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March 18, 2015

Strong Regulations on Gun Sales Prevent High-Risk Individuals from Accessing Firearms and Can Reduce Violent Crime, Study Finds

A review of 28 published studies examining U.S. gun policy found that laws and regulations designed to keep firearms from people at risk of committing violence, such as felons and those under restraining orders, are effective and, in some instances, reduce lethal violence. The researchers also found that certain laws, including rigorous permit-to-purchase laws which require a permit to be issued before completing a handgun sale and comprehensive background checks, are associated with keeping guns out of the hands of criminals.

The findings by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the University of California, Davis, appear in the Annual Review of Public Health, a special issue devoted to gun violence prevention and policy.

The U.S. has the highest rate of firearm homicides among high-income countries, nearly 20 times higher than the average of other high-income countries. In 2013, a total of 11,208 firearm homicides occurred in the U.S., according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For their review, researchers examined studies published  between 1999 and 2014 that examined policies designed to prohibit individuals at greatest risk for committing gun violence from acquiring guns, and on policies designed to prevent firearms from being diverted to prohibited individuals or to the underground market.

The researchers found evidence to support a number of policies, including those that restrict firearm access for perpetrators of domestic violence and policies which deny felons and people who have been convicted of misdemeanor crimes of violence from purchasing guns.  

“A critical factor explaining the high rate of gun homicide in the U.S. is how easy our laws and enforcement practices make it for high-risk individuals to access guns,” says study author Daniel Webster, ScD, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. “By expanding and strengthening policies designed to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, we can reduce the number of people killed each year by gun violence.”

The review included one study that showed that state laws prohibiting both firearm purchase and possession were associated with a 10-percent reduction in homicides in which the perpetrator and victim were intimate partners in the states that adopted the laws. In another study, researchers evaluated a 1991 California law that extended firearm prohibitions to persons convicted of misdemeanor crimes of violence. They found that individuals who had previously been convicted of misdemeanor crimes of violence who were approved for handgun purchases prior to the new law were 29 percent more likely to be arrested for new gun and/or violent crimes during the three years following the attempted purchases than were persons with similar criminal backgrounds whose applications to purchase a handgun were denied due to the 1991 law.

“Many states have stricter standards for legal gun ownership than are mandated under federal law, and we often see public safety benefits of such policies,” says study author Garen Wintemute, MD, MPH, director of the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program. “Based on available research, policymakers should consider laws which extend domestic violence-related firearm prohibitions to cover temporary restraining orders, as well as laws which prohibit individuals who have been convicted of misdemeanor crimes involving violence.”

Researchers also examined studies of state laws designed to prevent the transfer of guns to criminals. A number of policies appear to prevent diversion of guns to criminals, including permit-to-purchase laws, laws that extend background check requirements to transfers made by private gun owners, requiring gun owners to promptly report lost or stolen firearms to law enforcement, and stronger regulation and oversight of licensed gun dealers. The authors note, however, that widespread gun trafficking from states with weak gun laws to states with stronger laws underscores the need for stronger federal laws to prevent the diversion of guns to criminals.

Earlier research from Webster which was included in this review found that the type of firearm policy most consistently associated with curtailing the diversion of guns to criminals is permit-to-purchase for handguns: Missouri’s repeal of its permit-to-purchase law resulted in a 25-percent increase in firearm homicides during the first three years and four months following the repeal, and a 14-percent increase in murder rates over five years after the repeal.

“Because the news is flooded with stories of criminals and other high-risk individuals using guns to kill, we have a built-in bias to believe laws designed to prevent dangerous people from accessing guns are futile,” Webster says. “We don’t hear about all of the times a dangerous person is unable or unwilling to get a gun due to strong gun laws. That is why we must look to the best available research, which suggests that high standards for legal gun ownership and strong anti-diversion policies prevent firearm-related deaths.

“Quite frankly we would see a lot of progress if the debate on guns focused less on cultural differences and more on the best available evidence about what policies work to keep guns from dangerous people and enhance public safety.”

Effects of Policies Designed to Keep Firearms from High-Risk Individuals” was written by Daniel Webster and Garen Wintemute.

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Media contact for the Center for Gun Policy and Research: Alicia Samuels at 914-720-4635 or asamuels@jhu.edu. Media contact for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Barbara Benham at 410-614-6029 or bbenham1@jhu.edu.