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Unraveling Some Brady Law Falsehoods

Guns: Part of the national drop in crime is because more citizens are lawfully armed, not because of background checks.

The Brady law has received much credit for the country's rapidly dropping crime rate. Yet with the Supreme Court striking down the law's background check requirements, it faces its ultimate test. If President Clinton and gun control advocates are correct, the court's decision will unleash a new crime wave.

The Justice Department continually releases "new" studies crediting the law with reducing crime. Actually, the downward crime trend started in 1991, well before the Brady law became effective in March 1994. My research shows that this decline is in great measure because of higher arrest rates and more states allowing law-abiding citizens to carry concealed handguns.

Others estimate that the Brady bill had a much smaller effect on gun sales than the 100,000 rejections its proponents claim. Last year the General Accounting Office reported that initial rejections numbered about 60,000, and more than half were for purely technical reasons, mostly paperwork errors that eventually were corrected. A much smaller number of rejections, 3,000, were due to violent crime convictions--and presumably many of these people just proceeded to buy a gun on the street.

Brady law backers have focused almost exclusively on the value of background checks, the one part of the law that the Supreme Court specifically struck down. Yet there never was much controversy over this issue: When Congress debated the law, no one, not even the National Rifle Assn., opposed background checks. The dispute was over a five-day waiting period versus an "instant check." Ultimately, the success of background checks and waiting periods must be judged by their impact on crime. To seriously evaluate their impacts, however, one must recognize that other legal changes also occurred.

For example, during 1995 and 1996, 10 more states adopted nondiscretionary concealed handgun laws. In the belief that concealed handguns deter crime, 31 states now grant permits automatically to citizens who have no significant criminal records or histories of major mental illness. In all 31 states, more people now carry legally concealed handguns.

Considerable evidence supports the notion that permitted handguns deter criminals. Polls show that there are at least 760,000 and possibly as many as 3.6 million defensive uses of guns per year. In 98% of the cases, people simply brandish weapons to stop attacks. This is further reflected in the different rates of "hot burglaries," where a resident is at home when a criminal strikes. In Canada and Britain, both with tough gun control laws, almost half of all burglaries are "hot." The U.S., with laxer restrictions, has a "hot burglary" rate of only 13%.

This difference is no accident. Surveys of convicted American burglars indicate that the fear of potentially armed victims causes them to spend more time than their foreign counterparts "casing" a house to ensure that nobody is home. Felons frequently comment that they avoid late-night burglaries because "that's the way to get shot."

Fortunately, we can disentangle the different effects of waiting periods, background checks and concealed handgun laws, as many states adopted these different laws at different times. In a study examining these differences (published in the January issue of the Journal of Legal Studies) David Mustard and I analyzed the simultaneous effect on crime from background checks, state waiting periods, the lengths of waiting periods, nondiscretionary concealed handgun laws and other gun laws. Our research examined crime rates over 16 years in all 3,054 U.S. counties. The largest previous gun control study examined only 170 cities within a single year. We also accounted for changes in arrest and conviction rates, changes in prison sentence lengths and general variables affecting crime such as unemployment, income and poverty.

While arrest and conviction rates were the most important determinations of crime rates, of all the different gun laws, liberal concealed handgun laws were the most important. Passing these handgun laws caused murders to decrease by least 8%, rapes by 5%, aggravated assaults by 7% and robberies by 3%. The percentage drops were largest in the most urban, most crime-prone counties, and women benefited much more than men from carrying concealed handguns. In contrast, no evidence indicated that either waiting periods or background checks lowered crime rates.

Yet research does not convince everybody. Perhaps the Supreme Court's decision will be able to shed light on how effective the Brady law was. Will crime rates shoot up as quickly without the nationwide background checks as gun control advocates claimed that they fell because of them? My bet is that they will not. Will gun control advocates take me up on that wager?

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