Do More Gun Laws Equal Less Gun Violence?

The United States got into gun control big time when we passed the National Firearms Act (NFA) in 1934.  This law, still on the books, created a category of small arms that were considered too dangerous for everyday purchase or use – machine guns, sawed-off shotguns, etc. – and required people who wanted to own such guns to undergo a very lengthy and expensive background check process known today as Class III.

Kansas City             Many industrialized countries passed gun-control laws just before or after World War II, many copied our NFA with one, major exception; namely, countries like Germany, France, Italy, Austria and others put handguns on the restricted list. This is the reason we have gun violence and those countries don’t – it’s because Americans have easy access to handguns. And even though we still don’t know exactly how guns move from the legal to the illegal market and then get used in violent crime, what we do know is that, one way or another, it happens again and again where handguns are concerned.

Most states allow residents to buy a handgun following the standard, FBI-NICS background check. But some jurisdictions respond to handgun criminality by instituting a system known as permit-to-purchase (PTP.)   There are currently 9 states which, in addition to the NICS process, also do a pre-purchase background check at the state level, thus making the vetting for handgun purchases more detailed. Our friends at the Hopkins gun-research group recently published a study comparing gun-homicide rates between states with and without PTP, and it turns out that states which impose PTP on handgun purchases suffer a much lower rate of gun homicides than states which don’t require PTP.

Notwithstanding the difference in gun-violence rates between states with a PTP process as opposed to states without, how can we be sure that a change in a specific legal process and a change in a specific type of behavior governed by that legal process is based on some degree of causality rather than just coincidence between two trends?  To eliminate or at least discount other explanatory factors, the Hopkins researchers create regression models using poverty, unemployment, incarceration and other data usually associated with criminal events, as well as controlling for non-firearm homicide rates. Finally, and here is a major step forward in this type of research, the Hopkins group looked specifically at large, urban jurisdictions rather than state-level trends because most gun violence occurs within heavily-populated, urban zones.

Using what has become a standard list of characteristics associated with violence allows the Hopkins findings to be compared with other studies which utilizing similar demographic and criminal controls. But I wonder whether gun-violence researchers should perhaps widen the list of characteristics used to define these controls.  For example, in Kansas City, reported gun thefts jumped 50 percent from 2015 to 2017 – from 588 guns reported stolen to 886. During the same period, gun homicides nearly doubled as well.

How do we know that the increase in Missouri gun homicide after 2007 wasn’t more related to an increase in the availability of stolen guns than in the ability of purchasers to buy a handgun without undergoing a PTP check? We can hypothesize all we want that by removing the PTP process from private handgun sales (which is what the 2007 change in the Missouri law was all about) that more guns moved from legal to illegal hands. As a matter of fact, it probably does mean something along those lines, but unless we know the provenance of all or at least some of those stolen guns, why should we assume that a change in the PTP law is what led to an increase in homicides tied to guns?

Homicide remains the most aberrant and inexplicable form of human behavior, made even more aberrant and inexplicable with the presence of a gun. I would like to believe that we can control this behavior with some rational and practical legal strategies, but do the studies tying gun violence rates to the absence or presence of certain gun laws prove this to be true?




7 thoughts on “Do More Gun Laws Equal Less Gun Violence?

  1. Suicide may be the most aberrant and inexplicable form of human behavior. The presence of a gun makes impulsive attempts more “successful.” There are almost twice as many gun suicides as gun murders. There is ample scientific evidence that waiting periods, handgun licensing, universal background checks and red flag laws prevent –not just postpone–many suicides. That is mostly because these measures introduce a delay in carrying out the act that allows for a change of mind and heart. White males are 79% of gun suicides, and I doubt many of those guns are stolen.

    • “There is ample scientific evidence that waiting periods, handgun licensing, universal background checks and red flag laws prevent –not just postpone–many suicides”

      Are you sure of cause and effect? My hunch is most gun suicides are carried out by people who already have guns in the home, which would make some of those efforts you list (i.e., background checks, licensing, waiting periods) irrelevant. How many people get a suicidal urge and drive over to Fred’s Rod and Gun Shop? Granted, an ERPO law would help but these are relatively new, so do we have data on them?

      Some of the data I have seen simply show that states with a lot of gun control simply have a lower proportion of residents who own guns, i.e., comparing those various state rankings of gun laws with studies such as Kalesan’s of gun ownership. If that is the case, one would have fewer gun suicides in gun law rich states just because fewer suicidal people own guns.

