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Should New York tourists have their lives destroyed because of concealed carry laws?

Just a few days before Christmas, Meredith Graves made a mistake that could end her medical career and send her to prison for at least 3 ½ years. The 39-year-old fourth-year medical student was carrying a permitted concealed handgun when she saw the sign at the 9/11 Memorial saying “No guns allowed.” She did the responsible thing and asked a security guard where she could check her weapon. Unfortunately, while her Tennessee concealed carry license is recognized in 40 states, New York isn’t one of them. Meredith was arrested. 

Just a week earlier, Californian Mark Meckler told LaGuardia Airport officials that he had licensed handgun in a locked safe in checked baggage. At virtually any other airport in the country, checking a gun locked in a box wouldn’t be a problem. Meckler was arrested and charged with second-degree possession of an illegal weapons. He faces up to 15 years in prison. 

Even New York’s second most powerful Democrat and a strong gun control advocate, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver thinks that tourists who accidentally break the state’s strict carry laws shouldn’t have their lives destroyed. “Her actions show a clear indication that she didn’t know she was breaking the law, and when she saw the sign, she said, ‘OK, I do have a gun. Take it from me.’ There was no criminal intent,” said Silver. 

As the Tennessean newspaper (Nashville) put it: “[Meredith’s] arrest highlights the confusing patchwork of concealed weapons laws across the nation.” 

But New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the local District Attorneys don’t seem interested in showing mercy. They take a zero tolerance approach towards these mistakes. Indeed, a week after Graves arrest, Mayor Bloomberg attacked her at a press conference claiming:  “Let's assume she didn't get arrested for carrying a gun, she probably would have gotten arrested for the cocaine that was in her pocket.” But that same day the Manhattan District Attorney’s office acknowledged that Graves did not have any cocaine. 

At the Republican presidential debate last night in South Carolina sponsored by Fox News, Republican candidates competed with each other over demonstrating who was the strongest supporter of letting Americans have the right to defend themselves. It is an issue that President Obama’s consistent opposition to gun ownership makes him particularly vulnerable on

But last night no one took up the cause of Graves, Meckler, and the others who have their lives risk being destroyed by New York City’s laws. 

For decades, treating licenses for guns like those for cars was the mantra among gun control advocates. Yet, you don't need a driver's license to drive a car on private property, merely on public roads. And once you get a license, you are allowed to drive any car on any public road anywhere in the United States. You are responsible for obeying the different traffic regulations in different states, but as long as you do, you are fine. 

As the four individuals mentioned above learned, current gun laws are much more restrictive than those that apply to cars and drivers. Not only do many states regulate guns when they are on your own property, a license to carry a concealed handgun won’t let you travel the way a driver’s license does. 

The proposed National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act passed the US House this last November by a 272 to 154 vote contains two provisions: if your state issues a concealed handgun license, that permit will let you travel to other states. Of course, you also have to follow the rules in the state you visit, so for Illinois -- the single state that still bans concealed handguns -- an out-of-state license wouldn't let you carry a concealed handgun there. 

If this proposed law had been in effect when Graves or Jerome visited New York, they would have been fine. New Yorker permit holders would have had to obey the signs and turned in their guns. That is precisely what Graves and Jerome tried to do. The only difference is that they didn’t have a New York permit. Similarly, Benedetto and Meckler would have had no problem checking their locked and safely stored unloaded guns on their planes. 

Gun control advocates warn that letting people carry concealed handguns constitutes a “dangerous measure” and “harmful legislation.” But we now have extensive experience with concealed-handgun permit holders. In 2011, about 7 million Americans hold permits that allow them to carry concealed handguns, and only one state, Illinois, still bans concealed carry. 

Over the last couple of weeks, the New York Times has launched an attack on the National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act, apparently worried that it will become law (see also here). So what’s their evidence? They claim that in North Carolina over a five-year period about 40 permit holders a year committed some type of gun or weapons related offense and 12 are involved with some type of weapons related offense. With over 240,000 permit holders, those cases come to annual rates of 0.017 and 0.005 percent, and even the Times concedes that this represents “a small percentage of those with permits.” 

The New York Times refuses to share its data and won't provide more details, but if North Carolina follows the typical pattern of states that detailed data is available for, the vast majority of these cases probably don’t involve guns and, even when guns are involved, the guns are unlikely to have been used to harm people – e.g., such as in cases where a permit holder accidentally carried a permitted gun into a gun-free zone. 

The same pattern has been observed in state after state. Take Florida. Between Oct. 1, 1987, and July 31, 2011, Florida issued permits to over 2 million people, many of whom renewed their permits multiple times. Only 168 had their permits revoked for a firearms-related violation -- about 0.01 percent. 

The Times focused on its finding that North Carolina sheriff departments mistakenly didn’t revoke permits for some permit holders who had committed crimes. The obvious concern is that these individuals might have used their permits to commit another crime. But despite the mistakes and the understandable fears, the story couldn’t identify a single such case over the five years that were studied. 

The newspaper also claims that “a few independent researchers” find benefits from right-to-carry laws, and that “many other studies have found no net effect of concealed carry laws or have come to the opposite conclusion." But that is simply false. Overwhelmingly, academic research supports the benefits from these laws. Among peer-reviewed academic studies by criminologists and economists, 18 find that right-to-carry laws reduce violent crime, 10 claim no effect, and just one claims one type of crime increases slightly (an older date list of research is available here). 

The incidents with Graves, Meckler, Benedetto, and Jerome shouldn’t keep happening. What is clear is that if the National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act passes, just like the original ruckus over passing concealed handgun laws, the fears about allowing people to travel with guns will soon be forgotten. 

John R. Lott, Jr. is a FoxNews.com contributor. He is an economist and author of the third edition of "More Guns, Less Crime" (University of Chicago Press, 2010).

John R. Lott, Jr. is a columnist for FoxNews.com. He is an economist and was formerly chief economist at the United States Sentencing Commission. Lott is also a leading expert on guns and op-eds on that issue are done in conjunction with the Crime Prevention Research Center. He is the author of eight books including "More Guns, Less Crime." His latest book is "Dumbing Down the Courts: How Politics Keeps the Smartest Judges Off the Bench" Bascom Hill Publishing Group (September 17, 2013). Follow him on Twitter@johnrlottjr.