The Effect of Permissive Gun Laws on Crime

Published date01 November 2022
AuthorJohn J. Donohue
Date01 November 2022
Subject MatterThe Efficacy of Interventions
92 ANNALS, AAPSS, 704, November 2022
DOI: 10.1177/00027162231164865
The Effect of
Permissive Gun
Laws on Crime
1164865ANN The Annals of the American AcademyTHE EFFECT OF PERMISSIVE GUN LAWS ON CRIME
Substantial evidence has documented a powerful
“instrumentality” effect: the more lethal the weaponry
employed, the greater the likelihood that death will
result from any given assault. This finding provides the
foundation for the subsequent findings that a variety of
measures that restrict the prevalence or limit the per-
missible types of lethal weaponry can lower the costs of
gun violence. The literature has advanced to the point
that there is a sufficient empirical basis to call for the
elimination of right-to-carry laws, to reestablish bans on
assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, to main-
tain restrictions on youthful access to guns, and to
repeal stand-your-ground laws. The Supreme Court’s
recent decision expanding the scope of the Second
Amendment in New York State Rifle and Pistol
Association v. Bruen shows a concerning disinterest in
the importance of these empirical findings.
Keywords: gun safety regulation; crime; assault weap-
ons; right-to-carry laws; stand your ground
laws; mass shootings
Over the last 40 years, there have been several
important trends concerning firearms and their
regulation. First, as documented in a final
report from the General Social Survey, “Trends
in Gun Ownership in the United States, 1972 to
2014,” “The 31.0% of households reported hav-
ing a firearm in 2014 [was] the lowest level of
gun ownership in the last 40-some years,” which
was primarily caused “by the decrease in the
John J. Donohue is a Stanford law professor, an econo-
mist, as well as a lawyer, and conducts empirical
research in criminal justice. He is a member of the
American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a research
associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research.
NOTE: The author thanks Matthew Bondy, Theodora
Boulouta, Samuel Cai, Ammar Inayatali, Mira Korb,
and Nicolas Peña Tenjo for outstanding research assistance.
popularity of hunting.”1 According to a 2017 Pew Research poll, the percentage of
gunowners who say their main reason for possessing a firearm is for protection has
risen to 67 percent, while only 38 percent now list hunting as a major reason.2
Second, advances in firearm technology continue to develop increasingly
lethal weaponry that can fire more quickly, fire more rounds without reloading,
and create more grievous wounds to humans if struck. For example, in 1981,
John Hinckley managed to shoot Ronald Reagan and three others when he fired
six rounds from his six-shot .22-caliber revolver, and all four victims survived. A
handgun assassin today would be far more likely to use the current most popular
handgun—the Glock 19 pistol with a fifteen-round magazine and nine-millimeter
(mm) ammunition. With this weapon, many more shots could have been fired,
hitting more victims, whose chances of survival would have been far lower.
Indeed, when Jared Loughner attempted to assassinate Representative Gabbie
Giffords in 2011, he enhanced the lethality of his Glock 19 pistol by using a
thirty-three-round high-capacity magazine, enabling him to kill six and wound
Third, while the percentage of Americans owning guns has not changed dra-
matically over time, the percentage who have more lethal weaponry, from semi-
automatic pistols to assault rifles with high-capacity magazines, has grown
substantially. In the face of this growing lethality, many of the major legal devel-
opments in the U.S. over the last 40 years have moved in the direction of greater
permissiveness towards firearms.
The proliferation of right-to-carry (RTC) and permitless carry laws—and the
promotion of assault weapons—became major gun industry initiatives that were
designed to and were greatly successful in expanding the sale of weapons. The
inevitable consequence, and indeed the objective of the increased carrying of
weapons, is to stimulate their defensive use against real or perceived threats.
Laws designed to be more protective of these defensive uses have also prolifer-
ated in the form of stand-your-ground (SYG) laws that seek to provide greater
protections to those who use lethal force when they have reason to feel they are
in imminent danger.
One particularly striking illustration of how these developments can create
havoc occurred in May 2015, when hundreds of motorcycle enthusiasts congre-
gated outside a restaurant in Waco, Texas. Although concerns about the rising
tensions between rival motorcycle gangs had led to the stationing of uniformed
police and SWAT team members at the scene, a fight broke out that soon led to
a shootout involving both gang members and law enforcement. Although the
police gained control and the shooting stopped after just two minutes, nine peo-
ple were dead and twenty were injured. A total of 177 bikers were arrested and
151 firearms were seized at the scene, but all charges were ultimately dropped
because Texas’s SYG law allowed gang members to simply assert their right to
self-defense (Binelli 2022). Prior to 1996, when Texas’s RTC law went into effect,
all the gang members carrying concealed weapons would have been violating
Texas law.
Of course, gun carrying can generate benefits if it deters criminals, allows
victims to thwart criminal attacks, or even kills or maims enough attackers. The

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