Opponents of gun control like to argue that there’s no point in passing stricter gun laws because criminals will get guns anyway. Just look at Chicago, they say. But a new study finds it’s not that strong state laws don’t work, it’s that weak laws in neighboring states offer criminals a convenient loophole.
“It shows that we’re only as strong as our weakest link,” says Michael Siegel, a co-author of the study and a professor of community health sciences at Boston University School of Public Health. “Just because a state has strong gun laws doesn’t mean they’ll be effective in the absence of other states also passing laws.”
In a study published last week in the Journal of Urban Health, Siegel and colleagues set out to measure the association between state gun laws and interstate gun trafficking. The idea, Siegel told me, was to discover whether certain laws actually did make it harder for would-be criminals to access guns, as the laws were intended to do. One way to measure that effect is by examining the origin of guns recovered from crimes. In other words, was there an association between stricter gun laws and the percentage of crime guns traced to an out-of-state source, which would suggest that stricter laws do make it harder for criminals to access guns within a state’s borders.
Overall, they found a clear association between stronger state gun laws and fewer crime guns being recovered that originated within that particular state. In fact, they found that four gun laws combined — waiting periods, permit requirements, bans on guns among people with violent misdemeanors and relinquishment of guns by people convicted of a violent misdemeanor — could decrease the number of crime guns originating from within a state by nearly 14 percent. They also found that crime guns flowed from states with weaker laws to those with stronger laws — “from Southeastern states with weak gun laws up the coast to Maryland, New York, and Massachusetts; from Midwestern states with weak gun laws to Illinois; and from Western states with weak gun laws to California,” they wrote.
“Basically, it tells us that these laws are working — that in states with strong laws, guns have to be trafficked in from states that have weaker laws,” Siegel told me.
To conduct the study, researchers examined 2006-2016 crime gun trace data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as well as 2006-2016 data from the State Firearm Law Project, a database that tracks 133 gun laws across every state. (On the ATF data, Siegel and colleagues used the limited, aggregated data on interstate gun trafficking that’s available online. The federal 2003 Tiahrt Amendment specifically prohibits ATF from sharing more detailed gun trace data with researchers.) Researchers then tapped eight gun laws they thought would most likely impact gun access — like background checks, licensing requirements for dealers, permit-to-purchase and background checks — and created a “gun law index” for each state that went from 0 to 8 based on the number and strength of laws each state had adopted.
Researchers found that the average gun law index ranged from 0 in 24 states to 6.1 in Hawaii and California. The average percentage of crime guns traced to an in-state origin ranged from a low of about 23 percent in New Jersey, which had a gun law index of 5, to a high of more than 83 percent in Indiana, which had an average gun law index of 0. During the time period studied, 10 states adopted one or more of the eight gun laws examined. Among the three states that adopted two of the laws, there was a decrease of nearly 7 percent in in-state crime guns. That’s compared to a decrease of less than 1 percent in states that adopted one of the gun laws and an increase of in-state-origin crime guns recovered in states that didn’t adopt any of the eight gun laws or repealed their gun laws.
Researchers found that the “general pattern” of gun flows went from states with weak guns laws to those with strong gun laws. The average gun law index for states on the receiving end of that flow was 3.3; the average index among states where guns originated was 1.4. As a state’s gun law index went up, the proportion of crime guns originating from within that state went down. Overall, the study found four laws were independently associated with a lower percentage of in-state crime guns: waiting periods; permit-to-purchase; prohibiting guns among people convicted of a violent misdemeanor; and requiring that people relinquish their guns if they become ineligible for owning one.
Noting that their findings are consistent with other studies on the impact of gun laws on in-state crime guns, Siegel and co-authors Tessa Collins, Rachael Greenberg, Ziming Xuan, Emily Rothman, Shea Cronin and David Hemenway write: “The policy implication of these findings is straightforward: states seeking to reduce the availability of firearms from their own state sources should seek to pass legislation that strengthens regulations on sales and possession.”
Siegel said another implication is that one state’s gun laws “impact the health and safety of people in other states.” He warned that implication could gain even more traction if federal policymakers approve national reciprocity standards for concealed carry permits — such a bill passed the House in December and is awaiting action in the Senate. (The International Association of Chiefs of Police is urging Congress not to pass such a bill.) Such a federal law, Siegel noted, would significantly impair a state’s ability to protect its residents from gun violence. For example, in states that prohibit people convicted of domestic violence from obtaining a concealed carry permit, those subject to such a restriction could simply get permitted in a state with weaker laws.
Because the differences in state gun laws seem to be driving gun trafficking networks, Siegel said federal action is essential — “we do need national legislation, it can’t all be done at the state or local level.” Next up, Siegel and colleagues will study the impact of state gun laws on homicide and suicide.
“It’s true that criminals in a state can access guns through a trafficking network, but the solution isn’t to get rid of gun laws,” he told me. “A more reasonable takeaway from our findings is to extend these laws to other states.”
For a copy of the new gun study, visit the Journal of Urban Health.