In November 2011, a new law went into effect in Wisconsin that dramatically changed the state’s approach to public carry of firearms.1 For the first time, individuals in Wisconsin were allowed to carry concealed firearms in their community after obtaining a concealed carry weapons (CCW) permit from the Wisconsin Department of Justice. The law established relatively minimal eligibility requirements for a permit: Applicants must be a state resident; be at least 21 years old; not be prohibited from gun possession under federal and state law; and fulfill minimal training requirements, such as presenting a hunter education certificate or a current or an expired CCW license from another state.2 Permits are valid for five years and can be renewed without completing any additional training. Also, the law does not provide the state Department of Justice with any discretion in determining whether to issue a CCW permit: If an individual meets the minimum statutory eligibility requirements, the agency must issue the permit.3 According to data from Wisconsin’s Department of Justice, from 2011 through 2020, 706,575 applications for concealed carry permits were issued and only 14,575 applications were denied after the applicant failed a background check.4
Although the law passed roughly a decade ago, there is a dearth of research addressing its potential effects on public safety in Wisconsin, in part because the law includes limitations on access to such data.5 However, an analysis of publicly available data from local agencies, the FBI, and other national databases suggests that the CCW law has led to negative consequences for safety in the state. Three categories of violent gun-related crime have increased since its implementation: gun homicides, aggravated assaults that involve a gun, and gun-related homicides and assaults against law enforcement officers. In addition, gun theft in Wisconsin has increased dramatically. The law is also associated with a significant rise in gun sales, particularly handguns, in the state, suggesting that it may have incentivized more Wisconsin residents to become gun owners.
These data provide more than sufficient evidence for lawmakers in Wisconsin to take a second look at the CCW law and take action to strengthen it. Even as states across the country move to weaken laws related to carrying guns in public—with some going so far as to eliminate permit requirements altogether, whether for open or concealed carry6—Wisconsin’s experience provides an instructive example of the potential harms caused by such an approach.
Wisconsin has seen a dramatic increase in gun-related violence
While many advocates of concealed carry licensing laws that allow more guns in public spaces cite a desire for improved safety, there is no evidence to suggest that expanding public carry reduces violence. Nationally, gun usage in self-defense occurs in less than 1 percent of violent crimes; in fact, guns are often used offensively by CCW permit holders, such as by escalating arguments outside the home.7
Moreover, studies have shown that using guns for self-defense is no more effective than other defensive measures.8 On the contrary, recent studies have concluded that states with more permissive concealed carry laws—including “shall-issue” states9 such as Wisconsin—have higher rates of gun homicides than states with regulations that provide law enforcement agencies the discretion to deny CCW licenses.10 Similarly, a 2019 study concluded that the adoption of shall-issue or right-to-carry laws were associated with a 10 percent to 15 percent increase in violent crime rates a decade after implementation.11
Analysis of violent crime data in Wisconsin since the enactment of the CCW law provides further evidence that weak public carry laws contribute to an increase in violent gun-related crime. Notably, trends in Wisconsin suggest that the passage of the CCW law was associated with a rise in gun homicides.12 As shown in Figure 1, gun homicide rates in Wisconsin were on the decline before 2012. However, this trend changed between 2011 and 2012, during the time of the implementation of the law, and began to shift upward. In fact, the gun homicide rate from 2012 to 2019 was 33 percent higher than the gun homicide rate in the state from 2004 to 2011.13 The proportion of homicides perpetrated with firearms also increased considerably. While 62 percent of homicides from 2004 to 2011 were perpetrated with a gun, this percentage rose to 72 percent from 2012 to 2019.14 Furthermore, this increase in gun homicides was not accompanied by a similar increase in nonfirearm homicides in the state, suggesting that any changes that affected homicide trends beginning in 2011 were specific to guns.
Similarly, the rise in gun homicide rates after 2011 did not occur in other neighboring states, suggesting that this was a problem specific to Wisconsin. Minnesota’s gun homicide rate from 2012 through 2019 was only 3.7 percent higher than its homicide rate from 2004 through 2011, before the implementation of Wisconsin’s concealed carry law.15 In Michigan, the rate of gun homicides from 2012 through 2019 was slightly lower than from 2004 through 2011.16 This counters the possibility of regional factors affecting gun homicides after 2011 and suggests that abrupt changes in gun homicide trends in Wisconsin can be attributed to state-level causes such as the passage of concealed carry laws.
Furthermore, evidence indicates that the rise of gun homicides in Wisconsin after 2011 is not attributed to an increase in homicides classified as occurring in the context of self-defense.17 Although there was an increase in self-defense homicides—with 78 such cases from 2012 to 2019, compared with 27 cases from 2011 to 2004—Wisconsin saw an upward trend in overall gun homicides after 2011 even when these cases were removed from the authors’ analysis.18 (see Figure 1) The average annual rate of gun homicides from 2012 to 2019, excluding self-defense cases, was 2.4 per every 100,000 people—a rate 24 percent higher than the average annual gun homicide rate from 2004 to 2011.19
Gun-related aggravated assaults in Wisconsin also increased after the implementation of the CCW law. After a four-year decline in aggravated assaults with a gun from 2007 to 2011, trends shifted upward after 2011. (see Figure 2) While the annual average of aggravated assaults with firearms from 2004 to 2011 was 1,700, this increased to 2,600 aggravated assaults per year from 2012 to 2019, a 56 percent increase.20 At the same time, while 21 percent of aggravated assaults were perpetrated with a gun from 2004 through 2011, this percentage rose to 25 percent from 2012 through 2019.21
Finally, the data demonstrate that gun-related homicides and aggravated assaults of police officers rose after the implementation of the CCW law. While three officers were killed with a gun from 2004 to 2011, seven officers were murdered with a gun from 2012 to 2019.22 Gun-related assaults against law enforcement officers also increased considerably. From 2004 to 2011, an average of 19 officers were assaulted with a gun in Wisconsin every year.23 This figure rose to 31 officers assaulted with a gun per year from 2012 to 2019.24 (see Figure 3) In other words, the number of gun-related assaults against police officers rose by 63 percent.
