David R. Henderson  

Pinpointing Gun Households: A Research Idea

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I'm guessing that most of you have heard about the Westchester County, New York newspaper that published a comprehensive list of all the households in Westchester, Rockland, and Putnam counties that were listed with the government as containing a resident who holds a concealed-carry permit. The article, by Dwight R. Worley, is here. Worley, by the way, is himself a gun owner. The newspaper is the Journal News.

There has been a great deal of understandable outrage about Worley and the Journal News shredding the owners' privacy. Surprisingly, though, I haven't seen anyone suggest something else: that the now-public information could have implications for future crime. Now reasonably sophisticated criminals can have an idea about which households to avoid in the future. Granted that there are probably many more households whose residents own guns and no concealed-carry permits. They can defend themselves from home attacks too. Still, now potential criminals can know who is virtually certain to have a gun in his house.

It would make sense, therefore, for someone to start gathering data on crime on households and, using a difference-in-difference approach, see if there's any effect on crime. My prediction: the revelation of information, while it is a gross violation of privacy, will make those households somewhat safer.

Of course, you could argue that a sophisticated criminal could have used freedom of information laws to get those data anyway. But such criminals would be leaving a bit of an electronic trail and, therefore, might have hesitated to do so. No such problem now.

I wouldn't be surprised if a Ph.D. economics student somewhere in the Northeast is already contemplating such a study.


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CATEGORIES: Economics of Crime



COMMENTS (32 to date)
Andy writes:

I think the reality is that very few criminals think that far ahead. And, the number of criminals who try to break into houses when people are home is already pretty low - they prefer to avoid a confrontation and will break in when the occupants are away.

So, you may be right, but I would be surprised if the effect is big enough to be detectable.

aretae writes:

I actually asked that question yesterday, and one-upped it.

Joel writes:

Contrarian prediction: these homes will see an increase in crime as criminals wait until no one is home and then rob the place in the hope of finding guns.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Joel,
Contrarian prediction: these homes will see an increase in crime as criminals wait until no one is home and then rob the place in the hope of finding guns.
That's what makes it an interesting study: see which effect dominates.

roystgnr writes:

Presumably whether or not one is "reasonably sophisticated" is somewhat correlated with whether one decides to commit various crimes, no? If your personality traits include "a propensity to make plans well in advance, using the internet for research, so as to optimize for some combination of wealth and safety", then your career probably involves more computer use and less home burglarizing than average, in which case a study of the effects of your burglary target preferences isn't going to find more than noise and confounding variables.

I recall looking at local crime maps before helping a friend find an apartment, and being astonished at how many more burglaries were in neighborhoods with much less wealth to burglarize, even when much more tempting targets would be within walking distance. "[I rob banks] because that's where the money is" is now a cliche meaning "consider obvious answers first", but apparently it's not obvious enough, and I'm not sure "avoid robbing people with guns" is any more obvious than "avoid robbing people without money".

JLV writes:

A truly forward thinking criminal would have submitted a FOIA request already, no? These things are perfectly legal.

RPLong writes:

A friend of mine, who had loose ties to a few local street gangs, told me once that homes are only burglarized if the home owner has already aggravated the burglar on another occasion. He gave me the example of an old man who complained to the police about some noisy neighbors, and they retaliated by burglarizing his house.

I can't vouch for how accurate that is as a general rule, but I took my friend's advice to heart and have always made sure to be a very good neighbor, mind my own business, etc. I have lived in some very rough neighborhoods over the years and have only been the victim of a burglary once: It was a homeless man who broke into my car in the dead of winter to steal a sleeping bag I had in the back.

Greg G writes:

So then this should open up the possibility for someone to get a gun permit, but not a gun.

Then that person should be able to enjoy much of the purported deterrent benefit of owning a gun without incurring any of the risks of actual gun ownership.

Krishnan writes:

Do we not have many natural experiments already? States that have the strictest control on guns have some of the highest crime rates - Chicago, IL, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, CA ...?

I am also curious about this piece by a Joyce Lee Malcolm

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323777204578195470446855466.html?mod=WSJ_Opinion_LEADTop

What are the actual statistics from the UK and Scotland? An increase from say 10 to 20 a year (100 %) is far different from an increase of say 10,000 to 12,000 (20%) - is the increase in handgun crime referred to by Malcolm "proof" that when criminals know only they have guns, crime goes up?

