Saturday, January 26, 2013

Propaganda in Review: VPC’s “Concealed Carry Killers”

Florida Concealed Weapon License

The Violence Policy Center recently pushed out its latest version of “Concealed Carry Killers,” a review of all presumably unlawful homicides between 2007 and 2012 that were allegedly perpetrated by individuals licensed to carry concealed firearms.1 I needed something to cheer me up, so I decided to evaluate this study in detail here. Fortunately, doing so didn’t take very long, since the total number of incidents was very small—which tells us something already. Following along as I deconstruct the propaganda may take a few minutes, though, so pour yourself a drink, get comfortable, and enjoy the show.

Before I parse the numbers and draw comparisons and conclusions, I should comment on the relative validity of the VPC data. With three exceptions,2 it is drawn entirely from news reports, so certain details are probably incorrect, though I have assumed their validity for this analysis. (For example, I could argue that the licensing status presented in many of the cases amounts to hearsay evidence, but I won’t.) As usual, suicides and unintentional killings are conflated with intentional homicides to produce a higher number of fatalities. I will redact the suicides in my analysis below but not the unintentional fatalities.3 Finally, that the perpetrators were licensed was germane to relatively few of the cases. Many if not most of the incidents occurred at private residences or businesses, where non-licensees could have been legally armed, while others involved obvious premeditation and were clearly not the result of the perpetrators spontaneously killing someone just because they had legally carried weapons at hand. However, this study is about the propensity of licensees to commit murder, so the fact they were licensed cannot be dismissed even on its irrelevancy to their crimes. What I will redact are the included homicides that were actually committed by non-licensees, police officers, and security professionals.

The VPC study details approximately 370 incidents that occurred between May 2007 and November 2012. These resulted in a total of 500 fatalities and led to 168 individuals being convicted on homicide charges.4 These figures suggest that licensees kill about 89 people per year unlawfully. With an estimated eight million licensees in the United States,5 that works out to an annual homicide rate of 1.11 per 100,000 licensees. I will put that rate in context a bit later, but let’s parse the numbers a little more accurately first.

To begin, we shouldn’t count the killings that were actually committed by non-licensees or by those who were licensed only pursuant to their employment (such as cops and security guards). Redacting these reduces our total number of fatalities to 453. That leaves us with 81 presumed homicides per year or an annual rate of 1.01 per 100,000 licensees.

Next, many of the cases were unresolved. While some of these may eventually result in convictions, the accused are presumed innocent until proven guilty—despite the blood lust of the lynch mobs. Redacting these alone reduces the total to 427 fatalities. The annual rate then becomes 76 unlawful homicides or 0.96 per 100,000 licensees.

Lastly, a full third of the 500 fatalities were actually suicides, which have nothing to do with concealed-carry licensing. Redacting just the suicides, gives us 332 bona fide homicides. Including negligent shootings, that is 59 murders per year or 0.74 per 100,000 licensees.

Of course, if we were to remove all the suicides, the presumptively lawful killings, and the homicides committed by non-licensees, the rates would become lower still. I won’t split these hairs, because none of the numbers mean much in isolation. We need to compare them to other homicide rates to see if licensees present some unusual threat to public safety, which is what the VPC report implies that we should believe.

First, let’s establish the overall homicide rate. From 2006 to 2010, there were nearly 71,000 murders committed in the United States.6 That’s about 14,200 per year or an annual homicide rate of 4.5 per 100,000 residents. In other words, all other things being equal, you are over six times more likely to be murdered by a non-licensee than by someone licensed to carry a concealed weapon.

Now, I’m going to frighten, anger, and possibly sadden you.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 794,300 police officers employed in 2010.7 In the same year, the Cato Institute reports, police officers caused 127 fatalities in association with credible excessive-force allegations.8 Ladies and gentlemen, that is a homicide rate of 15.99 per 100,000 cops. You are over 21 times more likely to be murdered by a police officer than by someone licensed to carry a concealed weapon … all other things being equal.

But all other things are not equal. In 2010, approximately 3,800 black men were arrested on murder or manslaughter charges, representing about 45 percent of the total for such arrests that year, though black men comprise only about six percent of the general population. Black men were also killed with disproportionate frequency, making up over 42 percent of murder victims that year.9 In other words, black men are killing each other at an appalling rate—well over 20 homicides per 100,000 men.10 A black man is over 35 times more likely to be murdered by another black man than anyone is to be killed by a concealed-carry licensee.

As the above examples have shown, even the VPC’s most inflammatory numbers indicate that individuals licensed to carry concealed firearms are less dangerous than the average citizen and considerably less dangerous than certain other sub-populations. Nevertheless, the report should serve as a reminder that every population has its bad actors. The concealed-carry community may be more scrupulously law-abiding than most, but it is still not immune to evil or insanity.

About 2.5 percent of Americans are currently licensed to carry firearms.

