‘Neighbors Do Matter’: How Differing State Firearm Laws Can Increase Gun Violence

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Every year, thousands of Americans are killed by guns. In 2020 alone, there have been just under 30,000 firearm-related deaths, and that number only grows.

To combat this violence, state lawmakers have painstakingly tried to protect communities with strict firearm regulations.

However, researchers are finding that it’s not enough for your home state to have strict gun laws. Neighboring states’ gun laws that are potentially more relaxed can also significantly impact gun deaths across state lines, according to new research from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). 

The authors of the research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Ye Liu, Michael Siegel and Bisakha Sen, spoke with reporters at Medicalxpress. In their interview, they discussed how they completed their research, and their startling findings. 

The researchers combed through a public Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). After isolating firearm deaths, they identified public information surrounding 578,022 firearm deaths in 48 states during the 2000 to 2017 study period.

In other words, that’s 11.1 firearm deaths per 100,000 people.  

The study then examined firearm laws in each state, and compared them to firearm laws in neighboring states. 

What they found has alarmed activists and lawmakers alike, considering the strength of one state’s firearm laws and precautions can be undermined by a neighboring state’s more relaxed laws and regulations, the authors concluded. 

Firearm Deaths & Laws

Between states with even a slight difference in law and policy surrounding guns, the strict gun law state saw an increase of 2.5 percent for firearm homicide, 1.6 percent for total firearm-related deaths, 1.7 percent for female firearm deaths, 1.6 percent for male firearm deaths, and 0.6 percent for firearm suicide.

Moreover, certain laws can actually influence interstate movement to obtain guns. The researchers identified four main categories that had the highest potential to impact someone traveling to another state for a gun, to then bring it back to their home state. 

The four categories of laws were background checks, dealer regulations, buyer regulations, and gun trafficking laws. For example, within the UAB report, the authors designed a heat map that illustrates strict and relaxed gun laws across the country. 

Anecdotally, a resident of California, a state with some of the nation’s strictest gun laws, can easily go across state lines to Nevada, a state with some of the nation’s loosest gun laws, to purchase a firearm before bringing it back to their home state.

California’s strict gun laws include prohibiting anyone under the age of 21 from buying a gun, as well as enforcing the inability to purchase guns and ammunition online. California also has a ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines.

But Nevada state law says an 18-year-old can purchase a gun, and their state law doesn’t require purchasers to obtain permits or require them to register or license their firearms. 

“Failing to account for neighboring states with weaker laws can, in some instances, make a state’s own regulations appear less effective in reducing firearm deaths,” Dr. Sen told the Medicalxpress

“The study suggests that without cooperative legislative actions in neighboring states, efforts in one state to strengthen firearm legislation and prevent firearm deaths may be undermined.”

This creates problems, the authors note, as it rewrites the narrative over the effectiveness of laws like bans on semi-automatic weapons and red flag laws. 

Recommendations

To combat this, the researchers suggest a multi state or regional-level approach to handling gun laws. By reaching across state borders, it limits the opportunity for someone to easily travel for a firearm, and bring it back to wreak havoc on their home community. 

The authors also suggest federal gun regulations. 

“I think the main message of this study is that in order to solve a nationwide problem we need to think of a nationwide or at least a regional-level (i.e., multistate) approach, like we may also need for the COVID-19 pandemic,” Dr. Liu told the Medicalxpress

“An ‘each state on its own’ approach is ultimately inadequate to address one of the biggest public health challenges in this country.”

Ye Liu, MD is the first author of the study and a doctoral student in the Department of Health Care Organization and Policy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who developed the empirical framework under Dr. Sen’s guidance. 

Michael Siegel, MD, MPH, is a physician and professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health

Bisakha Sen, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Health Care Organization and Policy, School of Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. 

The full study, Neighbors Do Matter: Between-State Firearm Laws and State Firearm-Related Deathscan be accessed here. 

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.

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