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Column: For Better or Worse, Concealed Guns Are Now Legal in Every State

Last week, Illinois became the 50th state to enact concealed-carry legislation. The Illinois law allows concealed guns on private property and places of work and worship unless property owners post signs that indicate otherwise; it prohibits guns in schools, parks, child-care facilities, government buildings, public transportation and establishments where the majority of revenue comes from alcohol sales, among other places. The big picture: It is now perfectly legal to carry a concealed firearm in public everywhere in the country except for Washington, D.C., with varying restrictions on who exactly is allowed to carry and where he or she can do so.

The first modern concealed-carry law was enacted in Georgia in 1976. The real push, though, has come in the last 15 years, when 29 states have passed concealed-carry (also called “right to carry”) legislation. The National Rifle Association and other gun supporters have pushed for concealed-carry laws by relying on the “more guns, less crime” hypothesis, which posits that increasing the volume of law-abiding gun owners will make the country safer.

This hypothesis has been promoted aggressively by gun-rights advocate and author John Lott, who defended this principle in the aftermath of the shootings in Tucson. “Just as you can deter criminals with higher arrest or conviction rates, letting victims defend themselves also deters criminals,” he wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times. “With concealed handguns, criminals don’t know whether victims can defend themselves until they attack.”

That assumption is impossible to prove right or wrong. That’s because the gun lobby doesn’t want us to be able to disprove it. There is no comprehensive data on concealed-carry laws and how they affect crime. Ladd Everitt, a spokesperson for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, notes that many states block public access to the identities of concealed-carry permit holders. As a consequence, “it’s impossible to get an empirical study that captures this on a national scale,” he says. “We are blocked, as with so many areas of gun violence, from doing the type of national audit we should be doing.”

According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, only one state, Nevada, provides unchallenged public access to the identities of concealed-carry permit holders. For what it’s worth, a recent Wall Street Journal piece observed a sharp uptick in applications for concealed-carry permits in recent years. In the last 12 months, Florida has seen a 17 percent increase in permits, and Ohio might double last year’s total. The article cites the Government Accountability Office’s estimate that 8 million Americans had concealed-carry permits last year. The Violence Policy Center also estimates that “concealed-carry killers” are responsible for 516 gun deaths since May 2007. But that’s a rough figure cobbled together from news reports, and the center thinks (but doesn’t know for sure) that it’s a small fraction of the real number.

The NRA has fought against disclosing the identities of permit holders because, in their view, that would lead to law-abiding gun owners being treated like criminals. Brent Gardner, an NRA liaison in Wisconsin, voiced the group’s reason for protecting permit holders’ identities in an interview: “There’s a reason why the⅜NRA has strived so hard to ensure this list is protected and that’s because we actually heard from chief law enforcement officers that said ... that they would actually begin investigations with concealed-carry permit holders. It was just shocking in that state to see the level of disrespect for concealed-carry permit holders.” Last month, Louisiana legislators passed a law that criminalizes the publishing of the identity of a concealed-carry permit holder. The bill was introduced by Republican state Rep. Jeff Thompson, a member of the NRA.

With permit data difficult to come by, it’s hard to know what effect (if any) the rise of concealed carry has had on rates of violent crime. The data that do exist, however, do not indicate that a concealed-carrying public is a crime deterrent. The National Research Council released a study in 2005 that said the effect of concealed-carry laws on gun violence was inconclusive. Abhay Aneja and John Donohue of Stanford and Alex Zhang of Johns Hopkins authored a critique of the NRC’s study in 2011 that identified an increase in aggravated assaults in states where concealed-carry laws were passed. Other areas of crime, the 2011 study observed, did not show a consistent pattern.

In the absence of data, all we have are conflicting anecdotes about the dangers and benefits of a well-armed citizenry. On one side, there’s George Zimmerman, who was granted a concealed-carry permit in Florida, which allowed him to legally carry the 9mm pistol that killed Trayvon Martin. On the other, a student at the Appalachian School of Law killed two school administrators and a student with a handgun in 2002. According to some accounts, he was stopped from potentially causing greater carnage by fellow students who were armed with handguns, enabling them to tackle the shooter without fear of injury.

In one story, access to a lethal weapon resulted in the death of a 17-year-old. In the other, a rampage was stopped short because responsible citizens were armed. Which narrative is more representative of reality? In the absence of more robust reporting requirements, we can’t say for sure. And in the meantime, lawmakers in every state have passed laws without the slightest idea of the consequences. All we can do now is hope they guessed right.

Ciara McCarthy is a Slate intern.