January 21, 2003

January 21, 2003 | Commentary on Crime

Maryland Firing Blanks

Gun-control advocates weren't happy to see Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. win the Maryland governorship. But are gun-control laws really effective at reducing violent crime?

Compare Maryland's record with Virginia's. Other than a one-handgun-per-month purchase law, the two states have little in common on gun control. Gun-control measures in Maryland include:

• A ban on the cheap handguns known as Saturday night specials (1988).

• A waiting period for the purchase of assault weapons (1989).

• Background checks and waiting periods for purchases at gun shows (1993).

• A ban on certain "assault" pistols (1994).

• A ban on "straw purchases," in which a buyer acquires a gun to give to someone else (1996).

• A requirement that gunmakers provide a spent shell casing from each handgun sold in the state to provide law enforcement with ballistic "fingerprints" (2000).

• A requirement that all newly manufactured handguns sold in the state have a built-in trigger lock (2003).

So are Marylanders a lot safer than Virginians? Quite the opposite.

FBI data show that in 2000 (the most recent year for which figures are available), on a per capita basis Maryland ranked third in murders and first in robberies among the states, while Virginia ranked 15th in murders and 27th in robberies. Maryland had a firearm-related murder rate of 5.9 per 100,000 residents, while Virginia's rate was almost 70 percent lower, at 1.8 incidents per 100,000 residents.

Maryland also doesn't stack up well nationally. Its firearm murder rate in 2000 was nearly double (190 percent) the national rate, while Virginia's rate was 42 percent below the national rate.

What has Virginia done that has made its residents safer than Marylanders -- other than not passing "progressive" gun laws? In 1995 it enacted a law that allows law-abiding residents to carry concealed firearms. After an initial increase in the rate of firearm-related homicides, by 2000 Virginia's firearm-related homicide rate declined by 22 percent.

It's a pattern borne out nationwide, according to John Lott of the American Enterprise Institute. His research shows that states that have adopted concealed-handgun laws have experienced sharp declines in every type of violent crime: murders, rapes, aggravated assaults, robberies.

No one is claiming that the difference between the crime rates in Maryland and Virginia can be attributed solely to their differing gun laws, but clearly these laws -- or the lack thereof -- have played a role and probably a significant one.

The primary flaw in Maryland's approach is that those determined to harm innocent people are the ones least likely to obey gun-control laws. Instead, these measures disarm law-abiding residents, making them more likely to become victims. Why make it easier on criminals?


David Muhlhausen is a senior policy analyst specializing in criminal justice in the Center for Data Analysis at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

David B. Muhlhausen, Ph.D. Research Fellow in Empirical Policy Analysis
Center for Data Analysis

Originally appeared in the Washington Post