Kevin H writes:

As many have already commented, criminals don't want a hassle and will generally avoid homes that are clearly occupied and/or alarmed.

Dumb move on the papers part but I doubt it will any discernable impact on criminal behaviour. In my limited experience, B&E practitioners don't invest a great deal of effort in pre-heist research nor are they avid newspaper readers.

David R. Henderson writes:

@various commenters,
There's a lot of good a priori reasoning above. That's what makes this a worthwhile research topic.
@Greg G,
So then this should open up the possibility for someone to get a gun permit, but not a gun.

Then that person should be able to enjoy much of the purported deterrent benefit of owning a gun without incurring any of the risks of actual gun ownership.

Good one. Your thought reminds me of one of my favorite scenes in "Everybody Loves Raymond." Robert decides to start selling burglar alarm systems and he's making a pitch to his brother, Raymond. Robert says, "As soon as that burglar sees the sign on your house announcing that you have a burglar alarm, he'll back off." Raymond replies, "OK, I'll take a sign."

Ken B writes:

Per Greg G's nice point. Back when car phones were rare and expensive, with antennae, I saw fake antennae for sale.

Phil C. writes:

What makes this a "gross invasion of privacy"? These people transacted business with their government. They applied for and received a permit to do something. Would building permits or business licenses or automobile drivers permits or a marriage license be a gross invasion of privacy? I think not. Many of those are routinely published in the paper.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Phil C.,
What makes this a "gross invasion of privacy"? These people transacted business with their government. They applied for and received a permit to do something. Would building permits or business licenses or automobile drivers permits or a marriage license be a gross invasion of privacy? I think not. Many of those are routinely published in the paper.
I think each person's answer to this will depend on what he thinks the proper role of government is. If you thought, for example, that the government shouldn't be able to know whether people in a particular household are white or black, then you would see the government releasing census data on that as a "gross invasion of privacy." If not, not.
I could multiply the examples.

Mark writes:

David R. Henderson writes:
Good one. Your thought reminds me of one of my favorite scenes in "Everybody Loves Raymond." Robert decides to start selling burglar alarm systems and he's making a pitch to his brother, Raymond. Robert says, "As soon as that burglar sees the sign on your house announcing that you have a burglar alarm, he'll back off." Raymond replies, "OK, I'll take a sign."

This is not even fiction. I know someone who spent a few thousand dollars installing a monitored security system, paying to have contacts installed for every window on the first level and every door leading into the home, including the garage. I told him that he should have just taken a sign from someone else's home, that all he needed to do was make it appear to a criminal that breaking into his home is more costly than breaking into a neighbor's home. It's all relative, isn't it?

David R. Henderson writes:

@Mark,
I told him that he should have just taken a sign from someone else's home,
You didn't really mean "taken," did you?

Greg G writes:

I used to have a burglar alarm. The constant false alarms and monitoring costs just weren't worth it. I really did drop both and get more signs. Twenty years later and no burglaries yet.

Mark writes:

David R. Henderson writes:
You didn't really mean "taken," did you?

Not literally, but just pointing out that the sign was what mattered, not that he armed every window and door in the home.

Chris Koresko writes:

This probably counts as anecdotal evidence at best, but I remember seeing an article which claimed that the Aurora theater in which the "Batman" mass murder was committed was the only theater in the area which banned concealed handguns.

In fact, the same article said that there is only one instance in decades of a mass murder being committed in a place where concealed handguns are allowed. That was the Giffords event a couple of years ago. All the others happened in so-called "gun-free zones".

So it seems that mass murderers, at least, tend to seek out groups of unarmed victims.

That strikes me as pretty rational on the part of the murderers. Given that several percent of the US population are licensed carriers, a group of a couple of hundred people is fairly likely to contain at least one person who can shoot back.

Andrew writes:

No what this will do is change things for the criminal. If the someone wanted to steal a gun all they have to do is find the address of a concealed cary holder wait till they leave. This would be based on the belief that there are guns in that home. Further more if a criminal want to break and enter a home they know which ones to avoid. All the newspaper did was help criminals by taking some of the uncertainty out of crime.

