Over the last 25 years, we have had related national debates over proposed federal gun-control laws designed to restrict access to certain firearms. But only one piece of major legislation has passed Congress, in the 1994 crime bill, and the electoral backlash against many of its supporters in the 1994 midterm elections convinced many Democrats inclined to support such restrictions to try to sidestep the issue.
But Congress and the laws it passes are not the only determinants of facts on the ground. Starting with a Florida law in 1987, most states have passed concealed weapons laws, allowing law-abiding citizens who have had relevant training to obtain licenses to carry concealed weapons. Such laws have been supplemented by court decisions covering a few states since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Heller v. District of Columbia in 2008, which recognized that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to keep and bear arms.
The result has been that over the years the entire nation has become carry-concealed-weapons territory, as shown in a neat graphic in a Volokh Conspiracy blog post by Dave Kopel. Back in 1987, some people, myself included, worried that such laws would lead to frequent shootouts on the streets arising from traffic altercations and the like. That has not happened -- something we can be sure of since the mainstream media would be delighted to headline such events.
To the contrary, violent crime rates have declined drastically during the last quarter-century. I don’t think you can prove that concealed-weapons laws caused that result, but they have probably contributed to it, because would-be criminals are less likely to assault people they believe might be armed. In any case the argument that concealed-weapons laws would lead to more violent crime has been about as thoroughly refuted as an argument can be.
One lesson, I think, is that responsible citizens tend to behave like responsible citizens, even if — or perhaps especially if — they’re armed. Another lesson is that the national political dialogue can be totally irrelevant to what really happens in American life.