How Right to Carry Laws Impact Society

Debunking the "Good Guy with a Gun" Theory

A handgun lays upon a copy of the United States Constitution, symbolizing the controversy over right-to-carry laws.
Handgun atop the U.S. Bill of Rights. Victor Maffe/Getty Images

In the wake of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, many in the U.S. rallied around the theory that "good guys with guns" make society safer, and that if there had been one present at the school that day, many lives could have been spared. Years later, this logic persists, thanks in large part to media messaging and lobbying by the National Rifle Association (NRA), which maintains the position that responsible gun owners make the U.S. a safer place.

However, two studies from leading public health researchers have found this suggestion to be patently false. One, conducted by researchers at Stanford and Johns Hopkins, and published in 2014, found statistically significant evidence that right-to-carry laws lead to increases in violent crime. The other, a study by a team of Harvard researchers, found overwhelming evidence that the majority of experts on gun crime — those who have published peer-reviewed studies on the topic and know the data — disagree with the NRA.

Right-to-Carry Laws Lead to Increases in Violence Crime

The study out of Stanford and Johns Hopkins considered county-level crime data from 1977-2006 and state-level data from 1979-2010. With data of this longitudinal range, run through a variety of statistical models, it is the first scientifically valid study on the link between right-to-carry laws and violent crime.

The researchers found an estimated 8 percent increase of aggravated assault due to right-to-carry laws and also found that the data suggest that these laws could increase gun assaults by nearly 33 percent. Additionally, though the effect is not as strong as that on assault, the researchers found that state data for 1999-2010, which removes the confounding factor of the crack cocaine epidemic, show that right-to-carry laws have lead to an increase in homicides. Specifically, they found that homicides increased in eight states that had adopted such laws between 1999 and 2010. They found that these laws lead to rises in rape and robbery too, though the effect appears to be weaker for these two crimes.

Experts Agree that Guns Make Homes More, Not Less Dangerous

The Harvard study, led by Dr. David Hemenway, Director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, surveyed about 300 authors of published studies. Hemenway and his team found that the majority views among gun crime experts contradict the long-held beliefs trumpeted by the NRA. The majority of experts agree that having a gun in a home makes that home more dangerous, increases risk of suicide, and increases the risk that a woman living in that home will become the victim of a homicide. They also agree that keeping guns unloaded and locked up reduces the likelihood of suicide, that strong gun laws help reduce homicide, and that background checks can help keep guns outs of the hands of violent people.

Contradicting NRA assertions, the experts disagree that right-to-carry laws reduce crime (which supports the scientific validity of the findings of the first study); that guns are used in self-defense more often than they are used in crime; and that carrying a gun outside the home reduces the risk of being killed. In fact, none of these claims, by the NRA, are supported by research.

These two studies once again place the spotlight on the important distinction between scientific evidence, and anecdotes, opinions, and marketing campaigns. In this case, the preponderance of scientific evidence and consensus is that guns make society more dangerous.