'Can Citizens Use Guns Competently?' by Clayton E. Cramer & David B. Kopel

This is an excerpt from the book "SHALL ISSUE: THE NEW WAVE OF CONCEALED HANDGUN PERMIT LAWS" by Clayton E. Cramer & David B. Kopel (1994). The chapter entitled "Can Citizens Use Guns Competently?" is included here, and has been edited (by me) for space. The complete text is available at http://uhavax.hartford.edu/kdowst/competen.html.


Is citizen self-defense simply impractical [or possibly unsafe]? Many police lobbyists so insist, as they work at state capitols in opposition to concealed carry reform. To some persons, police opinion about carry reform is dispositive. If the police are against it, the idea must be a danger to public safety.

But it should hardly be surprising to find monopolists who favor preservation of their monopoly, and who can convince themselves and others that their monopoly genuinely protects the public good. If a current law gives the police administration unbridled discretion over whom may exercise the "privilege" of carrying a gun, then it is not unexpected that many police administrators would vigorously resist any effort to deprive them of their boundless discretion.

The opinions of police administration lobbyists, however, are not necessarily representative of the entire law enforcement community. The first survey of police attitudes toward concealed carry was a 1976 poll conducted by Boston Police Commissioner Robert diGrazia, in an effort to find national police support for an initiative to ban handgun ownership in Massachusetts. In the national survey, 51% of chiefs agreed with the statement "Persons who have a general need to protect their own life and property, like those who regularly carry large sums of money to the bank late at night, should be allowed to possess and carry handguns on their person." Fifty-seven percent of chiefs expected their subordinates to be more supportive of such carrying. [163]

Rank-and-file police officers are even more supportive of citizens carrying guns. In 1991, Law Enforcement Technology magazine conducted a poll of all ranks of police officers. Seventy-six percent of street officers believed that all trained, responsible adults should be able to obtain handgun carry permits; 59% of managers agreed. [164]

Fundamental rights such as self-defense (or free speech, or reproductive rights), are not dependent on majority vote, or upon police approval. A majority of the public does have the right to prevent the exercise of self- defense (or other fundamental rights) in ways that may inappropriately endanger other people. For example, a majority could appropriately forbid the carrying of grenades for self-defense, since grenades produce an indiscriminate blast with a high risk of injuring innocent bystanders. In contrast, the carrying of firearms for lawful defense by licensed, trained citizens poses no net risk to members of the public who are not carrying. To the contrary, all the data demonstrate the members of the public [as well as law enforcement officers] are made safer (or at least not harmed) by the availability of carry permits to other law-abiding citizens. Accordingly, opinion polls are of little use in resolving the carry permit issue, since a man who does not want to carry has no legitimate moral right to prevent a stranger from defending herself.

In regards to police opinion, the police argument is frequently a pretext for politicians who oppose concealed carry, regardless of what the police think.

Central to the idea that the police, and the police alone, should be privileged to carry defensive firearms is the presumption that the police possess abilities which are not possessed by licensed, trained permit holders. However, scholarly research and police data both indicate that ordinary citizens are capable of using firearms competently for defense.

Whenever a New York City police officer fires a gun (outside of a target range), police officials review the incident. About 20% of discharges have been determined to be accidental, and another 10% to be intentional discharges in violation of force policy. In other words, only 70% of firearms discharges by police are intentional and in compliance with force policy. [168] In Los Angeles, 75% of shootings by police officers led to discipline of the officer or retraining because the officer had made an error. [169]

Many police officers work difficult, stressful jobs for many years. Ordinary citizens, if they find themselves under stress, can simply retreat back to their houses or apartments. If ordinary citizens are not trusted to carry handguns, how can handgun carrying be defended for a group of people who are under significantly higher emotional stress than ordinary people? Not only are police misuses of firearms in the line of duty common, police misuse of guns outside the line of duty is all too frequent. When an off- duty New York City policeman fires a gun, one time out of four the firing will be an accident, a suicide, or an act of frustration. [170] The rate of substantiated crimes perpetrated by New York City police officers is approximately 7.5 crimes per year per thousand officers. The number of New York police crimes alleged is 112.7 per thousand officers. [171]

Opponents of concealed carry can readily imagine hypotheticals of how an armed citizen might overreact to a particular situation; actual instances of over-reaction by licensed, trained citizens are rare, as we have detailed. But actual instances of police over-reaction are already well known. Anecdotal stories of police abuse do not provide a good reason for believing the police as a whole cannot be trusted with guns. And unsupported hypotheticals about what a licensed, trained citizen might do not provide a good reason for believing the citizens cannot be trusted with guns.

