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The Three Federal Laws That Could Eliminate Gun Deaths in the U.S.

A new study shows just how easily lawmakers could abate our national gun crisis.
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(Photo: Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)

(Photo: Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)

The United States is in the middle of a gun crisis, seemingly without an end in sight. America currently leads the world in mass shootings, with 372 in 2015 alone that left 475 people dead and wounded 1,870 others. On a normal day, about 90 Americans are killed by firearms. This is partially because the U.S. is awash in guns; a 2007 survey found that the U.S. is home to 35 to 50 percent of the world's civilian-owned guns, despite having only five percent of the world's population, and we have disproportionately more firearms deaths per capita than any other advanced nation.

Now, there's new evidence that could blow holes in the arguments against legislative action on gun control. A new nationwide study published in the Lancet suggests that a combination of just three gun laws could reduce the death rate from firearms by more than 90 percent, effectively reducing our gun mortality problem to levels comparable with the rest of the civilized world.

The study, conducted by an international group of legal and public-health researchers, compared cross-sectional, state-level data sets on firearms deaths between 2014 and 2015 (compared to firearms deaths between 2008 and 2009) with data on 25 state-wide gun control laws implemented in 2009 and resulting changes in firearm ownership and export rates. Their analysis indicated that the U.S. endured some 31,671 gun-related deaths in 2010, a national rate of 10.1 per every 100,000 people. The correlations between gun control laws is a bit more complicated than gun-control advocates might like; of the gun laws implemented in 2009, only nine were associated with a drop in mortality rates, while nine were associated with more gun deaths, and seven had an "inconclusive association."

But this is where things get interesting. According to the Lancet study, there are three state laws that are most strongly associated with a drastic reduction in gun deaths:

  • Universal background checks could reduce national firearms deaths from 10.3 per 100,000 to 4.46, if incorporated at a federal level.
  • Background checks for ammunition purchases could further reduce the mortality rate to 1.99 deaths per 100,000.
  • Firearm identification could further reduce the death rate to 1.81 per 100,000. Identification methods would include either microstamping or ballistic fingerprinting, both of which would allow forensic investigators to trace a bullet to its last registered owner.

"Background checks keep guns and ammunition away from those who should not be having them," study co-author Bindu Kalesan from the Boston University School of Medicine told Agence France-Presse. "Fewer guns mean fewer homicides and fewer suicides."

The conclusions of the Lancet study should seem like a no brainer, but several leading experts have already expressed concern over the study's findings, the Guardian reports:

Leading gun violence researchers have called that result "implausible", and said the study's design is so flawed that some of its findings are not believable. ...

Experts noted that the laws, which were on the books in only three states, were not actually being implemented in practice.

That "would be the biggest red flag, obviously, when they're finding huge effects of a law that doesn't exist", Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, said.

He called the paper's approach "just not good science". ...

I can imagine a future in which we have very substantially lower gun deaths than we have, as much as 30 to 50% lower," Webster said. But even with universal federal background checks, permit to purchase laws, and a set of other gun control policies, "It's hard to me to imagine anything beyond a 50% decline," he said. "That's kind of a best case scenario."

The Lancet study, while focused on laws that have't yet been implemented, doesn't exist in a vacuum. Recent studies have shown that state laws requiring background checks (or purchase permits, which themselves come with checks) drastically reduce both gun homicides and suicides, while repealing such measures results in a corresponding uptick in both. This was the case with the 2007 repeal of Missouri's permit-to-purchase law, a legislative move that gun researchers call "the strongest evidence that background checks really matter."

A subsequent 2015 analysis of studies on background checks and gun deaths since 1999 found that expanding background checks and measures like rigorous permit-to-purchase rules and oversight of gun dealers "are negatively associated with the diversion of guns to criminals." This effectively knocks down the myth that background checks will lead to a rising tide of illegal gun purchases.

It's certainly true that three laws are unlikely to serve as a silver bullet in the sense projected in the Lancet study. There are methodological concerns that arise when a cross-sectional study telegraphs a rapid, almost instantaneous change in America's gun ecosystem with the implementation of a few measures. Gun violence is simply "too complicated, with too many different causes," as Duke University professor Jeffrey Swanson told the Guardian, explaining why the study's dramatic conclusion made him "queasy."

But if the end goal of the research is to bolster evidence in favor of a national solution for the country's firearms problem, that's certainly worth further exploration. "Very few of the existing state-specific firearm laws are associated with reduced firearm mortality, and this evidence underscores the importance of focusing on relevant and effective firearms legislation," the study's authors conclude. "Implementation of universal background checks for the purchase of firearms or ammunition, and firearm identification nationally could substantially reduce firearm mortality in the U.S."

This is the real import of the Lancet study. In a sociopolitical environment where even discussing firearms control as a solution to America's gun crisis is almost epistemically impossible, perhaps an elegant envisioning of a federal gun solution can help galvanize the national conversation. If anything, the methodological challenges of this study could even be used to induce legislators to reconsider the Dickey Amendment, which effectively bans the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health from conducting research on gun violence.

Either way, the Lancet study is a powerful reminder that, sometimes, national problems have national solutions—and we can't wait for the next mass shooting to take them seriously.