about Dodge City and blood in the streets. Obsessed with clever sound bites, they tried to impose a more sinister label, "hidden handguns." To increase the irrational fear of firearms, they invoked images of hidden handguns in schools, churches and other places rich with emotional symbolism.

In some cases, local politicians and police chiefs also fought to retain the power to decide who would receive a permit. They parroted the same misleading slogans served up by the organized anti-gun lobby. Sometimes they came up with their own bizarre statements.

A county sheriff in Michigan was recently quoted as saying, "There's somebody going to get a gun permit that shouldn't have one ...and shoot up a school or kill a spouse."

This fellow is probably sincere, if somewhat confused. Nobody could deliberately invent a sound bite that seems so clueless. Obviously, if someone wanted to commit such acts of violence, the possession or lack of a permit is completely irrelevant.

None of these tactics were able to stem the advance of shall-issue laws in state after state. Concealed carry laws began to attract media attention again in 1998, when an astonishingly intelligent economist/criminologist named John Lott published an extremely detailed study of their impact on crime.

Professor Lott's book, "More Guns, Less Crime", is required reading for any student of the gun debate. It documents a significant reduction in several types of crime, like murder, rape and aggravated assault in states that enacted shall-issue laws. Even multiple-victim public shootings, the ones that attract saturation coverage from the national media, are less likely to occur in shall-issue states.

Just as important, and perhaps more interesting to sociologists, the study also confirms the many anecdotal reports that gun crimes committed by permit holders are vanishingly rare.

By screening applicants and rejecting those with a criminal record, this unprecedented social experiment has given us an unexpected insight. The fact that permit holders have been so law abiding tells us a lot about those who are not. It is a dramatic reminder that society is divided into those who choose to obey the laws and those who choose not to.

The stunning success of shall-issue laws proves that guns do not make people commit crimes or become violent. This is an unwelcome lesson for those who blame crime and violence on easy access to guns. They hate shall-issue laws, because they threaten their ideas about society and human behavior. They fear the public will not support laws restricting everyone's rights if people realize that most gun crimes are committed by a small, lawless minority who will ignore the restrictions anyway.

These issues will affect future sociological debates, but one result is already apparent. The way in which the anti-gun lobby fights each new shall-issue law appears to be catching up with them.

Screaming the same false alarms over and over does serious damage to their credibility, especially when the fables are so easily refuted by looking at states that have had similar laws for many years. Money from rich donors and the expert services of media sorcerers only go so far when the message is inherently false.

Why should voters believe their unsupported promises of safety through stricter gun laws when their past dishonesty is so blatant? Many journalists, even those with a liberal bias, are no longer willing to risk their reputations by writing one-sided anti-gun articles. This may partially account for the difficulties now being experienced by gun control advocates.

Anti-gun organizations have been forced to merge and adopt new names for the next round of their utopian crusade. But what they really need to do is start telling the truth.

Dr. Michael S. Brown of Vancouver, Washington is an optometrist and member of Doctors for Sensible Gun Laws:  email: Dr. Brown's online archive can be found at


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[The American Colonies were] all democratic governments, where the power is in the hands of the people and where there is not the least difficulty or jealousy about putting arms into the hands of every man in the country. [European countries should not] be ignorant of the strength and the force of such a form of government and how strenuously and almost wonderfully people living under one have sometimes exerted themselves in defence of their rights and liberties and how fatally it has ended with many a man and many a state who have entered into quarrels, wars and contests with them. — George Mason, "Remarks on Annual Elections for the Fairfax Independent Company" in The Papers of George Mason, 1725-1792, ed Robert A. Rutland (Chapel Hill, 1970).

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