I want to conclude with a thought experiment that explores how licensed concealed carry might intersect with a mass-shooting incident and VPC-style propaganda. Below, I will present two scenarios, one essentially fantastical and one frighteningly plausible. First, the fantasy …

A man wearing a long coat and a backpack walks into a crowded shopping mall. He approaches the balcony overlooking the food court on the floor below and produces an AR-15 rifle from under his coat. Leaning over the railing, he begins to fire indiscriminately into the lunchtime crowd.

A few yards away, a concealed-carry licensee is sitting on a bench waiting for his wife and daughter to finish shopping. His first impulse is to run toward the nearby emergency exit. He was trained to avoid confrontation when he applied for his license, but he isn’t sure if his family is safe … and he immediately recognizes that a mass shooting is in progress. After scant seconds of indecision, he acts, drawing his semi-automatic pistol and firing two shots at the deranged gunman.

The shots connect, but the murderer is wearing ballistic armor under his coat. He flinches and turns his rifle toward the licensee, firing wildly. The licensee adjusts his aim. He manages to get off a third shot, striking the gunman in the head, before he himself is hit in the thigh.

The shooter collapses, unconscious. The licensee calls for help, but he is already bleeding badly. In the chaos and confusion that follows, medical and law-enforcement personnel take several minutes to arrive on scene. The licensee bleeds to death.

The would-be mass killer succumbs to his wounds several days later. Two more of his victims also die, but dozens recover from the injuries left by his small, high-velocity bullets. No one has a clear idea of what happened.

The news stories report that two shooters were killed in a gun battle at the mall, along with two innocent bystanders. One of the gunmen, the reporters note, was licensed to carry a concealed handgun. The Violence Policy Center records the incident as four homicides attributed to a licensee.

Now for the reality …

A man wearing a long coat and a backpack walks into a crowded shopping mall. He approaches the balcony overlooking the food court on the floor below and produces an AR-15 rifle from under his coat. Leaning over the railing, he begins to fire indiscriminately into the lunchtime crowd.

In a nearby store, a concealed-carry licensee is buying a pair of shoes. She hears the sudden burst of shots and thinks about the compact revolver holstered in her purse. Unsure of the situation or the gunfire’s origin, she decides to wait and avoid conflict if possible, as she was trained to do when she received her license. The manager quickly locks down the store and ushers the shoppers into the relative safety of a back office.

Outside, the deranged gunman continues shooting. His rifle malfunctions multiple times due to the cheap high-capacity magazines that he chose mainly for their wicked appearance, but he manages to reload again and again, pulling magazine after magazine from his full backpack. He hits scores of people as they attempt to hide or flee.

In the chaos and confusion that follows, medical and law-enforcement personnel take several minutes to arrive on scene. The police order the shooter to drop his rifle, but he turns it on them, firing wildly. One officer is struck in the head, dying almost instantly.

The other officers return fire, hitting the suspect multiple times. He drops his rifle and collapses. He is arrested and taken to the hospital for treatment.

The police secure the area, while paramedics attempt to evacuate the wounded. The mall is locked down for several more hours as the police interview witnesses and search for other possible suspects. They eventually make their way to the shoe store.

When contacted by the officers, the licensee informs them that she is licensed to carry concealed, as she is required to do under her state’s law. The officers ask if she is armed, and she replies affirmatively. Exercising caution, the police take the licensee into custody on suspicion that she may be an accomplice.

The licensee is later released without charges. Almost two dozen victims die that day, and dozens more eventually recover from their injuries. The shooter himself survives his wounds but is ruled incompetent to stand trial.

The news stories report that 22 shoppers and one police officer were killed when a gunman opened fire with an “assault weapon.” The reporters note that a woman licensed to carry a concealed handgun was also arrested at the scene but has yet to be charged. The Violence Policy Center records the incident as a mass shooting associated with a licensee but pending resolution.

A concealed-carry licensee may [rarely] stop a mass murder in progress, but licensees do appear to provide some deterrence. The pattern is already clearly visible. Would-be mass killers preferentially target unsecured locations where firearms are prohibited by law or policy, ensuring that they will face the least possible resistance. Of course, eliminating gun-free zones and embracing the deterrent effect of lawfully armed citizens may simply compel future murderers to modify their tactics … but that’s a discussion for another time.

  1. Violence Policy Center, “Total People Killed by Concealed Carry Killers” (2012).

  2. The VPC also includes data from various reports published by the Michigan State Police and the Minnesota and Texas departments of public safety, which are no doubt inclusive of the news data. In other words, some of the results for these three states have probably been counted more than once.

  3. Modern firearms don’t “go off” accidentally, so an unintentional shooting is almost always the result of negligence.

  4. I have extrapolated the number of convictions to include perpetrators who likely would have been convicted if they hadn’t been killed during the commission of their crimes, committed suicide, or been ruled incompetent to stand trial. However, more than one of the actual convictions appear unjust to my eyes.

