In the four decades that the modern, militant gun rights movement has been around, one of its most significant victories occurred not at the ballot box, on a president's special signing desk, or in the courtroom. Rather, one of the biggest battles pro-gun partisans have ever won took place in the minds of millions of Americans.
Since the late 1970's, the National Rifle Association and other firearm advocates have successfully fought to make armed self defense increasingly acceptable in everyday life. A wealth of survey data—the most recent of which came via a major Pew poll released last month—shows that Americans have grown more comfortable with the toting of concealed guns in public. Self defense is now the most common reason cited for owning a firearm, leading handguns to become the most popular kind of weapon in the American arsenal. Those attitudes and behaviors mark major shifts: In the mid 1990s, Americans primarily owned guns for recreation, and as recently as 2005, a strong plurality thought only police officers should carry guns in public.
At the heart of this campaign for the hearts, minds, and holsters of America has been an article of faith that the NRA and its allies have preached since at least the 1990s: that people enhance public safety by carrying guns to defend themselves. Economist John Lott first developed this "More Guns, Less Crime" theory in his 1998 book of the same title, and has since popularized it via frequent legislative testimony and op-eds. The NRA has deployed Lott's work to beat back calls for new curbs on guns and their use. In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, when NRA leader Wayne LaPierre made his infamous assertion that the "only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," he was tapping into the already well-seeded notion that hidden guns at arm's reach of their private owners increase public safety.
It's a powerful, seductive idea, particularly to Americans who favor personal liberty over communitarian ideals. It's also completely wrong, according to a new analysis of nearly 40 years' worth of crime data.
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