The Correlation Between Gun Laws and Gun Violence
Let's look at the data, folks.
Sutherland Springs, Texas is about forty minutes away from my house. For most of my life, I hadn’t even heard of it. It’s not a very large town. However, after November 5th, 2017, when 26-year old Devin Kelley shot and killed 26 people at Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church, the town gained publicity. This event became the deadliest mass shooting in Texas history (Ahmed). For me, this tragedy was different. It wasn’t in some far off state like New York. I had some friends who knew people in Sutherland Springs. Never before had I been so close to an event so devastating. It’s because that church, could’ve been my church that the issue of gun violence has became the utmost importance to me. Thus, the question must be examined, what is the relationship between gun laws and gun violence?
In this paper, ‘Gun violence’ will refer to firearm mortality, deaths caused by a firearm. This limits the scope of this article from discussing gun related injuries. While the data from that particular subject matter is also important, I want to examine mortality alone due to the fact that this is the most severe issue relating to guns. In addition, suicides will be counted under this variable simply because the vast majority of research regarding this topic includes this factor.
The data I’ll be drawing from primarily is from the Center for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics. The latest data is from 2017. The metric which is commonly used when discussing this topic is ‘deaths per 100,000 citizens.’ This is the best way to compare states on an individual basis because it accounts for population size.
‘Gun laws’ will refer to three main types of gun regulations. The first being open carry laws. As stated by Gifford’s Law Center, “‘open carry’” refers to the practice of carrying firearms in plain view in public spaces.” There is no federal law that prohibits or enable this practice, so the issue is left up to the states. (“Open Carry”)
The second type of gun regulation that will be assessed is background checks. The federal law requires all licensed firearm dealers to determine whether a purchaser is eligible by running their information through the FBI’s database known as NICS (National Instant Criminal Background Check System). Notably, this law doesn’t apply to private arms dealers. This essentially means that these individuals may legally sell guns without running a background check on a purchaser. Therefore, state's gun policies fall into about three categories: universal background checks (background checks for any and all gun sales), federal background checks (no laws beyond what the federal government requires), or some other specific regulation such as requiring a permit to purchase a gun. ("Universal Background Checks")
The final gun regulation category that will be assessed is that of assault weapons. The question of what constitutes an assault weapon could be a research project in and of itself. David Kopel, associate policy analyst at the Cato Institute, contends that over thirty years the public is still unsure of exactly what this term means. (Kopel) In the same manner, almost every state has differing definitions of assault weapons. Thus, for this research term, I’ll be examining whether or not states have some kind of assault weapon regulation in place and then, look further into specific state law.
Before we examine the results of this research, I want to first take a look at some other reputable sources and examine what they say on this matter. John Malcolm, vice president for the institute for constitutional government argues that so called, “‘Gun freedom’ states… like New Hampshire and Oregon, have some of the lowest homicide rates. Conversely, ‘gun-control-loving’ states…. like Maryland and Illinois, experience some of the nation’s highest homicide rates.” Based on this observation, he claims that “there is no clear relationship between strict gun control legislation and homicide or violent crime rates.” (Macolm)
Richard Florida, co-founder of CityLab distinguished fellow NYU argues against this analysis. He analyzed data from all fifty states and after ranking them based on how strict their laws were, he concluded that “Firearm deaths are significantly lower in states with stricter gun control legislation… we find substantial negative correlations between firearm deaths and states that ban assault weapons, require trigger locks, and mandate safe storage requirements for guns.” (Florida) Unfortunately, there is very little data from governmental sources as to the effect of gun laws on gun violence. The reason being that the Center for Disease Control has essentially been banned from researching this topic. ABC News report: “Passed in 1997 with the strong backing of the NRA, the so-called "Dickey Amendment" effectively bars the national Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from studying firearm violence.” (Dooley) Thus, the amount of research on this subject matter is limited
There are two ways I want to illustrate the data for this topic. First by using data from Gifford’s Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence to show on a state basis which states have passed certain laws. This will help provide a broad overview of the research in question. Secondly, I’ll be specifically assessing certain states that rank high, medium and low on the gun violence spectrum.
