(From the 6/14/99 edition of the New York Times)

With Guns, a Safer World for Women?


With Congress primed to pass gun-control legislation, New Yorkers may be tempted to feel smug. The rest of the country is finally starting to share the prevailing distaste in the city for guns. Urbanites seem to be triumphing over the plaid-shirted guys driving the back roads in pickup trucks with N.R.A. decals.

But it's hard to remain smug if you talk to Dr. John R. Lott. He believes that thousands of New Yorkers, particularly women in poor neighborhoods, are victims of violent crimes each year because of the city's strict controls on guns. And he is not one of those guys in the pickup trucks.

Dr. Lott is an economist who teaches at the University of Chicago Law School. He grew up in a home without guns and never wanted to hunt. He did not object to the domestic gun controls imposed by his wife, who would not let their four sons have even toy pistols.

But then he did a study that persuaded him to buy a real gun -- with his wife's blessing. As a fellow economist, she too was converted by the data in the study, which tracked crime rates in every county in America for 18 years. The results were summarized in the title of his book, published by the University of Chicago Press last year: "More Guns, Less Crime." Dr. Lott found that crime drops after a state enacts a right-to-carry law, which guarantees citizens a gun permit as long as they have no criminal records and meet a few specific requirements.

"With more citizens carrying guns, it becomes riskier for criminals to operate," Dr. Lott said. "Some of them switch to safer crimes -- you see an increase in larceny as they switch from robbing people to stealing cars. Some will shift to other jurisdictions, so there'll be an increase in violent crime in the counties just across the border of the adjacent state."

What if New York City, which now gives permits only to citizens who demonstrate a compelling need for a gun, was to adopt a right-to-carry law? Extrapolating from his research, Dr. Lott estimated that after the law had been in effect for five years, there would be about 100 fewer murders a year, 300 fewer rapes, 5,000 fewer aggravated assaults and 9,000 fewer robberies.

"The greatest beneficiaries of right-to-carry laws are residents of high-crime urban neighborhoods, especially women," Dr. Lott said. "A woman who behaves passively when confronted by a criminal is 2.5 times more likely to be seriously injured than a woman who has a gun. It's rare that she has to use the gun -- just brandishing it is usually enough to protect herself." Dr. Lott argues that right-to-carry laws are particularly effective at discouraging shooting sprees in public areas.

Noting that the restrictive policy on gun permits in the Denver area did not avert the killings at Columbine High School, Dr. Lott cited examples of armed citizens stopping students in shootings at schools in Pearl, Miss., and Edinboro, Pa. 

"Once a state passes a right-to-carry law," he said, "there's an 84 percent drop in the rate at which multiple-victim shootings occur, and there are fewer fatalities when they do occur. If someone tries to start shooting in a crowded public place, there's a good chance that someone there will also be armed."

Dr. Lott does not advocate arming high school students, but he thinks that Congress made a mistake in 1995 by banning adults from having guns within 1,000 feet of a school. "We're trying to create safe cover for our children," he said, "but my concern is that we're creating safe zones for those interested in harming our children."

In academia, debate has been lively over the meaning of Dr. Lott's research. Gary Kleck, an eminent criminologist at the University of Florida, terms it  "mandatory reading for anyone who is open-minded and serious about the gun-control issue," but he cautions that the reductions in crime may be largely because of unknown factors other than right-to-carry laws.

Outside academia, Dr. Lott's work has driven gun-control advocates to desperate measures. Many have spread false accusations that he is financially beholden to the gun industry. The most surprising development, Dr. Lott said, has been dozens of death threats from gun-control advocates. "I never expected this much attention," he said, "although I can understand why people instinctively want to get rid of guns. Bad things can happen with guns. But guns can also be used to stop bad things from happening, and the net effect is that they save lives."