Handgun Purchaser Licensing Laws Lead to Fewer Deaths: Study

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Photo by Peretz Partensky via Flickr.

Data from 2018 suggests that firearms were the second-leading “mechanism of death by injury” in the United States, resulting in 39,740 untimely deaths. To help reduce these deaths, states have largely relied on Comprehensive Background Checks (CBC).

However, data suggests that CBCs alone were not associated with a reduction in firearm-related deaths, according to a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study. 

The study, published online last week in the American Journal of Public Health, found that the only reduction policy that was effective in lowering firearm homicide and suicide rates were purchaser licensing laws in addition to background checks. 

Put simply, comprehensive background check laws for handgun purchasers alone are not enough to save lives, the authors of the study said. 

“So much of the gun policy discussion focuses on background checks alone,” wrote Alexander D. McCourt, an assistant scientist with the Center for Gun Policy and Research in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School.

“We need to recognize that background checks are necessary for identifying people prohibited from accessing a firearm, but, unless complemented by licensing, our research indicates they are not sufficient to reduce gun fatalities.” 

21 States Require Background Checks

As of the start of the year, 21 states in America have laws that require a background check “for at least some private firearm sales.”

These laws can be sorted into two categories: Point-of-Sale Comprehensive Background Checks (CBC) and purchaser licensing laws, the report details. 

“Both categories require firearm purchasers to pass a background check prior to a sale or transfer, but they differ with respect to timing and process,” the authors wrote. 

The main difference is that purchaser licensing laws require applicants to apply directly in their state, and they must pass a background check while providing fingerprints. In some cases, the purchaser has to show evidence of completed handgun safety training, the report found. 

For the recent Johns Hopkins study, the researchers compared statistics and looked at changes in gun laws in Connecticut, Missouri, Maryland, and Pennsylvania and modeled firearm homicide and suicide trends for a 22-year period. 

For the study, the researchers compared four statistics—firearm homicide, non-firearm homicide, firearm suicide, and nonfirearm suicide rates.

What they found was striking, the authors wrote. 

“Connecticut’s purchaser licensing law, enacted in 1995, was associated with a 28 percent decrease in firearm homicide rates and a 33 percent decrease in firearm suicides from 1996 to 2017,” the researchers found. 

The researchers also found that Connecticut’s suicide rates fell 23 percent from 1996 to 2006, and even more drastically — 40.5 percent — following Connecticut’s law that allows law enforcement to temporarily remorse firearms from individual’s possession if they threaten to harm themselves or others. 

CBC Laws Not Enough 

But Maryland and Pennsylvania’s data doesn’t reflect this positive outcome, mainly because their states don’t have purchaser licensing laws — they only operate with CBC laws. 

Maryland’s 1996 implementation of background check laws have been associated with a 17.5 percent increase in firearm homicide rates from 1997 to 2013, and Pennsylvania’s 1996 CBC implementation is associated with a 21.5 percent increase in homicide rates. 

On the other hand, the state of Missouri once had purchaser licensing laws, but repealed them in 2007, creating a spike in gun violence.

After the 2007 repeal, the researchers found that there was an estimated increase in firearm homicide (47.3 percent), nonfirearm homicides (18.1 percent), and firearm suicides (23.5 percent).

Put another way, the estimated percentage increase of firearm homicides occurring after the purchaser licensing laws were repealed translates to between 55 and 63 untimely deaths per year in Missouri, CBS News reported. 

Despite the states that have CBC law implementation, the authors write these spikes in gun violence deaths are consistent with a growing body of evidence that shows CBC laws are not effective in curbing firearm deaths — unless they’re coupled with purchaser licensing laws. 

The authors recommend that other states across America should look into implementing purchaser licensing laws, which they deem “necessary.”

“Purchaser licensing has an extremely strong evidence base and research has consistently found protective effects on a range of issues,” says the report’s co-author Cassandra Crifasi, deputy director of the Gun Policy and Research center. 

“These laws also have broad public support among Americans, including the majority of gun owners,” Crifasi concluded. “States looking to advance evidence-based policies to reduce gun violence should consider a purchaser licensing law.”

The full study can be accessed here. 

Additional Reading: What Works to Prevent Gun Violence? A Journalism ‘Solutions’ Archive

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.

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