Study: Some gun control laws result in more deaths

Americans More Likely to Support 'Gun Laws' Than 'Gun Control Laws', Poll Finds
Americans More Likely to Support 'Gun Laws' Than 'Gun Control Laws', Poll Finds

Closing the so-called "gun show loophole" and placing a ban on assault weapons have been major talking points people in favor of stronger gun control laws, but a study published Thursday in the British medical journal The Lancet suggests that these moves would actually result in more gun deaths, not less

To reduce firearm mortality, the study's authors say the federal government should focus on implementation of universal background checks and firearm identification nationally. Such a move, the study's findings show, could cut the rate of gun deaths by more than 90 percent.

"It's pretty clear to me that we will drop firearm mortality if we implemented those legislation nationwide," says Dr. Sandro Galea, one of the study's authors and dean of the Boston University School of Public Health.

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But David Hemenway, professor of public policy at Harvard School of Public Health, took issue with the methodology in an accompanying comment published in The Lancet. He pointed to the projection that deaths would be reduced by 90 percent. It was difficult to project, he wrote, whether any one law could decrease gun deaths. In an interview he said many studies about gun control are limited. "I could find serious problems with virtually any U.S. study about gun laws," he says.

For the study, researchers looked at 25 state gun control laws to try to draw conclusions about which ones had the most impact on gun deaths. Its findings suggest that nine laws were associated with an increase in gun deaths, nine were associated with a decrease, and the remaining showed no association. For example, laws that restrict firearm access to children, including age restrictions, were shown to be ineffective.

The federal gun control law passed in 1993 – known as the Brady Bill – mandates federal background checks on gun buyers, but around 40 percent of all gun sales in the U.S. are estimated to be private transactions that don't require background checks. The "gun show loophole" refers to a broader provision that allows people to buy guns from unlicensed dealers at a gun show or elsewhere without universal background checks.

To keep guns out of the hands of people who have a history of violent crime, domestic violence, substance abuse and severe mental illness, states have enacted various additional laws. In some states, lower gun ownership and stricter gun laws appear to be to be associated with fewer gun deaths. The Lancet study looked at these laws as well.

Stand-your-ground laws – which allow someone to use deadly force in self-defence – as well as permitting law enforcement discretion when issuing concealed-carry permits, appeared to be associated with higher gun deaths. Other laws that appeared associated with higher gun deaths included limiting the number of guns people can buy, a three-day limit for a background-checks extension, locks on firearms and allowing police to inspect stores.

The NRA declined to comment, other than to point out they took issue with the methodology, including that the study does not acknowledge states have different approaches to suicide prevention. Two-thirds of gun deaths are by suicide, and more than 21,000 people kill themselves with a gun each year.

For the study, researchers used data from multiple years over a short timeframe as they were available. They included firearm-related deaths, including suicides, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2008 to 2010; firearm-related laws implemented in 2009; state-specific characteristics such as firearm ownership for 2013; firearm export rates and non-firearm homicide rates for 2009; and unemployment rates for 2010.
They then projected what the laws' impact would have been had they been implemented from Nov. 1, 2014, to May 15, 2015.

While the researchers tried to control for some variables, like unemployment and gun exports, Hemenway commented that many other factors were not controlled for, including poverty, alcohol consumption, urbanicity and mental health. The data also were collected only during the course of a year, he writes, so the authors could not compare the rates of firearm deaths before or after laws were passed.

When asked about the limited timeframe for the study, Galea replied that a longer time period had drawbacks."The trouble is that over a long time period there are other society influences that can be introduced," he says.

Findings do not take into account gun-related deaths that occur with illegally obtained weapons. The number of deaths caused by guns purchased illegally isn't known. Weapons are only recovered from gun crimes in a small fraction of cases, and even then it is often difficult to determine how the person who committed the crime got their gun – they could have passed a background check by using someone else's driver's license, for instance.

"We don't assume anything about where guns come from," Galea says, acknowledging that illegal gun deaths could climb after implementing stricter gun-control laws. "The projections are no longer going to be accurate because they are based on the current reality."

Medical groups have in recent years been pushing for moves to reduce gun violence through gun-control measures and studies, which they liken to a public health approach. Data are limited in part because for a time the CDC was not permitted to conduct studies on gun violence. Though President Barack Obama lifted the ban about three years ago, funding for such research has still not been made available.

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Originally published