The Gun Control Laws That Are Most Likely to Work Are Not About Banning Weapons, Study Says

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Gun control is more than banning certain types of weapons. State and local laws affecting who can purchase and carry firearms may, in fact, be more effective than banning the sale and possession of automatic or semi-automatic weapons.

That’s the conclusion of a new study by researchers at Boston University that examined state gun laws in an effort to determine the impact of those laws, either singly or in conjunction with other laws, in lowering the rate of homicides and suicides in the state (these are the cities with the most gun violence in America).

The study analyzed 10 different state firearms laws over a 26-year period and found three that, when enforced in conjunction with one another, reduced the rate of homicides and suicides by more than a third.

Neither banning assault weapons nor banning high-capacity magazines shows any statistical significance in reducing firearm-related homicide rates, according to the study.

Atlantic Media’s Citylab in a report on the study notes that there were more than 350,000 homicides committed in the United States during the study period. The homicide rate ranges from a low of 1.4 per 100,000 population in New Hampshire, which is one of the most peaceful states in the country, to a high of 12.7 per 100,000 in Louisiana. Adjusted for age, the homicide rate was 0.7 per 100,000 in New Hampshire and 9.8 per 100,000 in Louisiana, the most violent state in America. The study found no statistical significance related to an age requirement of 21 in order to purchase a handgun.

The three most effective state laws in reducing homicide rates were universal background checks, prohibiting people who have committed a violent offense from owning a handgun and “may-issue” as opposed to “shall-issue” concealed-carry permits. A may-issue permit is granted at the discretion of the police, while a shall-issue one allows no discretionary judgment provided the permit seeker is not disqualified on some other ground.

Of the 10 state laws reviewed, prohibiting handgun purchases for violent offenders reduced the homicide rate by 18%. Universal background checks, by themselves, reduced the rate by 15%, and may-issue concealed-carry laws reduced the rate by 10%. States where all three laws were enforced had a 36% lower homicide rate. States in which two of the three were enforced had a 13% lower rate, and in states where any one of the three was enforced the rate was 6% lower.

The policy implications of these numbers are important. According to a Pew Research Center report from last December, 57% of U.S. adults want stricter gun laws. The political divide is stark, however: 80% of self-described Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents favor stricter laws while just 28% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents do so.

On one issue, however, 89% Democrats and Republicans agree: people who are mentally ill should be prevented from buying guns. Similarly, more than 80% of both parties agree that people on federal no-fly or watch lists should be prohibited from buying guns. Nine in 10 Democrats favor background checks for private gun sales, compared with about 80% of Republicans.

Virtually all these issues would be subsumed in the Boston University study under the heading of universal background checks. And their overwhelming popularity should result in federal legislation requiring universal background checks for the sale of any gun.

Banning assault weapons, however, is far less popular, gaining support from about two-thirds of Americans, according to Citylab. Pew Research reported that Democrats (81%) are far more willing to ban assault-style weapons than are Republicans (50%). Views on bans of high-capacity magazines are split almost identically. Not only does either law demonstrate any statistical significance, but the partisan political split virtually guarantees that legislation banning either assault-style weapons or large magazines has little realistic chance of being enacted into law.

Citylab cites the researchers’ policy conclusion:

The underlying goal of firearm policy should be to find the most effective ways of limiting access to firearms among individuals who are shown to be potentially dangerous based on their criminal history without casting the net so wide as to prevent law-abiding citizens from purchasing or possessing guns. This is precisely what our research suggests would be most effective: identifying people who are at the highest risk for violence based on a past history of violence or the presence of a restraining order and stringently enforcing that gun possession prohibition.

The full Boson University study is available behind a paywall from Springer Publishing.

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