Land of 100,000 Gun-Carriers

Today’s Minneapolis Star Tribune has a featured story on the explosion in handgun carry permits that has occurred since 2003, when Minnesota joined the majority of states in requiring local authorities to issue carry permits to qualified applicants. Currently, the Strib reports, there are around 100,000 carry permit holders in Minnesota, or one in 40 adults.

The “shall issue” law was hotly debated in 2003; opponents argued that violent crime would skyrocket if more people were allowed to carry firearms. That obviously hasn’t happened. The Strib stays scrupulously neutral on the effects of the legislation:

Minnesota’s shall-issue law was some of the most hotly debated legislation of its era, with supporters promising it would deter crime and detractors predicting a surge in needless bloodshed. Neither prediction has come to pass.

The law “has not been a net benefit to our society in any way,” said Heather Martens, executive director of Protect Minnesota — Working to End Gun Violence. “They promised that if lots of people had guns everybody would be safe. Here just [recently] we had a 5-year-old child killed while sleeping on a couch. I think we were sold a bill of goods.”

Note that even the most rabid anti-gun advocates do not claim that the bloodbath they predicted in 2003 has come to pass. Ms. Martens cites a case that has been in the news lately, but two juveniles were arrested in connection with that crime. You have to be 21 years old to qualify for a carry permit in Minnesota, so the perpetrators obviously were not permit holders. That being the case, what is the point?

An obvious question is, to what extent have carry permit holders been involved in violent crimes since “shall issue” was inaugurated in 2003?

State data shows that since the law took effect, permit holders were convicted of 882 non-traffic crimes, including 66 assaults, two robberies and two killings. Many were committed with guns. Martens said it debunks the notion that all permit holders are law-abiding.

Rothman responded that permit holders commit much less than their share of crime, citing as an example that though one in seven Minnesotans has a DWI on their record, only one in 545 of the state’s permit holders got one after getting a permit.

“No one ever claimed permit holders would be perfect,” Rothman said, “but the numbers show (they) are consistently orders of magnitude more law abiding than the general public.”

The Strib’s conclusion is that from a crime standpoint, the legislation has probably been a wash:

Mona Dohman, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, said legal carrying has proved to be “neither the problem nor the solution” when it comes to crime.

“We have observed no apparent correlation between the number of permits to carry handguns and the level of criminal of activity,” Dohman said.

That conclusion isn’t obviously wrong, but it certainly is questionable. You can see the data here. The most useful statistic is probably the violent crime rate per 100,000 population. Violent crime was almost non-existent in Minnesota in the early 1960s. It rose pretty steadily until it peaked in the mid-1990s. The violent crime rate was actually declining when permit laws were liberalized in 2003. Thereafter, it trended slightly upward for a few years, reaching 312 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2006. It then began to decline, falling by 32% [correction: 24%; never do math in a hurry] between 2006 and 2010, when the data end.

It would take more study to determine what influence Minnesota’s gun laws had on those trends, which are not necessarily out of line with what has happened on the national level. But the numbers are susceptible to the interpretation that the steadily increasing number of citizens with carry permits has at least helped to bring down the violent crime rate in recent years. One would think that a 24% decline in violent crime in four years would at least merit mention in any discussion of the consequences of gun law liberalization.

I spent a few minutes googling to remind myself what opponents of gun rights had to say about the law back in 2003, and was reminded that Minnesota’s churches were in the forefront of opposition. In fact, a group of churches sued the state, arguing that the law’s requirement that they put up signs on their premises if they wanted to ban guns was unduly onerous and an infringement of their religious freedom under the Minnesota Constitution. The churches’ lawsuit was enthusiastically supported by the DFL party. It is interesting to compare liberals’ support for religious freedom when the issue was guns with their current demand that religious institutions violate their theological precepts–not just put up a sign–when the issue is paying for contraception and abortion.

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