In general, police do not receive an amount of training which places them far above ordinary trained citizens. More typically, they receive a few dozen hours of training at the police academy, and may be, at most, required every so often to recertify their ability to hit a target. A deplorably large number of handgun-toting officers have not practiced marksmanship since they passed their firearms certification test as a police recruit. The amount of training which police officers have in defensive gun use rarely exceeds what a civilian could learn at a good firearms instruction academy. With the advent of inexpensive indoor laser target systems and high-technology video trainers for "shoot-don't shoot" programs, and the proliferation of civilian firearms schools, citizens willing to invest some time can be schooled in defensive firearms use to at least the same level of competence as the average police officer. [175]

Few persons who object to ordinary citizens carrying handguns raise the same objections about security guards carrying handguns. [176] And security guards generally receive even less training than the police. It is true that security guards are visible targets for attack, but so are women who must walk alone at night in dangerous neighborhoods. If law-abiding citizens pass a licensing and training system equivalent to that of security guards or police, there is no basis for denying these citizens a permit. To structure the handgun carry permit system so wealthy owners of jewelry stores can hire security guards for protection, but low-income owners of convenience stores, who cannot afford a security guard, are deprived of protection--even though the convenience store owner is as objectively qualified as a security guard to carry a gun--is economic discrimination, and amounts to valuing the property of the jewelry store owner more highly than the life of the convenience store owner.

[These endnotes are cut and pasted from the full text of "`Shall Issue'." Some citations are abbreviated: earlier notes had given the complete bibliographic information. For complete information, see the full text, obtainable from several sources on the World Wide Web.]


163. Boston Police, Handgun Control: A Survey of Leading Law Enforcement Officials in the Country (1976), pp. 53ff, discussed in Blackman, p. 31.

164. "The Law Enforcement Technology, Gun Control Survey," Law Enforcement Technology, July-Aug. 1991. The poll was based on readers sending in a survey form to the magazine. Since the polling was not conducted by random sample, the poll might not reflect a true cross-section of all police opinion. Of course a cadre of police chiefs who show up at the state capitol to testify against a concealed carry bill may also not be representative of police opinion, especially the opinion of street patrol officers.

165. Tony Codella, letter to Stephen D'Andrilli, Sept. 21, 1990 (on file with authors).

168. Gina Goehl, 1989 Firearms Discharge Assault Report (New York: Police Academy Firearms and Tactics Section, April 1989) (BM 369). For 1985-89, the cumulative figures are 1193 total discharges, 824 intentional and not in violation of force policy (69.1%), 112 intentional and in violation (9.4%); 135 accidental but not in violation of policy (11.3%), and 122 accidental and in violation (10.2%). [The percentages and numbers are slightly different from those in the Report itself, due to a Departmental mathematical errors in addition; the Department mistakenly totals the number of intentional lawful shootings as 836 (rather than 824), and mistakenly records the total of all incidents at 1,143, rather than 1,193. As a result, Department reports that the sum of all categories of incidents is 105.4%, rather than 100%.] In Philadelphia in 1989, accidents comprised 27% of police firearms discharges; in Dade County, Florda (Miami) that same year, accidents were 31%. Geller & Scott, p. 196.

169. Licthblau, "LAPD Officers Faultedin 3 of 4 Shooting Cases," Los Angeles Times, Aug. 14, 1994.

170. "The Guns of Kennesaw," N.Y. Times, Mar. 28, 1982, p. A26, col. 1. Some studies suggest that as many as one in four police officers may be an alcoholic. Geller & Scott, p. 288 n.26.

171. Richard Neely, Take Back Your Neighborhood (1990), pp. 74- 75. Other major cities reported similar rates of substantiated allegations. Id.

175. For a good analysis of giving the police special handgun privileges, see James B. Jacobs, "Exceptions to a General Prohibition on Handgun Possession: Do They Swallow Up the Rule?" 49 Law & Contemporary Problems 1 (1986).

176. "Private security guards are simply vigilantes for the rich," observes West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Richard Neely. Neely, p. 51.

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