Concealed weapons play an important role in deterring crime, Detroit police chief James Craig said to much fanfare at a news conference earlier this month. He recently elaborated on his statement, speaking by telephone to National Review Online.
Craig, a Detroit native, spent 28 years working at the Los Angeles Police Department before becoming police chief in Portland, Me. There, he had what he describes as “an ah-ha moment, a moment of reflection.”
“Because of my time in California, and knowing that it was rare for someone to be granted a concealed-weapons permit, I automatically went into the mode of denying the permits,” Craig says. His staff in Maine noticed and pointed out to him that the state has low crime and a good safety record.
Despite his experience in L.A. and Maine, and then as police chief in Cincinnati, he was dismayed by what he found in the Motor City: “In Detroit, the thing that was very different for me, having come back after being gone for 33 years, was the level of violence.”
Indeed, Detroit is widely considered the most dangerous city in America, with staggering statistics to support its woeful notoriety. In 2013, both Detroit and New York saw 333 homicides — but Detroit’s population is 700,000, compared to New York’s 8.4 million. Similarly, while about one in a hundred Detroiters reported a rape last year, in New York, it was about one in a thousand. And in December, the New York Times reported that Newark was experiencing “an epidemic of car-jackings,” with at least 475 occurring in Essex County in 2013. But even though Detroit is slightly smaller than Essex County, by mid-October, it had already seen 582 car-jackings. Believe it or not, Detroit’s crime rate was even higher in 2012.
Craig says that, though he’s “excited about the downward trend,” he’s disturbed about the overall level of violence in Detroit. “We’ve seen elderlies pulled out of vehicles at gunpoint,” he says. “In some instances, we’ve seen individuals robbed or carjacked at gunpoint, and then, after cooperating with the suspect, they’re then shot.”
Making matters worse, Detroit police have in recent years gained a reputation for poor response times. “Coming in the door six months ago, one of the things that I heard on a regular basis was the fact that it took 50 minutes to get to an emergency call,” Craig says, noting that sometimes the police didn’t show up at all. He says recent reforms have pared the average response time for emergencies to eight or nine minutes. Still, Craig says, part of what matters is “what’s in the average community member’s mind: If I can’t call the police and get help, I’m going to need personal protection to deal with the threat.”
“I believe [gun owners] need to be responsible, but I also believe that when confronted with a life-threatening situation — those things happen when police officers are not always there,” he continues. “I’m not talking just about Detroit. I’m talking about any city, any place in America. Police officers cannot be everywhere. So if a person is in a life-threatening situation, and they have a [concealed weapon], they have an opportunity to have personal protection.”
If more responsible Detroit residents are permitted to carry a concealed weapon, it may deter crime, Craig says. He engages in some comparative politics: In Great Britain, more than half of burglaries occur while the homeowners are present, he notes, while in the United States, only about 13 percent are.
“Why is that?” he asks. “That is because the felons, those who have been involved in criminal activity, say — and this has been researched — that they feel there’s more of a risk going into a residence with people inside in the United States because of the fact that people in the United States have guns. . . . [In Great Britain] because of the tighter gun control . . . there’s a great likelihood that there’s not going to be a gun in the home.”
Detroit’s criminals are already afraid of gun-wielding residents, Craig says. He’s seen an increase in the number of arrested criminals who are sporting body armor, and many perpetrators have begun demanding that their victims undress completely, for the sole purpose of ensuring they’re not armed.
Nevertheless, Craig supports some restrictions for gun ownership. Permits for concealed weapons should be gun-specific, he suggests, because residents may be able to safely handle one weapon but not another. Background checks meet with his approval as well: “I don’t think that’s a lot to ask — to identify who is purchasing a weapon.” As far as other gun-control measures, such as assault-weapons bans or regulations to limit magazine capacity, are concerned, “they’re very separate issues,” he insists. “How do you compare an assault weapon to someone being authorized to have a concealed-weapons permit? It’s like me comparing an apple to a banana.”
But he also rejects those who want to dismiss gun ownership altogether: “Here’s my view. We have violent criminals who illegally possess guns. Therein lies the problem. Our problem is not with the good Americans, the good Detroiters who possess guns.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.