The national focus of the recent shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. may have shifted from gun control to racism and the Confederate flag, but the question remains as to what sort of policies would keep firearms from dangerous people.
Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, believes he has an answer: permit-to-purchase laws. A June study published by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research – released five days prior to the murders of nine African American parishioners in Charleston –connected a 1995 Connecticut law requiring a permit in order to purchase a handgun with a 40 percent reduction in the state’s firearm homicide rate. Coupled with an earlier study associating Missouri’s repeal of a similar law in 2007 with a 25 percent increase in that state’s firearm homicide rate, Webster believes he and his colleagues have produced sufficient evidence to show that strict gun control measures reduce gun violence.
“There are no other good explanations as to what could’ve caused this reduction,” said Webster.
Connecticut is one of ten states that requires everyone seeking to purchase a handgun to first obtain a license verifying that he may lawfully own a firearm. Applications must be submitted in person to a local police department following the successful completion of a background check and an eight hour training course. The process can last up to 60 days and cost the applicant about $140.
Proponents of gun control argue that permit-to-purchase would do a good job preventing people with pending criminal charges and histories of violence, substance abuse or mental illness from getting guns.
Federal law mandates that licensed firearms dealers conduct background checks before completing any gun transaction. But the federal background check requirement does not extend to unlicensed vendors, who typically frequent gun shows and feature their wares at online marketplaces like Armslist.com. That means in the 32 states without permit-to-purchase laws or additional background check requirements, private sellers – loosely defined as those who do not rely on gun sales as their principal source of income– are free to sell guns to any willing buyer. Webster said that this federal exemption of unlicensed vendors has resulted in “a lot of people owning guns without such law abiding backgrounds.”
The Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research veers from the research methods social scientists traditionally employ to assess the power of firearms regulation. Rather than compare firearm homicide statistics from all 50 states, Webster and his colleagues compiled longitudinal data from states without permit-to-purchase laws whose pre-1995 crime rates matched the Constitution State’s the closest. These states (Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Nevada, Maryland, and California), serve as the models to predict what actual Connecticut’s violent crime rates would have looked like without a permit-to-purchase law.
The results showed a 40 percent decrease in the rate of firearm-related homicides relative to what could have been expected had Connecticut’s handgun licensing law not gone into effect. That’s an estimated 296 fewer deaths between 1995 and 2005. Additionally, Missouri’s permit-to-purchase repeal was associated with 68 additional killings between 2008 and 2012.
Opponents of expanded firearms regulation questioned the study's conclusions. Economist and gun rights activist John Lott criticized the study for “cherry-picking” what states’ crime rates to examine. Creating a synthetic Connecticut by excluding data from some states and not from others is misleading, said Lott. Furthermore, of the ten other jurisdictions with handgun licensing requirements – Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, and the District of Colombia – Connecticut provides the most extreme example of how permit-to-purchase laws can affect a state’s firearm homicide rate. Had Webster and his colleagues chosen to examine Massachusetts instead, Lott said they would have found that violent crime actually increased following the state’s implementation of handgun licensing requirements in 1998.
The National Rifle Association pointed out that the firearm homicide rate began decreasing long before Connecticut passed its permit-to-purchase law, and that Connecticut has experienced either an increase or less of a reduction in other types of violent crimes since introducing its 1995 PTP laws relative to the rest of the United States, including rape, robbery, assault, and overall murder. “Criminals will continue to obtain their guns as they always have,” from straw purchases and underground markets said NRA media liaison Catherine Mortensen. “None of these laws apply to criminals. They only affect law abiding citizens and impede their ability to exercise their Second Amendment right.”
Webster is certain, however, that his approach is best suited for assessing the effects of gun control, and while this may be the first study of its kind published with gun policy, “it won’t be the last.” Connecticut’s pre-PTP reduction in firearm homicides can be explained by a variety of factors unique to the early 1990s, when violent crime rates reached historically high levels. Webster explained how increased incarceration rates, changes in law enforcement, and the death of prominent gang members resulted in a “very common cyclical pattern, where right after an increase [in firearms homicide rates], we see an equally rapid decline.” Because of Connecticut’s licensing laws, however, that decline was more dramatic than what could have otherwise been expected.
The study indicated that the unchanged or increased rates of other violent crimes are consistent with its findings given that permit-to-purchase laws only target firearms related homicide, 90 percent of which are committed using a handgun. As for the cherry-picking accusation, Webster said that not all states are equally comparable to Connecticut – politically, economically, or culturally. “We looked at each state to assess which best predicted rates for Connecticut during the eleven year period analyzed prior to the law going into play, and the states we picked are those that best predicted Connecticut’s trends before the law passing.”
With congressional action regarding universal background checks unlikely, the study’s findings could have national implications if state legislators take it upon themselves to fill the void left by federal regulations. “You have to be cautious when proving cause and effect,” said Webster, “but we’ve tried to come up with a different explanation [for the reduction] -- and we couldn’t.”