Special Report

Hardest States to Buy a Gun

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Born from a violent revolution, the U.S. constitution ensures that gun ownership is a fundamental right. Today, there are more than 7.5 million gun stores in the United States, and 29.1% of American adults own at least one firearm of some kind. While the second amendment grants U.S. citizens the right to own guns, federal laws also restrict certain people from buying firearms.

All states have to abide by federal laws surrounding gun ownership, but these laws are limited and each state can expand or further limit these laws. Though no state has especially strict gun laws compared to many other European and high income nations, some come close. To determine the states where it is hardest to buy a gun, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed state gun laws to identify states with the most restrictive laws such as universal background checks and licensing requirements.

Federal regulations require individuals to meet certain criteria before they can purchase a firearm from a licensed dealer. Licensed dealers are required to conduct background checks on gun buyers and are not allowed to sell firearms to anyone who is a fugitive from law, has been declared mentally “defective” to the extent that he or she is incapable of managing his or her own affairs, is an illegal alien, or has been convicted of misdemeanor offense of domestic violence.

Click here to see the hardest states to buy a gun.

However, background checks are not required by federal law for firearms purchased from private sellers, a technicality commonly referred to as the gun show loophole. To many, this loophole is especially problematic as private sales account for an estimated 40% of all gun sales nationwide.

Due to the perceived inadequacy of federal regulations, some states have enacted uniquely comprehensive gun purchasing regulations. For example, 12 states, including many on this list, have addressed the gun show loophole, either by requiring a permit to purchase a gun, contingent upon the successful completion of a background check, or by requiring private sellers to contact local law enforcement to run a background check prior to the sale. An additional six states have effectively closed the gun show loophole for handgun purchases only.

While many states have enacted laws to ensure gun buyers undergo a background check, many also expanded on the federal government’s criteria. With the exception of Rhode Island, every state on this list prohibits anyone convicted of a gun-related misdemeanor from purchasing a firearm. In addition, the majority of states on this list restrict individuals who have been treated for alcohol or drug abuse from buying a gun.

A handful of states also take measures to ensure gun buyers are familiar with safe use and handling of a firearm. California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island all require some form of safety training or exam before an individual can obtain a license to buy any kind of firearm. Hawaii requires training only for handguns prior to purchase.

The connection between firearm regulations and gun-related death rates is controversial in the United States. However, it is indisputable that states with the strictest gun laws also tend to have fewer than average gun deaths. Except for Delaware, every state with the strictest gun purchasing laws has a lower firearm-related death rate than the national rate of 10.5 deaths per 100,000 people. Including Hawaii, the state with the fewest gun deaths per capita, six states on this list have a firearm death rates less than half the corresponding national rate.

To identify the hardest states to buy a gun, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed gun laws in each state as catalogued by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. To compile our list, considered whether a state imposed: 1. universal background checks, 2. license requirements for handgun purchases, or 3. firearm purchasing limitations on at least four of the following five groups: individuals convicted of gun-related violent crimes, the dangerously mentally ill, drug abusers, alcohol abusers, and certain juvenile offenders. Only the states that met at least two out of the three qualifications made the list. Population figures came from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 American Community Survey. Firearm-related deaths data came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Gun ownership rates for each state as of 2013 were obtained from a study published in 2015 from the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University.

1. California
> Universal background check: Yes
> Gun ownership rate: 20.1% (9th lowest)
> Annual firearm death rate: 7.6 per 100,000 (8th lowest)
> Required safety training or exam: Yes

Even before the San Bernardino mass shooting, which resulted in the deaths of 16 people, California’s gun laws were among the strictest in the nation. For example, whenever a firearm is sold or loaned in California, the dealer must submit an application to the Department of Justice in order to determine whether the buyer meets the state’s stringent background check criteria. Since the shooting, California Governor Jerry Brown signed new regulations into law, including background check requirements for ammunition purchases and a ban on large capacity magazines.