Ted Levy writes:

David H, responding to a point by Mark, says: "You didn't really mean "taken," did you?"

You realize, of course, the great irony involved if one CAN easily take, without permission, a sign indicating the property is protected by security...

Ted Levy writes:

For David's proposed research project, this might make a nice control group: Addresses of Presumably Unarmed Newspaper Journalists

Joe Cushing writes:

"Surprisingly, though, I haven't seen anyone suggest something else: that the now-public information could have implications for future crime."


Really? You are the 3rd source I have for this story and all three have mentioned implications for future crime. One of those sources was CNN. One implication you didn't mention is that people who are looking to steal guns, will know which houses to go to.

Joe Cushing writes:

"What makes this a "gross invasion of privacy"?"

The gross invasion of privacy happened when the government got into the business of issuing permits for something that is already a right guaranteed by the Constitution. There should be no concealed carry permits or purchase permits for arms. This story is just a magnification of that invasion.

By the way; the government has no business giving permission for business or automobile drivers or marriages either.

Arthur_500 writes:

There are many things that should never enter the public realm. When a woman had her license plate researched online and later harmed they removed such listings from the public realm. Today only law enforcement is to have access to such records.

Firearm ownership is similarly protected. However, there are (arguably) illegal local laws requiring registration of firearms. Concealed Carry Permits should be equally out of the public realm. As a boxer would say, "You never telegraph your blow."

Let's face it, those with concealed carry permits have "proven" that they are 'good guys.' How many others in society undergo background checks and training? Personally, I go through more background checks than my local police officers.

Those with concealed carry permits probably take more care of their property and personal safety. In addition, they may live further away from those who might attempt personal crimes. that is not to say they are imune to 'white-collar crimes' or non-personal contact crimes.

Indeed, therre is a reason why certain neighborhoods are crime ridden - they are geographically close and well known to the criminals. Why attempt crime in a neighborhood where you don't know you adversary? At least conduct your criminal activities in secret.

However, in your own neighborhood you know who has the goods. You probably also know they have little defense other than 9-1-1 and a chain on the door. You don't need to know how to file FOI paperwork.

Regretfully in our modern day there are those who feel all information should be available without thinking about its consequences. Reports are that most crimes stopped with a firearm are done simply by showing it and not actually using it. this means that many crimes mahy be stopped by those who do not have concealed carry permits and many crimes stopped may be far from the residence of the concealed carry permit holder.

I think if there is any usefulness to such idiotic printing of this data it would be to see how many of those people are now the subject of increased crime when they are not home.

William Freeland writes:

Seems like the the exact opposite hypothesis is just as likely or more likely: criminals specifically target those homes in an attempt to steal firearms.

Ted Levy writes:

It REALLY seems like that to you, William Freeland? There are even more guns in, say, gun stores, or police buildings, and the former are likely unmanned many hours of the day. Yet these are robbed...infrequently. Nor are policemen commonly mugged to obtain their weapons.

But, in any case, this is exactly Henderson's point. If you think the results he thinks likely are unlikely, there's a research project for you. It will lead to someone's edification, yours or his...

Mark M writes:

Phil C,
It should be viewed in the same "invasion of privacy" lense as the names and adresses of doctors licensed to provide abortions... The publishing of the information by the newspaper was not journalism, it was advocacy. Just because someone "can" do something, doesn't mean they "should" do something. The Poynter Institute (a respected journalism ethics organization) was correct to comment that the article was outside of the profession's ethical bounds.

Babinich writes:

@David R. Henderson

Now reasonably sophisticated criminals can have an idea about which households to avoid in the future.

To be forewarned is to be forearmed.

Privacy rights pushed aside in the name of research.

We are truly in a race to the bottom.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Babinich,
Privacy rights pushed aside in the name of research.

We are truly in a race to the bottom.

You did read my whole post, didn't you? You know, the one above that you're commenting on, the one in which I said that the newspaper's action was "a gross violation of privacy."

Babinich writes:

Sorry, DRH...

I did read your post. I was commenting on the conduct of the Journal News.

My intention was not to make it look as if you supported the action taken by the paper.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Babinich,
Thanks for that clarification. I'm sorry for jumping on you.

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