In Debate Over Gun-Carry Laws, Critics Are Quick to Shoot Down the Facts

People walking the streets armed with guns must be dangerous, right? A newly revised study by the Brady Campaign and the Violence Policy Center found that even those individuals who have legally obtained permits to carry concealed handguns are extremely dangerous. With millions of Americans already having been issued such permits from the various states, this is an important issue.

The gun control organizations have frequently made these claims in the press, and Dennis Henigan, the vice president of the Brady Campaign, will likely make these claims again when he and I appear on John Stossel’s FoxBusiness show today. But the gun control advocates inaccurately describe many shooting cases, choosing to ignore that the majority of incidents involve people properly defending themselves.

Over the past three years, the number of active permit holders in the United States has gone from about 5 million to more than 6.2 million today. The numbers issued by the state regulatory agencies show time after time that these permit holders abide by the law.

Take Florida, which currently has the most concealed handgun permit holders in the country and is one of the two most populous states with right-to-carry laws. Between Oct. 1, 1987, and May 31 this year, permits had been issued to 1.8 million people. On average, the permits had been held for quite a long time, well over 10 years. For all those individuals across the more than 22 years of legal carry, there were only 167 cases where the permit was revoked for a firearms related violation, or about 0.01 percent of permit holders. While the state doesn't provide a precise breakdown of the reason for those revocations, the vast majority were apparently for people who accidentally carried their concealed handgun into a gun-free zone, such as an airport or school.

Throughout the past 29 months, beginning January 2008, only three additional permit holders have had their permit revoked for a firearms-related violation. With more than 729,000 active permit holders, that is an annual revocation rate of 0.00017 percent.

In sharp contrast, the Brady Campaign and the Violence Policy Center portray Florida as Ground Zero for problems with concealed handgun permit holders. They boldly assert that 17 Florida permit holders have "killed" people with their guns over the past three years and that this one state by itself accounts for 17 of the 96 "killer" permit holders nationwide. The other 79 cases are scattered across 26 other states, with no other state accounting for more than 10 cases. Florida is also said to account for 2 of the 7 cases where permit holders are said to have killed law enforcement officers.

The Associated Press articles by Erik Schelzig and by Jim Abrams have given extensive, uncritical coverage to these claims. Members of the gun control organizations have made these claims unchallenged on such places as Fox News and on the Huffington Post (e.g., here and here).

So what is the evidence? The gun control groups don't actually point to actual court cases. They look at news stories and selectively report what is reported in those stories. For Florida, there are eleven "pending cases." The gun control groups assume that anyone involved in a shooting will be convicted. Indeed, in 7 of the 11 cases no one was even charged with a crime. Three cases involved suicides, and three had convictions for some type of offense. (See this link for a detailed presentation of sources.)

But there is something that the gun control advocates conveniently omit: When a permit holder uses a gun defensively and kills an attacker in a public place, the police often arrest them. Typically, he will later be released, but the police must first investigate what happened. The police can’t just take the shooter's word for it that they used the gun defensively.

Take the four pending cases where charges were filed, two of which involved the "killing" of law enforcement.

-- Humberto Delgado, Jr. was charged with the death of a police officer. Delgado obviously engaged in a horrible crime, but there is one major problem with the stories as presented by the gun control groups. He also was charged with carrying a concealed firearm. If he had a concealed handgun permit, he obviously couldn't have been charged with this crime. Delgado was just your typical criminal, who didn't have a permit, who killed a police officer.

-- James Wonder was charged with the death of an off-duty Customs and Border Protection Agent Donald Pettit. Pettit is said to have engaged in road rage against Wonder and then followed Wonder's car into a Post Office parking lot solely to continue harassing Wonder. Pettit had over shot the parking lot and had to circle back to go into it. He had no intention to do business with either the Post Office or any other nearby business. Pettit was clearly the aggressor in the situation. The Sun-Sentinel newspaper wrote on August 29, 2008: "local lawyers said [Wonder] may be able to make a strong claim under Florida law that he was within his rights to shoot Pettit." One measure of the severity of the case is that Wonder was released on a very minimal bond of $10,000. Neither the Brady Campaign nor the Violence Policy Center noted these points in their discussion of the case.

-- Gabriel Mobley shot two people outside a bar, and the gun control groups’ discussions fail to mention the defensive nature of Mobley's actions. A friend of Mobley's had an argument with two other men in a bar. Mr. Mobley separated the men, but the two waited outside and Mobley's lawyer, Richard Della Ferra, told me that they pounced on Mobley and his friend as soon as they left the bar. Witnesses saw one of the two attackers throw a punch that shattered the friend's eye socket. Mobley says that he shot when he thought one of the two men was reaching for a weapon, and police found the DNA of one of the men on a steak knife at the scene.

-- On January 7, 2008, Adam Hill was accused of accidentally firing his gun, the bullet fatally striking a friend while the friend had visited Hill to use his washing machine. Since the case has yet to go to trial, the law office that is representing Hill was unwilling to discuss the case, but they did say that the news articles did not accurately represent what had happened in the case. The law office representing Hill in his legal case emphasized to me in a telephone discussion that news articles on these cases can be quite misleading because defense lawyers warn their clients not to talk to others about their case, including the press.

Two of the three convictions in Florida are quite different than what gun control groups represent. One involved a boyfriend who accidentally shot his girlfriend when he was showing her how to use a gun in her home. There was no evidence of arguing or any disagreement. In another case, the issue was whether the permit holder had done enough to avoid the confrontation. A convicted felon confronted the permit holder. According to newspaper accounts, even the prosecutor acknowledged: “Kallenbach was in some way defending himself during an escalating altercation between the men caught on the security video” and that "People can look at that tape and interpret it two or three different ways.”

While this discussion focuses on Florida, the just released third edition of More Guns, Less Crime provides a detailed analysis for all states from 1990 to July 1, 2008. In state after state, permit holders are extremely law-abiding. In Arizona, there were 99,370 active permits as of December 1, 2007. During 2007, 33 permits were revoked for any reason -- a 0.03 percent rate. In Texas, there were 288,909 active permit holders. Of these, 160 were convicted of either a misdemeanor or a felony, a rate of 0.05 percent. That is about one-seventh the conviction rate in the general adult population, and the convictions among permit holders are for much less serious offenses.

I went to some other cases from the gun control groups after July 1, 2008. In two of the other five killings involving law-enforcement, it also appears as if the person who fired a gun didn't have a concealed handgun permit. In one case, in Pennsylvania, Christina Korbe fired a shot killing a police officer when police raided her home. The police were serving an arrest warrant on her husband, and she didn't know it was the police who were breaking into her home, and she was concerned about the safety of her two children, ages 4 and 10.

The Brady Campaign and the Violence Policy Center evaluate the benefits of concealed handgun laws based solely on the claimed costs -- they don't compare the cases where defensive uses occurred to the bad things that happen, but only count what they claim are the bad cases. They ignore lots of amazing defensive gun use cases. But even more bizarrely, they count legitimate self-defense cases as bad events even when no charges are filed or the permit holder is later exonerated.

John R. Lott, Jr. is a contributor. He is an economist and author of  More Guns, Less Crime (University of Chicago Press, May 2010).

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