President Obama has called for stricter federal gun laws to combat recent shooting rampages, but a review of recent state laws by The Washington Times shows no discernible correlation between stricter rules and lower gun-crime rates in the states.
States that ranked high in terms of making records available to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System also tended to have tighter gun laws — but their gun-crime rates ranged widely. The same was true for states that ranked poorly on disclosure and were deemed to have much less stringent gun-possession laws.
For example, New York, even before it approved the strictest gun-control measures in the country last week, was ranked fourth among the states in strength of gun laws by the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence, but was also in the top 10 in firearm homicide rates in 2011, according to the FBI.
Meanwhile, North Dakota was near the bottom in its firearm homicide, firearm robbery and firearm assault rates, but also had some of the loosest gun laws and worst compliance with turning over mental health records to the background check system.
Analysts said the data underscore that there are no simple or easy broad answers to combating gun violence, which is a complex equation involving gun-ownership rates, how ready authorities are to prosecute gun crimes and how widely they ban ownership.
Gary Kleck, a criminology professor at Florida State University, said in an email that a simple comparison between states’ strength of gun laws and gun-crime rates doesn’t say much about the effects of the laws because the exercise fails to control for other factors such as gun-ownership rates.
In an exhaustive analysis with data from 170 U.S. cities that did control for such factors, Mr. Kleck and fellow researcher E. Britt Patterson concluded that there was no general impact of gun-control laws on crime rates — with a few notable exceptions.
“There do appear to be some gun controls which work, all of them relatively moderate, popular and inexpensive,” the researchers wrote. “Thus, there is support for a gun-control policy organized around gun-owner licensing or purchase permits (or some other form of gun-buyer screening); stricter local dealer licensing; bans on possession of guns by criminals and mentally ill people; stronger controls over illegal carrying; and possibly discretionary add-on penalties for committing felonies with a gun.
“On the other hand, popular favorites such as waiting periods and gun registration do not appear to affect violence rates,” he said.
No state patterns
The Times analysis looked at the Brady Campaign’s rankings for strength of each state’s gun laws and at Mayors Against Illegal Guns’ rankings for how states perform in disclosing mental health data to the background check system. That information was then matched against the FBI’s 2011 gun-crime rankings for homicides, robberies and assaults.
The results showed no correlation among the strength of laws and disclosure and the crime rates.
For example, Maryland and New Jersey — both of them populous states with large metropolitan areas — have tight gun laws but poor mental health disclosure. But New Jersey’s gun-crime rate was in the middle of the pack, while Maryland ranked sixth-highest in homicides involving guns and second-highest in robberies with guns.
Delaware and Virginia, which both ranked high in mental health disclosure and ranked 18th and 19th in the Brady tally of tough gun laws, also had divergent crime rates.
Delaware ranked among the top 10 in number of gun robberies and gun assaults, while Virginia was in the middle of the pack on its measures.
Statistical anomalies were found between rural states such as Louisiana and Vermont. The former state has lax gun laws and has high gun-crime rates on all three measures. Although Vermont also is a rural state with a strong tradition of gun ownership — the Brady Campaign ranks it 26th in terms of strength of gun laws — it has low gun-crime rates. For further head-scratching, Vermont ranks among the nation’s worst in turning over mental health records to the background check system.
State law details
John Lott, who has conducted extensive research on the link between gun laws and crime rates, said he has examined 13 kinds of gun-control laws, but one that stands out as reducing crime is concealed-carry.
“What you see is the states that issue the most [concealed-carry] permits have the most drops in violent crime,” he said. “When states pass carry laws, some criminals stop committing crimes, some criminals switch to other types of crimes and some criminals move out of the area.”
He said that a deep dive into data is essential to understanding why different regions of the country see different results. Mr. Lott pointed to Texas and Pennsylvania, both of which are right-to-carry states, but he explained that the permitting process is much more expensive in Texas.
“If I have a $140 fee versus a $20 fee, I’m more likely to get suburban white males,” he said. However, he noted, “poor blacks in high-crime areas benefit the most from carrying a gun.”
“Those differences make a huge difference in how many people go through the process to get the permit,” he concluded.
Still, the two large states had mixed results in crime rates in 2011. According to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports, Pennsylvania had higher rates of robberies and homicides committed with firearms than Texas, while the Lone Star State had nearly half again as many gun assaults per 100,000 population.
The Brady Campaign declined a request for comment, but David Chipman, a former agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who now works with Mayors Against Illegal Guns, said that linking gun laws and background check compliance with crime rates is risky — particularly since 40 percent of gun transactions are private sales that don’t require background checks.
“Requiring a criminal background check for every gun in every circumstance is something not yet tried,” he said. “How do you measure prevention? It’s tough to do a double-blind test.”
Mr. Chipman also pointed to Virginia’s first-of-its-kind 1989 law creating an instant check system — the Virginia Firearms Transaction Program — as an example of a law that had a tangible effect on criminal behavior and the gun market.
“When Virginia passed that law, all of the New Yorkers who used to come down — they never came back and tried to buy the guns themselves in the store,” he said. “They were forced to use straw purchasers, and many of them went to other states.
“Did it immediately prevent all gun trafficking? Of course not. But it sure changed it,” he said.
In 1991, the ATF reported that 40 percent of more than 1,200 guns recovered at crime scenes in New York were traced to Virginia, though gun rights advocates dispute the data. In 2011, 407 guns out of almost 9,000 guns recovered and traced in New York came from Virginia, according to the agency — about 5 percent.
New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, co-chairman of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, also argues that some specific changes can lower crime rates. He told the U.S. Conference of Mayors last week that after Colorado closed its loophole allowing private dealers to sell guns without conducting background checks, fewer Colorado-sold guns turned up at crime scenes.
He also said that in states that require background checks on all sales, 38 percent less women are fatally shot by their boyfriends and husbands.
He also cited a recent Duke University study that showed once a severely mentally ill person’s records are turned over to the background check system, that person is 31 percent less likely to be convicted of a violent crime.
• Luke Rosiak contributed to this report.
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