Gun theft increased significantly following the enactment of the CCW law
A 2017 study found that gun owners who carried their guns during the previous months were three times more likely to have their firearms stolen than other gun owners.25 Data suggest that Wisconsin is not an exception: The state witnessed a rise in gun theft after the passage of the CCW law. FBI data compiled by independent researchers and analyzed by the Center for American Progress show that the annual value of stolen guns reported by police agencies in Wisconsin from 2007 to 2011, prior to the implementation of the concealed carry law, was $1.26 million. In contrast, the annual value of stolen guns reported by police agencies from 2012 to 2019 was $1.48 million—a 17 percent increase.26
As reporting from police agencies can be inconsistent,27 the authors analyzed the value of stolen guns reported only by police agencies from Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha, and Racine. These local agencies represent the five largest cities in Wisconsin and, to the authors’ knowledge, provide complete data around the value of stolen guns from 2007 to 2019 through the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program. As Figure 4 shows, the annual value of stolen guns reported by these agencies is considerably higher after 2011. These local agencies reported a combined annual value of $295,000 in stolen guns from 2007 to 2011. They also reported a combined annual value of $443,000 in stolen guns from 2012 to 2019, a 50 percent increase. This suggests that the number of stolen guns in Wisconsin increased after the passage of concealed carry laws.
Wisconsin gun sales have increased
The CCW law in Wisconsin is also associated with a rise in gun sales—a particularly troubling trend given that higher levels of gun ownership correlate with higher rates of gun violence. A 2007 study by researchers from Harvard University, for example, found that states with higher levels of gun ownership have higher levels of homicide victimization28—an association driven by gun homicides as opposed to homicides that did not involve firearms. Similarly, a 2015 study found that higher levels of gun ownership were linked to higher levels of firearm assaults as well as firearm robberies.29 Another 2015 study showed that homicides of law enforcement officers were three times more likely in states with higher levels of gun ownership than in states with low levels of gun ownership.30
Data indicate that after the passage of Wisconsin’s concealed carry law, the volume of firearm sales in the state increased significantly. Using the number of background checks completed through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) as a proxy for gun sales, the authors found a considerable increase since 2011. As illustrated in Figure 5, while the annual number of NICS background checks conducted from 1999 to 2010 was close to 185,000, from 2011 to 2020, it rose to close to 340,000 background checks, an 84 percent increase.31 Even after excluding 2020, a year with a considerable rise in gun sales across the country, the annual number of NICS background checks conducted from 2011 to 2019 was 319,000 per year—72 percent higher than the annual average from 1999 to 2010.32 Furthermore, as illustrated in Figure 5, the rise in background checks was driven by handgun purchases. While handgun sales represented 25 percent of NICS background checks from 1999 to 2010, they represented close to 36 percent of NICS background checks from 2011 to 2020.33
Recommendations for state policymakers
Given the overwhelming evidence and data showing the negative impacts of the Wisconsin CCW law on public safety, policymakers in the state should repeal, or at least improve, the existing law by:
- Allowing police agencies to analyze their own data around concealed carry permits and make the data available for researchers.
- Giving law enforcement agencies the discretion to deny permits, a measure that is associated with lower rates of gun homicides.
- Requiring all applicants for public gun carrying, whether they intend to carry concealed or openly, to obtain a permit specific to the firearm(s) they will carry in public.
- Improving training requirements to include a practical test demonstrating an understanding of the functionality of firearms and a proficiency in shooting those firearms. These must be conducted prior to the issuance of the permit and annually thereafter. Training requirements should also include a written test in which applicants demonstrate an understanding of the nature and limits of self-defense; state firearm laws; the risk of firearm suicide, homicide, and unintentional shootings associated with gun ownership; and the benefits of safe firearms storage.
Additionally, policymakers in Wisconsin should pass complementary gun violence prevention measures to ensure the safety of the state’s population. These include:
- Passing universal background checks and extreme risk protection orders, measures supported by 80 percent of the state population.34
- Requiring gun owners to promptly report all stolen firearms to law enforcement officers.
While advocates of Wisconsin’s 2011 CCW law argued that it would promote public safety, the reality is that the lax legislation has contributed to higher rates of gun violence in the state. Policymakers should take steps to correct this by improving permit requirements and passing complementary measures. Furthermore, the overwhelming evidence out of Wisconsin is an important case study for why CCW laws are detrimental to public safety and why continued action on gun violence prevention remains critical.
Eugenio Weigend Vargas is the director for Gun Violence Prevention at the Center for American Progress. Jeri Bonavia is the executive director of WAVE Educational Fund.