      Suicide is aberrant if there is not a good reason to turn out the lights and granted, there are many of those. By contrast, my grandfather was deep into the debilitating effects of cancer and took pills, twice (my grandmother caught it the first time and called an ambulance–second time he made sure she was fast asleep). George Eastman, in a similar situation as his health deteriorated, shot out the lights. I think we need right to die laws in all fifty states.

  2. My hunch is the vast majority of the 22,000 Americans who shoot themselves every year do not have a terminal physical illness like your grandfather. I know a mom whose son went to Walmart, got a gun in 15 minutes and used it to shoot himself. Anecdotes are not science. Fifty years of research has settled the fact that the presence of a gun and ammo at least triples suicide risk for all who can get their hands on it, whether or not it can be definitively and exclusively said to be “the cause”. Why did the NRA lobby Congress to de-fund firearm safety research for 20 years? Even Mr. Dickey regrets his amendment.

    It’s important for those considering buying a gun for “protection” to know that it is far more likely to injure or kill those who live with it than anyone else. For those who already own a gun, protecting family most often means storing it unloaded, locked up with ammo locked up elsewhere.

    Most suicides may well be with already-owned guns–youth usually use that of a parent. Family and friends who suspect a loved one is struggling and want them to live need to ask whether they are thinking of suicide and if so, whether they have access to a gun. If so, they should then find a way to remove that gun from the home, by red flag law or voluntary transfer for safe keeping. Laws need to allow for that.

    Search Dr. Swanson et al Duke University for the effectiveness of gun removal laws in case of danger to self or others. The important point is that where gun ownership is lower, so is the overall suicide rate– by all methods. Without a gun handy at their lowest point, most suicidal folks do not just find another way to die, they find a way to live.

  3. I imagine having a gun handy only triples one’s risk for suicide if one has suicidal tendencies or other risk factors for having guns around (alcohol abuse, anger issues, etc). For that population, we agree; having a gun handy significantly increases risk because a gun is pretty good at killing and there is no time lag like there is with other means, such as turning on the gas, driving to the bridge, or gulping pills.

    Dickey Amendment didn’t prohibit research. It prohibited using Federal CDC funds for advocacy. I realize that is a hair to split but its not much different from not using NSF funds to “advocate” for climate change vs. using it to make measurements and discuss results. Separately, GOP-dominated congresscritters cut funding for gun violence research. There is still money out there for GVP research but I agree that Dickey was an overreaction and should be repealed. If scholars can’t separate advocacy from science, they need a tutoring lesson. And, better peer review.

    Familiar with Jeff Swanson’s stuff, and have no problem with red flag laws that are written well.

  4. By the way, good online article here: Guns and Suicide: The Hidden Toll. Madeline Drexler, Editor, Harvard Public Health (publication of the T.H. Chan School of Public Health). If folks want to do a search. I’m not sure Mike likes us posting links in these comments.

  5. Thanks for the Harvard article, it is a good one. As to whose risk is tripled with access to a gun, the category of who may become suicidal is quite large. See the NPR piece “CDC: US Suicide rates climb dramatically” Excerpt below:

    “Suicide in this country really is a problem that is impacted by so many factors. It’s not just a mental health concern,” says Deborah Stone, a behavioral scientist at the CDC and the lead author of the new study. “There are many different circumstances and factors that contribute to suicide. And so that’s one of the things that this study really shows us. It points to the need for a comprehensive approach to prevention.”

    Often, the suicide seemed to happen without warning: 54 percent of the people who killed themselves didn’t have a previously known mental health issue. “Instead, these folks were suffering from other issues, such as relationship problems, substance misuse, physical health problems, job or financial problems, and recent crises or things that were coming up in their lives that they were anticipating,” says Stone.”

  6. I think we agree, Dorothy. Also, I read your c.v. in the editor’s corner and was not trying to be obnoxious. Just think that the more precise we are in warning of the danger signs, the more we can reach out to people.

    As it happens, a former neighbor of mine (when we lived in Los Alamos) went off the rails, slowly. First a divorce, then quit his job. Became a hermit. We lost track of him a couple years ago as he moved. Two weeks ago we got a call from a friend on that block. He apparently pulled a gun on park police up in S. Dakota when he was pulled over for a moving violation. He then retreated to his camper and used the gun to kill himself. I talked about this with a close friend and he responded that a relative of his, 19 yrs old, took an unsecured family gun and committeed suicide. In spite of the family knowing the kid had troubles.

    That’s enough to bring it home, up close and personal.

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