Law Abiding One-Man Armies (Seattle, Washington, 1972)

Although the right-to-carry revolution in the United States is three decades old now, very few serious studies of gun carrying have been published over the years. That is starting to change, as scholars take note of the rising number of individuals getting concealed weapon permits and as high profile cases of permit holders like George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn make the news.

Reading up on the history of concealed carry, I was surprised to find an early sociological research study of concealed weapon permitees that has managed to avoid getting much attention at all. “Law-Abiding One-Man Armies” was published in the journal Society in the November/December issue in 1978 by sociologist Lawrence Northwood, social worker Richard Westgard, and civil engineer Charles Barb, Jr.

According to Google Scholar, the article was not cited in another publication for 13 years after it appeared in print. And in the nearly 40 years since the article was published, it has only been cited 4 times (in 1991, 1992, 1997, and 2008). That is a shame, because there is a great deal of interesting information in this single study.

Greetings from Seattle WashingtonConcealed Weapon Permitting in Seattle, Washington, 1972

Among the many interesting things about this article is that the data was collected in 1972 in Seattle, Washington. With its reputation for Starbucks-drinking, REI-wearing, Microsoft-rich liberals, this would seem to be an unlikely location for the first empirical study of concealed weapon permit holders. But the area’s transformation into the San Francisco of the Northwest is actually fairly recent. Even today, one need not go far outside of the city proper to find a robust gun culture. 2 hours south of the city is the Firearms Academy of Seattle, home to Marty and Gila Hayes (and the Armed Citizen Legal Defense Network) and the Cornered Cat, Kathy Jackson. Career gun journalist Dave Workman is the Seattle Gun Rights Examiner. And so on.

ILGC Logo ScanAccording to Clayton Cramer and David Kopel’s account, Washington State was the first state to adopt a shall-issue concealed carry law, back in 1961(!), nearly 20 years before Indiana became the second state to do so in 1980. In this case, the Seattle Police Department took applications for permits and was required to issue them after a 30-day waiting period to any person over 21 without a felony record (p. 70).

The authors begin by noting a dramatic expansion in handgun sales in the 1960s and into the 1970s, and suggest that for “a certain segment of our population, the possession of a handgun is apparently a viable reaction to the perception of threat in the environment, although it is not known whether carrying a concealed weapon provides protection of merely gives its bearer a psychological sense of security” (p. 69).

They estimate that 2.4% of Seattle’s adult population of 363,000 at the time was law-abiding one-man armies. So, the question is, what motivated individuals living in Seattle in the early 1970s to apply for a concealed weapon permit?

The authors examined a sample of 1/6th of the 2,400 applications received by the Seattle PD between February 3 and August 15, 1972. From these 400 application forms, the authors could determine the age, sex, race, occupation, home address, and a statement of the reason for the application (p. 70). Having the home address allowed the authors to connect the individual’s neighborhood to Census and crime data, and from the statement the authors could infer the individual’s purpose for carrying a firearm (or at least what they told the SPD).

Demographically, calling these one-MAN armies was not far off since 90% of the applicants examined were male. Median age of male applicants was 46 and of female applicants 45. Interestingly, in terms of racial self-identification, 79% of applicants said white, 16% black, and 5% other, but blacks made up only 7% of Seattle’s population. So, blacks are proportionately over-represented (by almost a factor of 2) among applicants for concealed weapon permits. This over-representation among blacks is due in part to the geographic concentration of gun permit applicants in three neighborhoods in which blacks are overrepresented (more on race and neighborhood effects in a separate post).

Crime and Criminal Victimization as Reasons for Applications?

The threat of criminal victimization is one of the primary justifications for liberalizing concealed carry, and three quarters of the reasons given on the permit applications cited personal protection (50%) or protection at one’s place of employment (26.5%).

The authors compared crime rates with permit application rates by Census tract, but found no statistically significant relationship. So, a general “crime threat” in one’s environment does not explain why people apply for weapons permits.

But what about specific threats? Beyond the general need for protection, almost one-fifth of the applicants cited having experienced or anticipating victimization (including personal threats) as a reason for their application. The demographic breakdown of these applicants is interesting. The odds of reporting victimization as a reason for needing a concealed weapon permit for various groups were:

  • Black women, 21-65 years-old                1 in 2
  • White women, 21-44 years-old                1 in 3
  • All minority men, 21-65 years-old            1 in 3
  • Black male, 65 and over                          1 in 6
  • White male, 21-44 years-old                    1 in 7
  • White male, 45-64 years-old                    1 in 8
  • White male, 65 and over                          1 in 10

Recalling also the overrepresentation of blacks among the applicant pool in general, this suggests that, whether or not the motivations for gun control have racist roots, they can certainly have racially unequal consequences.

Liberalizing concealed carry laws in the state of Washington in 1961 allowed more racial minorities – and women, and especially minority women – in the city of Seattle in 1972 to take steps they felt necessary to protect themselves against actual and perceived threats.

The Full Article

Individuals at institutions with subscriptions to SpringerLink can access a PDF of the original article. A copy of the text of the article can also be accessed freely through the Second Amendment Foundation’s page for the Journal of Firearms and Public Policy, which lists the article under “other.”


    • Belated thanks for the comment. I am sure you’re aware that Vermont is unique in never having regulated the carrying of firearms, unlike other current permit-less carry states which went through having permitting systems first — and still offer permits to residents. I guess if you live in Vermont and want to carry in other states you get a Florida or Utah or Virginia non-resident permit?

      Interesting question as to how many people actually carry. I wonder if the low rates of violence in the state mean fewer people carry because they don’t feel a need?


      • The carrying/ bearing of arms in Vermont is, of course -of course!- regulated, first of all by the current 1793 constitution which followed the 1786 & 1777 constitutions & secondly by its statutes, which, for instance, prohibit the possession of weapons on school grounds, in courtrooms or on private ground where weapons have been disallowed by the owner or manager.


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