  5. U.S. Government Accountability Office, Gun Control: States’ Laws and Requirements for Concealed Carry Permits Vary across the Nation (2012). Looking at the statistics another way, concealed-carry licensees comprise about 2.5 percent of the population but are allegedly responsible for only 0.4 percent of all homicides.

  6. As usual, I take most of my crime statistics from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports.

  7. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012).

  8. National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, 2010 Annual Report.

  9. Uniform Crime Reports.

  10. The only “epidemic of violence” in the United States is largely confined to certain minority communities. It has nothing to do with guns and everything to do with institutionalized poverty and the war on drugs.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

On High-Capacity Magazines

Law-abiding subjects of California are restricted to building low-capacity magazines.

It always pains me to point out the obvious, so I omitted mention of so-called high-capacity magazines from my recent comments on reasonable gun control. However, much of the latest gun-control discussion (including President Obama’s own disingenuous remarks) has focused on the notion of limiting magazine capacities. Therefore, I am forced to point out the obvious.

Limiting magazine capacities for firearms would be difficult both practically and constitutionally. I will deal with the constitutional side first, since that may be less obvious for those who haven’t studied the history of gun control or U.S. constitutional law. To begin, though, we must define just what exactly a high-capacity magazine is—and that is a big part of the problem in itself.

An ammunition magazine is a device for feeding cartridges into a repeating firearm.1 The capacity of that magazine will vary depending on the type and size of the gun and the size and weight of its ammunition and will generally be limited by how reliable and convenient it is in normal use. What is high capacity for one firearm may be low capacity for another. For example, magnum revolvers commonly have five- to eight-round cylinders, mid-sized semi-automatic pistols are often designed for 15-round magazines, and many small-bore rifles (such as the AR-15) are usually equipped with 20- or 30-round magazines.

In D.C. v. Heller, the U.S. Supreme Court established a common-use test for firearms protected by the Second Amendment. Since the guns described in the above example are all in common use for lawful purposes, their standard magazines will most likely be ruled protected as well. For what it’s worth, this fact may leave true high-capacity magazines constitutionally vulnerable.

What are “true high-capacity magazines”? These are the gimmicky and awkward products designed to separate gun owners from their money. They may hold scores and scores of cartridges, but they push the material limits of the magazines themselves and the endurance limits of the shooter, making them both unreliable and uncomfortable. In fact, the failures of such magazines appear to have foreshortened some recent mass-murder incidents—which leads off on a tangent that I will probably explore in the future.

Setting the Constitution aside, controlling high-capacity magazines is impractical, because doing so is essentially impossible. An ammunition magazine is little more than a box with a spring inside of it. Any high-school dropout could make one in his mother’s basement, and in a few more years, so-called 3D printing will enable anyone to manufacture all the necessary components save the steel springs. In other words, the technology is too simple to control without sending our civilization back to the Stone Age.

This is also why existing and proposed magazine restrictions bother me mostly for their idiocy. In California, it is currently illegal to manufacture or sell magazines with greater than 10-round capacities. While this law is effectively unenforceable and has no impact on violent crime, law-abiding citizens such as myself dutifully follow it, but I offer this detail with a caveat. I may have no personal or immediate need for high-capacity magazines, but should such need develop, I expect that they will be easy enough to come by.

Now for your bonus tactical argument! Why are high-capacity magazines actually good for lawful defense but mostly irrelevant to criminal offense? The gun-control theory goes that when a would-be mass killer stops to reload, his potential unarmed victims have an opportunity to tackle him safely, but this is the exception rather than the rule.2 When faced with imminent violence, those not properly prepared or trained to respond in kind will naturally tend to flee or hide, leaving the murderer with ample time to reload or switch weapons. On the other hand, the defensive shooter is already in the fight by definition. Her attackers will be pressing their assault and not cowering or running, so she won’t have the luxury of calmly reloading her weapon with another low-capacity magazine.

Magazine limitations are pointless and probably unconstitutional and like other unreasonable gun-control schemes hinder only law-abiding citizens and not the violent criminals they supposedly target.

  1. It’s worth noting that repeating firearms (capable of more than one shot before reloading) have been around for nearly 700 years, though they didn’t become economical to manufacture widely until the mid-19th century.

  2. The garden-variety violent criminal needs to fire only a couple shots while trying to murder a rival gang member.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

American Violence

Despite recent dramatic incidents, violent crime has been steadily declining in the United States. The reasons for this are as varied and complicated as the sources of violence. In fact, they are still hotly debated among criminologists and economists, but the fact remains that the general risk is much lower than it once was.

Furthermore, as the Baltimore example shows, the vast majority of murders are perpetrated by career criminals against other criminals. Though murderous spouses and rampaging lunatics grab headlines, they are the rare exceptions. Those citizens who can avoid the culture of criminality face even less risk of falling victim to violence.