Commentary

A Referendum on Trust

By Jeffrey R. Snyder
April 12, 1999

Last week, Missouri citizens became the first in the nation to vote on whether to permit licensed citizens to carry concealed handguns. By a narrow margin, they voted down the initiative, and left standing an 1875 law outlawing the concealed carry of arms. Nearly every one of Missouri’s rural counties voted to support the change, but city residents were overwhelmingly against the initiative. The national media consider the outcome a defeat for the National Rifle Association, which spent about $3.8 million in an effort to get the referendum passed.

Thirty one states now permit law-abiding citizens to carry concealed handguns for self-defense. Most of them are similar to Missouri’s proposal, which would have required the county sheriff to issue a concealed handgun permit to any Missouri citizen who is at least 21 years of age, undergoes a background check, takes a 12 hour firearms course and satisfies various other criteria. Because this was the first time that citizens could vote directly for or against concealed weapons permits, however, the battle in Missouri was closely watched as a measure of the pulse of the electorate on gun control. Now that the dust has settled, the question is, “What does it all mean?”

Well, evidently, most of the Missouri voters who went to the polls prefer taking their chances with criminals to trusting their neighbors with handguns. In the end, Missouri citizens decided that the same people on whose care, judgment, and sense of responsibility they rely every day to serve them food in restaurants, to watch their kids in day care centers, to assist them with their taxes, and to drive safely on their streets, could not be trusted to exercise sufficient care and responsibility with respect to carrying handguns in public.

Proponents of concealed carry laws argue that law-abiding citizens should be able to carry a handgun because they have a right to defend themselves and their loved ones. Statistics from the Department of Justice indicate that 87 percent of all violent crime occurs outside the home. If a person has to leave his firearm at home, he will be defenseless against criminal attack.

Opponents of the laws emphasize the dangers that might occur if citizens begin carrying for self-defense. Fender benders and arguments where tempers flare might become occasions for murder if a gun is at hand. More guns in public might also result in more accidents. And inexperienced citizens might use guns without any real justification.

Such gloomy predictions apparently played a large role in defeating the Missouri initiative. But the experience of states that have enacted such laws over the past 12 years shows that licensed citizens don’t misuse their weapons. People who acquire carry permits have very rarely gotten into trouble with the law. As more and more states have enacted concealed carry laws, this experience has repeated itself and the data gets stronger as each year passes.

Fear of the consequences that might occur if the carry law were enacted wound up dominating the Missouri debate while few worried about what might occur if citizens had to rely solely upon the police for protection.

For example, there was little worry among opponents that if the law-abiding were not armed no one in Missouri would be available to quickly stop a massacre of children on school grounds, as assistant high school principal Joel Myrick did in Pearl, Mississippi last year. Myrick retrieved a pistol from his pickup, confronted a juvenile predator and held him at gun point until police arrived. The boy had already shot seven students and was on his way to a neighboring elementary school.

One writer to the editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch summed up her opposition to the proposed law by stating that “the so-called right to carry infringes on my right to feel safe.” That simple statement captures the essence of this controversy. Unlike Joel Myrick, a growing number of us do not think of ourselves as co-producers of public order and safety — ready to act upon our own initiative if circumstances so require.

Proponents of gun control see no good in guns because they disregard the good deeds for which a handgun would be advisable. Worse, they may not believe in the capacity of people to perform such good deeds. If that is indeed the case, there’s nothing but sand awaiting those mining for gold in gun control.

Jeffrey R. Snyder is the author of a Cato Institute study entitled Fighting Back: Crime, Self-Defense, and the Right to Carry a Handgun.