The Right To Pack Heat

While murder rates have been falling or have been flat for years in the rest of the country, Philadelphia’s rate has been rising. Last year’s murder rate was the highest since 1993, and Philadelphia replaced Chicago, the perennial leader, as the top 10 largest city with the highest murder rate. With 85 murders in the first 88 days of 2005, the city’s murder rate is well ahead of even last year’s.

Mayor John Street’s solution? He’s doing little about fixing the city’s declining arrest rates for murder. Instead, he blames the law-abiding citizens who have permits to carry concealed handguns. He announced on Thursday that the city will deliberately begin delaying issuing new concealed handgun permits. Gov. Rendell’s proposed crime task force promises to examine the issue further.

No reporters seem to have asked Street or Rendell the obvious question: If permit-holders are the problem, how many of those 85 murders were caused by a person with a permitted concealed handgun? When I asked, the city police and mayor’s office were unable or unwilling to answer that question, but my guess is zero.

In the extraordinarily rare cases when permit-holders get in trouble, there is news coverage. Yet there’s not one single news story on such a case this year.

Indeed, with 28,000 concealed handgun permit-holders in Philadelphia and more than 600,000 statewide, there was no such murder last year, or the year before, or the year before in the entire state. Only two have been recorded since the state law started in 1989.

Instead, in Philadelphia there are a number of cases such as this: Last December, a robber shot at a deliveryman despite having taken all his money, and only then did the deliveryman use his permitted concealed handgun to wound the robber.

There are dramatic cases statewide. A couple of years ago, a serial rapist in Pittsburgh was wounded by his sixth intended victim who had a permitted concealed handgun.

Pennsylvania’s experience isn’t unusual. Thirty-six other states have similar right-to-carry laws, and nine other states allow people to carry under more restrictive rules. In all of these cases, the type of person willing to take the time to apply for a permit and go through a criminal background check is extremely law-abiding. They lose their permits for any type of gun-related offenses at hundredths or thousandths of one percent.

Ohio, our most recent neighbor to adopt a right-to-carry law, adopted it almost a year ago. The Akron Beacon Journal reported last week that “some in law enforcement worried that routine traffic stops and road rage incidents would turn violent. That hasn’t happened.” Similarly, in 2002, after Michigan’s right-to-carry law had been in effect for a year, the Detroit News reported: “Such self-defense has not yet resulted in any kind of wave of new gun violence among those with fresh [concealed-weapon] permits, several law enforcement officials throughout Metro Detroit agreed.”

Consider the two largest states with right-to-carry laws, Florida and Texas. During the 15 years after Florida’s concealed-carry law took effect in October 1987, about 800,000 licenses were issued. Only 143 of these (two-hundredths of 1 percent) were revoked because of firearms-related violations. But even this statistic overstates the risks, as almost all of these cases apparently resulted from people simply accidentally carrying a gun into a restricted area, such as an airport.

The experience in Texas was similar. From 1996 through 1999, the first four years of Texas’ concealed handgun law, 215,000 people were licensed. Data from the Texas Department of Public Safety showed that permit-holders were convicted of a crime only 6 percent as often as other adult Texans.

Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson’s claim that Pennsylvania has “the most lenient gun laws in the entire country” is simply incorrect. Several states don’t even require a permit to carry a concealed handgun. Pennsylvania’s law was modeled on Indiana’s and is virtually identical to it. Pennsylvania is also one of 17 states that require background checks on even private transfers of guns. Rendell favors adopting a limit of one gun a month. But no published academic studies show that such limits reduce any type of violent crime rate.

If the state’s gun laws are a problem, then why has Pittsburgh’s murder rate fallen by 20 percent this year while Philadelphia’s has increased?

As State Rep. Dwight Evans, a Philadelphia Democrat, noted, “If Mayor Street thinks he’s going to suddenly make street violence disappear by denying law-abiding citizens their right to self-defense, he’s sadly mistaken.” If Mayor Street is unwilling to protect Philadelphians by fixing the city’s problems with law enforcement and lax judges, at least let law-abiding citizens protect themselves.