As is the case in most states with the strictest firearm regulations, California’s gun ownership rate of 20.1% of adults and the gun-related fatalities rate of 7.6 deaths per 100,000 people are relatively low compared to other states.

2. Connecticut
> Universal background check: Yes
> Gun ownership rate: 16.6% (6th lowest)
> Annual firearm death rate: 5.2 per 100,000 (5th lowest)
> Required safety training or exam?: Yes

Though many Americans associate Connecticut with Sandy Hook, one of the deadliest and most horrific mass shootings in U.S. history, the state actually has one of the lowest gun death rates in the country. There are 5.2 firearm deaths in Connecticut for every 100,000 residents, a lower rate than in all but four other states. It is perhaps no coincidence that Connecticut has some of the most restrictive gun purchasing laws in the country.

The state is one of only a few that require universal background checks for all gun sales — even through a private dealer at a gun show. In addition, Connecticut requires all would-be firearm owners to obtain an eligibility certificate before they can purchase either a handgun or a long gun. The state is one of only six states to require safety training or an exam for the purchase of a firearm. Among the list of conditions, persons cannot buy a gun in Connecticut until they have completed an approved course covering the safe use of the type of firearm they wish to buy.

3. Delaware
> Universal background check: Yes
> Gun ownership rate: 5.2% (the lowest)
> Annual firearm death rate: 10.9 per 100,000 (22nd lowest)
> Required safety training or exam?: No

Delaware is the only state on this list that does not require a license to purchase any firearm. As a result, there is no mandatory safety training or exam in the state. However, of the four states in the country with universal background checks and no license requirement, Delaware residents cannot purchase guns if they have a gun-related criminal record, are mentally ill, or have been treated for substance abuse. Delaware courts are also authorized to force domestic abusers to surrender their firearms.

Perhaps due in part to strict gun laws, only about one in 20 adults in Delaware own a gun, the smallest share of any state in the country.

4. Hawaii
> Universal background check: Yes
> Gun ownership rate: 45.1% (10th highest)
> Annual firearm death rate: 2.8 per 100,000 (the lowest)
> Required safety training or exam?: Handguns only

While people can be restricted from buying a firearm in most states for having a violent criminal record or a history of drug abuse, Hawaii imposes more restrictions than all but a handful of other states. In addition to those with a gun-related crime on their record, those who are dangerously mentally ill, those who have been treated for alcohol or drug abuse, or certain juvenile offenders, cannot own, possess or control a firearm in Hawaii. Also unlike most states, Hawaii has an imposed ban on certain assault style pistols.

With some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country, Hawaii also has the fewest gun deaths per capita of any state in the country. There are 2.8 gun deaths for every 100,000 state residents, far fewer than the national rate of 10.5 deaths per 100,000 people.

5. Illinois
> Universal background check: Yes
> Gun ownership rate: 26.2% (13th lowest)
> Annual firearm death rate: 9.2 per 100,000 (12th lowest)
> Required safety training or exam: No

Illinois’ biggest city, Chicago, has been making headlines in recent years for gun violence epidemic. Due in part to the some 2,900 shootings in the city last year, there were 468 murders in Chicago in 2015. At the end of March 2016, there were already twice as many shootings in the city as there were at the same point the previous year. The scourge of gun violence in Chicago comes despite some of the tightest state-imposed gun restrictions in the country. For example, Illinois has taken measures to close the gun show loophole by requiring unlicensed sellers at gun shows to contact State Police and have them conduct a background check on anyone purchasing a firearm.

According to a report released by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, firearms used in crimes in Illinois are far more likely to be from out of state than is typical across the country. Data from the report show that Illinois imports four times as many guns used in crime than it exports.

