Neighborhood Racial Composition and Applications for Concealed Weapon Permits (Seattle, 1972)

In my last post, I discussed some of the findings in a scholarly article called “Law-Abiding One-Man Armies,” based on a study of concealed weapon permit applications in Seattle, Washington in 1972. Because that post was getting a bit long, I held my description of the findings concerning neighborhood racial composition and applications for permits to this post.

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Because the authors of this study had applicants’ home addresses on the permits applications submitted to the Seattle Police Department, they were able to connect characteristics of neighborhoods to the likelihood of permit applications. As noted in my previous post, one expected finding in this aspect of the study turned out not to be the case: there was no statistically significant relationship between rates of crime in neighborhoods and applications for permits (the so-called “crime threat” hypothesis).

Another line of inquiry concerns the “racial threat” hypothesis – the prediction that the more racial minorities there are in an area, the more members of racial majorities will seek to arms themselves. The authors test this hypothesis using three indicators of “assumed racial threat.”

First, they look at the proportion of nonwhite residents in an area in relation to concealed weapon permit applications. They find that, in fact, in more racially mixed areas the rate of permit application was higher than in predominantly white areas, which would seem to support the racial threat hypothesis. HOWEVER, they also report, “In the most racially mixed areas, gun applicant rates are not only higher, but they are twice as high for blacks as they are for whites, 20.2 per thousand for blacks versus 10.6 per thousand for whites” (p. 72). So, something other than whites being threatened by racial minorities is going on here. For the traditional “racial threat” hypothesis to work, then white residents would have to be even more threatened than black residents, which does not seem to be the case in general.

Second, the authors look at concealed weapon permit application rates in relation to the increasing proportion of black residents from 1960 to 1970. They find a strong correlation between the two: as the proportion of black residents increases, the rate of permit applications increases. However, they also find a similar pattern for black and other nonwhite applicants, again suggesting no simple racial threat.

Third, they look at the tempo of increase in black residents from 1960 to 1970. They find that “whites seek permission to carry a concealed weapon more frequently if they live in a racially changing area than if they live in a racially stable area” (p. 72). This is true even in areas that are racially stable and historically black. Black permit applicants, by contrast, have much higher rates in areas that are racially stable and historically black.

The difference in the behavior of white and black applicants here suggests an area in which the racial threat hypothesis could apply: it is not the presence or growth in the number of black residents, but the rate of growth in the number of black residents to which whites may be reacting.

The fact that most crime is intra-racial not inter-racial may help explain why the permit application rate for blacks is higher than for whites in all areas of Seattle, but is particularly high in the area the authors identify as Seattle’s ghetto. Rates of reported victimization on the permit applications are much higher for blacks than whites, and much higher in the ghetto area (39%) than in the predominantly white area (7%).

In the end, there seems to be two racial threats going on here: the racial threat perceived by whites in areas of Seattle that were rapidly becoming more racially diverse, and the actual threat experienced by blacks all over the city, especially in the area with the highest concentration of blacks.

This is in line with the idea that gun carrying by white men is more of a symbolic response to their perceptions of a changing social environment over which they have less control, while for black men and women it is a more practical response to their higher probability of actually being victimized.

The authors conclude by postulating “an inverse relationship between citizen gun-carrying behavior and the gun carrier’s perception of police effectiveness to control threatening events” (p. 74). This is one area in which more recent scholarship definitely applies. Jennifer Carlson’s work on gun-carrying in Detroit, Michigan highlights this, including her article, “’I Don’t Dial 911’: American Gun Politics and the Problem of Policing” and her forthcoming now-available book, Citizen-Protectors. Neither white nor black gun carriers trust the police much, but for very different reasons.

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