Welcome to the Wild West, Wisconsin style.
In July, two Milwaukee men "traded dozens of shots in a rolling shootout through two sides of town and down a freeway," as the press reported. Each driver had a state permit to carry a concealed weapon.
It's almost a miracle, given the fight went on with bullets flying for five miles, that no one was injured. But the incident, while wilder than most, is but one example of where road rage plus concealed carry has led to violence. The nonprofit Facebook page of the Violence Policy Center documents hundreds upon hundreds of violent incidents involving concealed carry, everything from people accidentally shooting themselves to bloody murders, and the list includes many road-rage incidents that escalated to gunplay.
The argument as to whether concealed carry makes us safer has long revolved around a study by economists John Lott and David Mustard, whose 1998 book, More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws, found a lower crime rate in states with a right-to-carry law. But in 2004, a committee of the National Research Council of the National Academies devoted a chapter in the report "Firearms and Violence: A Critical Review" to Lott's research and found problems with his analysis. The report concluded "it is not possible to determine that there is a causal link between the passage of right-to-carry laws and crime rates."
Given the many factors that can affect crime rates, trying to isolate the impact of one variable, the adoption of a concealed carry law, seems a difficult case to make. The Violence Policy Center takes a different, more fine-grained approach.
On the negative side of the ledger, the center looked at how many people have been killed as a result of the law, with a study updated last month called "Concealed Carry Killers." The study documents 381 incidents in 32 states since May 2007, resulting in 516 deaths involving private citizens with permits to carry concealed handguns. Twenty-four of the incidents were mass shootings, resulting in the deaths of 107 victims. Fourteen of the victims were law enforcement officers.
Any incidents of self-defense were not included in the totals. But the center also took a look at such incidents and found that in 2010, there were only 230 justifiable homicides in the nation involving a private citizen using a firearm reported to the FBI. "That same year, there were 8,275 criminal gun homicides. Using these numbers, in 2010, for every justifiable homicide in the United States involving a gun, guns were used in 36 criminal homicides. This ratio does not take into account the thousands of lives ended in gun suicides (19,392) or unintentional shootings (606) that year."
This was no fly-by-night report. It analyzed data from both the FBI Uniform Crime Reports and the Bureau of Justice Statistics' National Crime Victimization Survey. It used this same data to look at how often a victim of violent crime used a gun for protection over a five-year period (2007-2011). There were a total of 29,618,300 attempted or completed violent crimes, and in only 235,700 cases did the victims use a firearm to protect themselves. That's less than one percent of the incidents.
The study also looked at victims attempting to protect themselves from property crimes from 2007 through 2011. There were 84,495,500 victims of attempted or completed property crimes, and in only 103,000 cases did the victim use a gun in an attempt at self-protection. That's just one-tenth of one percent of all cases.
As low as these figures are, they are likely to drop in future years, because gun ownership is in decline. You wouldn't think so given reports of increased gun sales, but the evidence suggests these sales are mostly to people who already own guns. Yearly surveys (PDF) by the National Opinion Research Center show that the percentage of American households that reported having any guns dropped more than 40%. Household gun ownership dropped from 54% of households in 1977 to 32.3% of households in 2010.
Given these figures, it is perhaps not surprising that polls have shown voters in Wisconsin oppose concealed carry. A May 2011 survey (PDF) done for the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort group found state voters opposed concealed carry by 60% to 32%. Older surveys by the Public Policy Forum (late 1990s) and the conservative Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (early 1990s) found (PDF) an even higher proportion of state voters, anywhere from 79% to 83%, opposed concealed carry.
Concealed carry is one of those issues where a fervent minority that wanted the law overrode the wishes of a far-less-intense majority that opposed it. But when you look at the long-term trends on gun ownership, that fervent minority is steadily declining. As more incidents like the Milwaukee shootout occur, one could imagine future challenges to concealed carry laws.
Bruce Murphy is the editor of UrbanMilwaukee.com.