6. Maryland
> Universal background check: No
> Gun ownership rate: 20.7% (10th lowest)
> Annual firearm death rate: 9.1 per 100,000 (11th lowest)
> Required safety training or exam: Yes

In states with stricter gun laws there are almost always lower firearm-related death rates, and the pattern holds in Maryland where the firearm death rate of 9.1 per 100,000 residents annually is among the lowest of all states. However, within Maryland, Baltimore is an exception. The city reported a total of 344 homicides in 2015, breaking the previous record set in 1993 when Baltimore had more residents. The unusually high level of violence in Baltimore highlights the challenge of lowering gun deaths with stricter regulations alone.

Still, Maryland’s gun laws have likely lowered the number of guns, and in turn, the number of gun-related deaths across the state. The state’s gun ownership rate of 20.7% is 10th lowest compared with other states.

7. Massachusetts
> Universal background check: Yes
> Gun ownership rate: 22.6% (12th lowest)
> Annual firearm death rate: 3.4 per 100,000 (3rd lowest)
> Required safety training or exam: Yes

Massachusetts has some of the most extensive gun buying laws in the country. Licenses are issued to would be gun owners only after a comprehensive background check that ensures the subject has not been treated for substance abuse, mental illness, been convicted of a felony or certain misdemeanors. To ensure background checks are current, handguns must be purchased within 10 days of the date the license was issued. While a handful of other states have similarly stringent gun laws, Massachusetts’ law requiring a gun license to purchase an ammunition magazine is unique to the Bay State.

As is the case with most states that have the tightest gun regulations, firearm-related deaths are relatively rare in Massachusetts. There are 3.4 such deaths for every 100,000 state residents a year, fewer than in all but two other states.

8. New Jersey
> Universal background check: Yes
> Gun ownership rate: 11.3% (4th lowest)
> Annual firearm death rate: 5.2 per 100,000 (6th lowest)
> Required safety training or exam: No

Only five states have fewer gun deaths per capita than New Jersey. While the state gun ownership rate of 11.3% is the fourth lowest in the country, the relative scarcity of gun violence may be partially due to strict gun laws that keep firearms out of the hands of criminals and potentially unstable individuals.

New Jersey state law stipulates that all gun owners must have a valid license and pass a background check. Background checks in New Jersey are among the most comprehensive in the country as those who have been treated for substance abuse, been diagnosed with certain mental illnesses, or been convicted of a gun-related crime are prohibited from buying a gun. In addition, in order to obtain a license to buy a gun, New Jersey law states that an individual must be of “good character and good repute in the community.”

9. New York
> Universal background check: Yes
> Gun ownership rate: 10.3% (3rd lowest)
> Annual firearm death rate: 4.4 per 100,000 (4th lowest)
> Required safety training or exam: No

Both the gun ownership rate and gun death rate in New York are among the lowest in the country. These low rates are partially attributable to relatively strict gun laws. All firearm purchasers in New York are required to undergo a background check, even when firearms are bought from private dealers at gun shows. The state also allows local authorities to enact stricter gun policies. New York City has some of the toughest gun purchasing requirements in the country, and those caught in possession of an illegal firearm face a mandatory sentence of minimum 3.5 years in state prison.

Due to strict gun purchasing laws, many guns used in crimes in New York are purchased out of state. Data in a report published by Mayors Against Illegal Guns show that New York imports seven times as many guns used in crime than it exports.

10. Rhode Island
> Universal background check: Yes
> Gun ownership rate: 5.8% (2nd lowest)
> Annual firearm death rate: 3.2 per 100,000 (2nd lowest)
> Required safety training or exam: Yes

Gun owners are few and far between in Rhode Island. The 5.8% share of adults who own guns in the state is the second smallest in the country and hint at a political climate supportive of restrictive gun laws.

The state is one of only a handful that addresses the gun show loophole by requiring background checks for all firearms, even when sold by a private dealer. In addition, before a person can purchase a handgun in Rhode Island, they must acquire a license by completing a two-hour safety course conducted by the state Department of Environmental Management. Due in part to a low ownership rate in conjunction with relatively strict buying requirements, gun deaths are uncommon in Rhode Island. Each year, there are 3.2 firearm-related deaths for every 100,000 state residents, the fewest in the country after only Hawaii.

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