Figure 1. Firearm Mortality Rates
Above is the CDC’s data sorted in a way that clearly indicates which states have more deaths due to firearms. ("Firearm Mortality by State") The x-axis represents deaths per 100,000 citizens. The total amount of deaths that this chart displays is 39,673. Three important descriptions of this data are average, median and mode. The average amount of deaths per 100,000 is 13.5. This data indicates that roughly half the states are above average, and half are below, which is supported by the fact that the median is 12.8. The most often occurring integer in this diagram is 11, which has some interesting implications.
Upon further analysis, I realized that there were rather large gaps between some of these death rates. For example, there are ten states with death rates below 10 (Hawaii—Iowa), but there are thirty-two states with deaths rates between 10 and 20. (New Hampshire—Arkansas) This leaves eight states with deaths rates above 20. This gives us three distinct categories of states to assess.
Before we look at specific states, I want to provide general overview of which states have passed each type of law in their state. This data came from Gifford’s Law Center.
Notes: Most states allow the open carrying of a handgun without any license or permit and the fewest number of states prohibit open carrying of handguns.
Notes: Most states don’t extend background checks beyond federal law.
Notes: Most states don’t regulate assault weapons
With a general idea of these state laws, let's examine the three ranges of states specifically. I’ll start with three states that have low firearm mortality rates.
Hawaii (2.5 per 100,000)
Based on the above, Hawaii regulates assault weapons, requires a permit for purchasing a gun and has a permit or license for open carry. The most notable distinction from some of the other states here is that in order to simply purchase a gun, all residents must apply to a police department to obtain a gun purchasing permit. Only a few states have enacted this policy. Additionally, Hawaii has banned the use of “Automatic firearms; rifles with barrel length less than 16 inches; and shotguns with barrels less than 18 inches,” according to FindLaw.com ("Hawaii Gun Control Laws").
Massachusetts (3.7 per 100,000)
Interestingly enough, the results of these three gun law categories for Massachusetts are the exact same as Hawaii’s (regulates assault weapons, requires a permit for purchasing a gun, and has a permit or license for open carry). Massachusetts ban on assault weapons differs from Hawaii’s however in the sense that it is more encompassing. From the office of Massachusetts Attorney General, “Under Massachusetts law, Assault Weapons are defined in several ways. Among other things, the law sets out a list of weapons, by make and model, that are prohibited. The law further states that ‘copies or duplicates’ of the listed weapons are also banned. Separately, there is a list of features that make certain guns Assault Weapons” ("Frequently Asked Questions…”) In other words, to avoid a loophole of creating a new gun that is practically the same as a banned one but has a different name, this law bans all copies as well.
New York (3.7 per 100,000)
Similar to the first two states, New York regulates assault weapons. Unlike the previous two, however, New York also has universal background checks across the board and has no state law that allows for the open carrying of firearms. There are certain cities and counties that allow this practice. FindLaw explains that, “permits are not automatically valid statewide; each city or county may or may not recognize in-state permits issued by other New York localities.” Additionally, New York has stricter laws that include “Requiring ammunition dealers to perform background checks, similar to the requirements imposed for gun purchasers,” and laws that “[Require] the creation of an assault weapons registry.” (“New York Gun Control Laws")
These results are all fairly similar. All three states have stricter gun laws, with New York’s probably being the strictest. Considering these three states have the lowest firearm mortality rates, it appears that there is positive correlation between guns and tighter gun laws. However, let’s examine if this argument holds up when comparing these results to those of states with larger death rates.
