What works to reduce gun deaths

THE young people who will march to protest against gun killings in Washington, DC and other cities on March 24th would appear to be wasting their time. Since December 2012, when Adam Lanza murdered 20 children and six staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School, America has experienced some 240 shootings that injured or killed people on school or college campuses. From 2012 to 2016 fully 108,100 people used guns to take their own lives and 63,600 were shot dead by others. Yet the House of Representatives has not voted on a single measure to prevent gun violence, let alone passed a law. In some states the law has loosened. Students at public colleges in Texas can now carry concealed handguns.

The marchers should not succumb to gloom. Congress will probably not pass sensible gun laws, it is true. But some state assemblies and city governments have already done so. These laws seem to be saving lives; if adopted in other states, the toll of guns would almost certainly diminish. They fall into three categories.

The first group of laws increase scrutiny of gun buyers. Federal law requires background checks for anyone purchasing a firearm through a licensed dealer, but says nothing about private sales or transactions at gun shows. Many buyers slip through this loophole. A survey of 1,613 gun-owners published in 2017 found that 42% had acquired their most recent weapon without a background check. The internet has made sales even harder to police. A probe by private investigators hired by New York city in 2011 found that 62% of online private sellers agreed to sell guns to people who stated they “probably could not pass a background check”.

Nineteen states and Washington, DC, now require background checks for at least some private gun sales. Most people seem to comply. In states that regulate private sales, 26% of gun-owners who bought their guns privately said they did so without a background check, compared with 57% in states without such regulations.

The Giffords Law Centre to Prevent Gun Violence, a pressure group co-founded by Gabrielle Giffords, a former congresswoman who was shot in the head in 2011, found that between 2009 and 2012 states with universal background-check requirements on handguns had 35% fewer gun deaths per person than states with looser regulations. Other research shows that in states that require background checks for private handgun sales women are less likely to be shot by their partners, police are less likely to be killed by handguns, and gun suicides are rarer than in states with laxer laws.

Daniel Webster, director of the Centre for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, believes that requiring gun-buyers to apply for permits or licences might be even more effective. Twelve states and Washington, DC have such laws, several of which require would-be handgun-buyers to pass safety training. Some require people to turn up at their local sheriff’s office or police department. This may deter so-called “straw purchases”, in which someone stands in for a debarred buyer.

In a study published in 2014, Mr Webster and others scrutinised what happened after Missouri scrapped its permit-to-purchase law, which required all handgun purchasers to obtain a licence confirming they had passed a background check. Controlling for changes in poverty, unemployment, crime, incarceration, policing levels and other factors, they found that the repeal was associated with a 23% increase in gun homicide rates. A study conducted by Mr Webster’s colleagues in 2015 found that 75% of Americans (and nearly 60% of gun-owners) support licensing laws. Almost everyone wants broad background checks.

The second thing states have done is to create “red-flag” laws. The need for these has become clearer since February 14th, when Nikolas Cruz allegedly killed 17 people in his former high school in Florida. (Mr Cruz is not speaking; a judge has entered a not-guilty plea on his behalf.) In the decade before that horror, the Broward County sheriff’s office received at least 45 calls related to Mr Cruz or his brother. Mr Cruz uploaded photos of weapons and dead animals on social media, and seems to have written “I am going to be a professional school shooter” under a YouTube video.

Today six states—California, Washington, Oregon, Connecticut, Indiana and, as of March 9th, Florida—have “extreme-risk protection order” laws. These allow cops to petition courts to remove guns temporarily from those thought to pose a risk to themselves or others. In the first three states, family members can petition, too. Judges can order guns to be impounded for a limited time and, in some states, can bar people from buying new ones. An order can be extended for a year if the judge is given additional evidence that the person continues to be a threat.

Connecticut’s law, which was enacted in 1999, seems to have saved lives. One study published in 2017 estimated that for every 10 to 20 gun seizures in the state between 1999 and 2013, one suicide was averted. On average, the police removed seven guns from each person. Earlier this year American State Legislators for Gun Violence Prevention, a coalition of lawmakers worried about gun violence, announced that members in 30 states had introduced or were planning to introduce extreme-risk protection order bills. Even before the Parkland shooting, at least 19 legislatures were considering such bills.

Third, some states have tightened rules on gun storage. Whereas Israelis whose weapons are stolen can be prosecuted, most Americans have little to fear. A survey by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has found that 54% of American gun-owners did not store their firearms safely.

This invites trouble. David Hemenway at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has estimated that 380,000 guns a year are stolen from gun-owners. Data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives shows that licensed dealers lost 18,394 weapons in 2016. Stolen guns often find their way to dangerous criminals. Even if they are not stolen, unsecured guns are dangerous. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, a government agency, has reported that about 20,000 people under 18 were killed or seriously hurt in accidental shootings between 2004 and 2015. News reports suggest that children under four shoot about one person a week—often themselves.

The Johns Hopkins researchers classified secure storage as locked in a gun safe, cabinet or case, locked into a gun rack, or stored with a trigger lock or other device on the gun itself. Some states, including California, Connecticut and New York, require guns to be securely stowed if they are anywhere near people who are barred from possessing them. Massachusetts is stricter. If a firearm is not kept “secured in a locked container or equipped with a tamper-resistant mechanical lock or other safety device” the owner could face fines up to $20,000 and up to 15 years of imprisonment. The law seems successful at keeping guns out of the hands of minors. Only 9% of suicides among young people in Massachusetts involve a gun, compared with 39% nationally. The state’s youth suicide death rate is 35% below the national average.

Soon after a mass shooting in Las Vegas last October, a poll found that 77% of those asked supported a requirement that all gun-owners should store their guns safely. Such a law would not have prevented that particular atrocity, nor will the other measures mentioned above avert every future suicide, homicide or mass shooting. That is a poor justification for doing nothing.

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