States With Most Gun Laws Have Fewest Gun Deaths, Study Finds

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States with more gun laws have lower levels of gun fatalities, according to a new study from Boston Children’s Hospital. While the study, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, does not establish cause-and-effect, nor which particular gun laws are most effective, it does suggest a positive relationship between gun control and gun violence prevention. According to NBC News:

It seems pretty clear: If you want to know which of the states have the lowest gun-mortality rates just look for those with the greatest number of gun laws,” said Dr. Eric W. Fleegler of Boston Children’s Hospital who, with colleagues, analyzed firearm-related deaths reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2007 through 2010.

By scoring individual states simply by the sheer volume of gun laws they have on the books, the researchers noted that in states with the highest number of firearms measures, their rate of gun deaths is collectively 42 percent lower when compared to states that have passed the fewest number of gun rules. […]

As proof, Fleegler pointed to the firearm-fatality rates in law-laden states such as Massachusetts (where there were 3.4 gun deaths per 100,000 individuals), New Jersey (4.9 per 100,000) and Connecticut (5.1 per 100,000). In states with sparser firearms laws, researchers reported that gun-mortality rates were higher: Louisiana (18.0 per 100,000), Alaska (17.5 per 100,000) and Arizona (13.6 per 100,000).

The authors of the study openly acknowledge that correlation research has a much more limited application than research that establishes cause-and-effect, and conclude that further study is necessary. But in an accompanying commentary, Dr. Garen J. Wintemute of the University of California, Davis, Sacramento, laments that anything more than this sort of simple and cost-free analysis of already-available data has been alarmingly difficult achieve, thanks to a chokehold on funding that has cleared the field of researchers with gun expertise. Even with President Obama’s recent executive order calling on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to resume the gun violence research it ceased in the 1990s, it is up to Congress to fund that research (Obama called for $10 million), and will require a sustained, significant commitment to develop new academics whose careers are focused on gun violence. Wintemute writes:

The United States has belatedly awakened to the knowledge that it is, in effect, under armed attack. More than 30,000 people are purposely shot to death each year—more than 300,000 since the World Trade Center was destroyed in 2001. Rates of firearm-related violent crime have increased 26% since 2008. Physicians have joined others in demanding a strong response to this crisis. We look to scientific research to provide the evidence on which that response should be based. Such evidence should include a thorough exploration of risk and protective factors and, most importantly, controlled studies showing which interventions work to reduce firearm violence and why. […]

Today, with almost no funding for firearm violence research, there are almost no researchers. Counting all academic disciplines together, no more than a dozen active, experienced investigators in the United States have focused their careers primarily on firearm violence. Only 2 are physicians. Only 1 has evaluated the effectiveness of an assault weapons ban.

Why did this happen? In the early 1990s, scientists were producing evidence that might have been used to reform the nation’s firearm policies. To those whose interests were threatened by such reforms, it made perfect sense to choke off the production of the evidence. This effort was led by Congressman Jay Dickey, self-described “point person for the NRA.” It succeeded. When rates of firearm violence were at historic highs and appeared to be increasing, the government abandoned its commitment to understanding the problem and devising evidence-based solutions.

Wintemute contrasts this with the “usual” U.S. approach to public health emergencies, citing the victory of science over what the U.S. Supreme Court described as the “regulatory equivalent of war” by the motor vehicle industry when an agency was created that ultimately recommended airbags and other vehicle safety protections.  Of course, one need only look to drug policy or climate science research to see that this approach is becoming less and less “usual” in the policy sphere.