Texas, (12.4 per 100,000)
While Texas’ death rate is far higher than say, Hawaii’s, 12.4 places the lone star state right at the median level for death rates. According to the charts above, Texas does not regulate assault weapons or extend background checks beyond what federal requirements. Texas does require a permit for open carry for handguns. However, according to Gifford’s Law Center, Texas doesn’t mandate that firearm distributors initiate background checks. (“Background Checks in Texas”) Therefore, it’s up to the discretion of businesses to initiate a check with the FBI, which implies that there’s less of a guarantee that checks will actually occur. One other important note is Texas has absolutely no law restricting, banning, or otherwise regulating assault weapons. ("Basic Texas Gun Laws…")
Pennsylvania (12.5 per 100,000)
Based on the data above, Pennsylvania requires background checks for handguns only and does not regulate assault weapons. What’s unique about Pennsylvania is their license to carry laws. Their state government’s website paints a more detailed picture of their version of this law. “An individual who is 21 years of age or older may apply for a license to carry firearms… The sheriff has 45 days to conduct an investigation to determine an individual's eligibility to be issued a license.” This includes running the applicant’s information through Pennsylvania’s criminal record database. (“Carrying Firearms in Pennsylvania”) To sum, Pennsylvania’s laws are stricter in some ways, but in general are more lenient than the first three states we looked at.
North Dakota (13.2 per 100,000)
North Dakota has the most lenient gun laws we’ve seen so far. This state doesn’t regulate assault weapons, doesn’t extend background checks beyond federal law, and allows for the open carrying of handguns without any permit or license. The state does require licenses to carry certain weapons, but not handguns. ("North Dakota")
The hypothesis that more lenient gun laws correlates to higher gun death rates is still maintained with these three states being examined. However, its worthy of note, that while North Dakota has seemingly very weak gun laws, their firearm mortality rate only places them about average when compared to the rest of the states. Let’s continue this analysis by assessing three states with the high firearm mortality rates.
Alaska (24.5 per 100,000)
Alaska has almost twice as high a death rate as Texas and about twelve times as high a death rate as Hawaii. The data collected indicates that Alaska doesn’t regulate assault weapons or extend background checks beyond federal law. Alaska doesn’t require permits for the carrying of handguns, thus indicating that like North Dakota, this state has very weak/liberal gun laws.
Alabama (22.9 per 100,000)
This trend continues as the only main difference between Alabama’s gun laws and Alaska’s laws, is that a carry permit is mandated. However, according to gunstocarry.org, “Alabama concealed carry laws are liberal and allow concealed carry permits to be issued at the county level... the application process in Alabama is fairly easy.”
Montana (22.5 per 100,000)
Find law describes Montana’s gun laws as “some of the most permissive in the country.” ("Montana Gun Control Laws") The data collected concurs. No regulation on assault weapons. Open carry without license. When discussing background checks, FindLaw reports that, “Any person can go into a Montana retailer and purchase a firearm as long as he/she is not intoxicated or under the influence of a controlled substance. The only form of possession that is regulated in the state applies to children under the age of 14.” Yes, I suppose that would be considered pretty permissive, especially compared to a state like Hawaii or New York.
What is the relationship between guns and gun laws? Well, the general answer to the question, yes, it appears that the tighter the gun laws, the less gun related deaths occur, and the looser the gun laws, the higher the fatality rate is. However, there are many factors that need to be addressed for an accurate answer to be given. The question I would have is what distinguishes North Dakota from Alaska? They have similarly, very weak gun laws, and similar population sizes, yet Alaska has many more gun related deaths than North Dakota. Another question is what effect do gun laws have on suicide? I’d assume that open carry and assault weapon laws wouldn’t directly affect this factor, but it would be invaluable to discover what type of background checks, if any, could affect/help to prevent suicide. Another question that has been partially answered with this article, but would need more research is which types of gun laws are most effective. Based on the data collected for this paper it would appear that the regulation of assault weapons has the greatest impact. This deduction can be draw from the fact that seven of the top eight states with the lowest death rates, regulate assault weapons. In conclusion, based on this paper, I think a strong correlation between these two variables is all that can be determined. As always, more research is needed to assess what policies are best for each state. The conclusion that can be confidently supported, is that change is needed for the betterment of all Americans.
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