Daneil Webster, a director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research and Professor of Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health wrote this blog post for CNN.
Many Americans have a built in bias when they’re considering the potential for gun laws to reduce violence. After all, our TV screens are regularly filled with stories about gun violence – a gang member suspected in a triple shooting in South Chicago, an estranged husband murders a woman and then commits suicide, a shooting at local night club, scores dead and injured after a gunman opens fire in a crowded movie theater.
So it might seem logical that with so many dangerous people apparently determined to kill, and so many guns already in circulation and available to those individuals, that efforts to prevent killings through gun laws are futile. It’s an idea encouraged by the rhetoric of the National Rifle Association and others who argue that criminals, by definition, won’t obey gun laws.
But our perceptions of reality can be distorted by the things that we don’t see every day – what the media does not or cannot report. For example, aside from the FBI’s records of the number of individuals who don’t pass background checks when attempting to purchase a firearm, we simply cannot know how many people don’t even try to buy a gun because they are disqualified from possessing guns.
That’s where a closer look at some of the data that isn’t widely publicized is crucial – and one state in particular offers some of the clearest evidence yet that gun laws can, in fact, make a difference.
But first, some important background. A study of Chicago’s underground market, led by Duke University economist Philip Cook, revealed that the vast majority of criminals did not have guns, and that those considering acquiring guns often had considerable difficulty linking up with suppliers – not because there weren’t enough guns in circulation, but because they had trouble finding trusted suppliers.
This matters to potential buyers because a seller you don’t trust could be sticking you with a gun that, through standard ballistics tests, has been linked to prior shootings. Or someone “on the street” could be setting you up to be robbed and killed, or they could be an undercover cop. Such findings were consistent with what I learned when my study team interviewed incarcerated young people in Maryland.
And this goes to the crux of the challenge in assessing the effectiveness of gun laws – because there is no reliable way to identify specific homicides prevented by gun sales regulations, the only thing we can do is look at rigorous studies of how homicide rates do or don’t change in response to changes in gun laws to estimate a policy’s effects on homicides. Such studies do exist – and there important lessons that we could be drawing.
Look at Missouri. Handgun purchaser licensing allowed the state (and several others) to close a gaping hole in federal gun laws by extending background check requirements to handguns sold by those not licensed to be gun dealers. And as the only state to change its policy on handgun purchaser licensing in recent years, Missouri offers a valuable opportunity to study the impact of loosening gun restrictions.