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May 14, 2007

Q&A: Preventing Gun Violence in the United States

On April 16, a gunman killed 32 people and injured 25 others on the campus of Virginia Tech before killing himself. The tragic event—the deadliest mass shooting incident in U.S. history—has brought renewed focus to the issue of gun violence in the United States.

According to Jon Vernick and Daniel Webster, co-directors of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, nearly every gun used in a crime in the United States was originally  purchased from a licensed gun dealer by someone who was deemed legally eligible. In a recent article in the journal Injury Prevention, Vernick and Webster present policies that could prevent the diversion of guns to the illicit market. They discussed their work with the Office of Communications and Public Affairs.

Question: What laws or policies do you think could prevent legally purchased guns from being used in crimes?

Answer: There are a number of laws and policies that could reduce the movement of guns from the licit to the illicit market. One step would be to improve licensing and oversight of guns dealers. Just 17 U.S. states license gun dealers and few routinely inspect dealers and revoke the licenses of those supplying guns to criminals.

Screening of all firearm purchasers would also help. In most states, and under federal law, buying a gun from a private seller (as opposed to a licensed dealer) does not even require a background check.

Limiting gun purchases to a maximum of one per person per month would also help. Such laws, in effect in three states, make it harder for gun traffickers to buy large numbers of guns at once for resale to criminals.

High-risk, low-utility firearms such as so-called “Saturday night special” handguns or “junk guns” could be banned. Such guns may be particularly attractive to younger, price-sensitive criminals.

Authorities should also trace the source of guns used in crimes. By tracing the source of crime guns back to their first lawful purchaser and the dealer that sold them, law enforcement can identify traffickers and potential problem dealers.

Question: How effective are these measures?

Answer: Our research suggests that many of these policies can be very effective at preventing illegal gun trafficking and ultimately saving lives. For example, our recent research has demonstrated that undercover sting operations targeting potential problem dealers in Chicago reduced illegal trafficking by 46 percent. Our analysis of Maryland’s law banning Saturday night special handguns concluded that the law reduced the use of these junk handguns in crimes and resulted in about 40 lives saved per year in Maryland from 1990 to 1998.

Question: The gunman in the Virginia Tech incident was apparently able to purchase his weapons from a licensed gun dealer even though he had been ordered to undergo psychiatric counseling. Why didn’t a background check work in this case?

Answer: Apparently there was a disconnect between federal law and Virginia law. Under federal law, it is unlawful for a person who has been “adjudicated as a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution” to purchase or possess firearms. Under Virginia law, persons adjudicated “legally incompetent” or “mentally incapacitated” may not purchase guns. Although the Virginia Tech shooter was disqualified by federal law from purchasing or possessing a firearm, the federal system relies on states to provide information about mental health records that might prevent gun ownership. Apparently Virginia did not provide this information because under Virginia law the shooter might not technically have been disqualified from gun ownership.

Question: Are there other measures that you think would reduce gun violence?

Answer: Yes. Just a few U.S. states have a discretionary licensing system for handgun purchases. In New Jersey, prospective gun buyers must undergo an extensive background check by the police, which includes fingerprinting. The authorities retain some discretion to deny a license to persons at risk of misusing firearms. Our research has indicated that such laws, coupled with registration systems, can also reduce interstate gun trafficking.

In addition, laws making it harder for domestic abusers to possess firearms have been shown to save lives, but these laws could be much more effective with better enforcement.

Question: Mass shootings, like the incident at Virginia Tech, are rare. However, we hear reports of murders and of shootings in the United States every day. How serious an issue is gun violence in the United States?

Answer: In 2004, there were 29,569 gun-related deaths in the United States, including almost 12,000 homicides, more than 16,750 suicides and approximately 650 unintentional deaths. This adds up to about 80 gun-related deaths in the United States every day—or almost 2.5 times of the number of persons killed at Virginia Tech each day.

There were also approximately 70,000 non-fatal gun shot injuries in 2005 serious enough to require at least an emergency room visit. In addition, there were 477,040 victims of gun-related crimes in the United States in 2005.

Question: How does the United States compare to other countries in terms of gun violence?

Answer: The violent crime rate in the United States is about average when compared with most other high-income, developed countries. But our murder rate is much higher than most. The difference is that the violent crime we have in the United States is more likely to be fatal than in most other high-income countries—a difference primarily attributable to the greater use of firearms in violent crime.

Question: Some gun-rights supporters have argued that increasing access to guns reduces crimes. Is there any scientific basis for this theory?

Answer: On average, guns in homes and communities make those places more dangerous, not safer. Research conducted at Harvard University indicates that states with a higher prevalence of gun ownership have more gun-related deaths. Numerous studies have shown that homes with guns are more likely to experience a suicide of a household member than homes without guns. And a recent National Academy of Sciences report concludes that there is no convincing evidence that laws making it easier to carry concealed weapons in public have reduced violent crime.

Question: What impact do you think the Virginia Tech shooting will have on gun violence prevention?

Answer: It is too early to predict the eventual impact of the Virginia Tech shootings on gun violence prevention. Virginia Governor Tim Kaine has moved, through an Executive Order, to close the loophole in Virginia’s law that allowed the Virginia Tech shooter to purchase his firearms despite his disqualifying mental health history under federal law. Other gun legislation is pending in Congress. Certainly, the shooting has brought increased attention to the easy availability of firearms in the United States. We hope that our research will help to provide policy makers and others with the best available information about options to prevent the nearly 30,000 firearm-related deaths in the United States each year.

To learn more, please see: Vernick JS, Webster DW. Policies to prevent firearm trafficking. Injury Prevention 2007;13:78-79.

Also see "Cutting The Flow of Guns to Criminals"  Johns Hopkins Public Health Fall 2006

Public Affairs media contacts for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: 410-955-6878 or paffairs@jhsph.edu.