A law requiring people to apply for a permit before buying a handgun helped Connecticut quietly reduce its firearm-related homicide rate by 40 percent, according to a new study from the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.
Connecticut’s “permit to purchase” law, in effect for two decades, requires residents to undergo background checks, complete a safety course and apply in-person for a permit before they can buy a handgun. The law applies to both private sellers and licensed gun dealers.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins reviewed the homicide rate in the 10 years before the law was implemented and compared it to longitudinal estimates of what the rate would have been had the law not be enacted. The study found a 40 percent reduction in gun-related homicides after the implementation of the law. During that same time period, there was not a similar drop in non-firearm homicides, confirming the link between the permit law and the drop in gun homicides.
“Permit-to-purchase laws, which require prospective handgun purchasers to first obtain a license from the police after passing a comprehensive background check, appear to reduce the availability of handguns to criminals and other people who are not legally permitted to buy guns,” said study author Dr. Daniel Webster, ScD, MPH, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. “Licensing handgun purchasers is a particularly effective way to achieve comprehensive background checks and keep people from buying guns for people who are not legally allowed to own them.”
While the gun lobby has tried its best to downplay the significance of these findings, the evidence from this study is particularly strong because of the methodology employed by Dr. Webster’s team. The longitudinal nature of the study is one important characteristic that bolsters the strength of the evidence — with a longer period of observation, we can be more confident in the reliability and validity of the findings. The study was also designed as a naturalistic experiment, allowing the researchers to make within- and between-group comparisons, and creating a natural control group (the population before the law was implemented). Outside of an artificial laboratory setting, naturalistic experiments such as this one are considered among the most rigorous study designs and yield some of the strongest evidence available.
Further bolstering the evidence, earlier research by Dr. Webster’s team found that the 2007 repeal of Missouri’s handgun license law led to a 25 percent increase in firearm homicide rates. “Taken together,” said Dr. Webster, “these studies provide compelling evidence that permit to purchase licensing systems is one of the most effective policies we have to reduce gun violence.”
Connecticut lawmakers are hoping similar programs will take off across the country, and last week, in conjunction with the study’s release, they proposed new federal legislation to encourage just that. The “Handgun Purchaser Licensing Act,” introduced Thursday by members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation, would authorize a grant program to help states pay for the creation and implementation of licensing programs similar to what the state has in place, cracking down on loopholes that allow many gun sales to go unregulated.
“The evidence is clear: sensible handgun laws save lives,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D), one of the bill’s co-sponsors. “By encouraging states to adopt responsible handgun mandates, this measure makes life harder for dangerous criminals and safer for law-abiding gun owners and responsible gun dealers. All states require licenses to drive a car or hunt or fish – so why not handguns, which can kill?”
Like most of the gun safety proposals that have gone to Congress, licensing requirements are popular among the majority of Americans — including the ones who own guns. According to public polling data from Johns Hopkins, 72 percent of Americans and 59 percent of gun owners support laws requiring people to get licenses before they can buy a handgun. Similarly, a recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 85 percent of Americans support expanding background check and purchasing requirements for gun sales — a sentiment that crosses political and ideological lines, with 79 percent of Republicans, 88 percent of Democrats, and 82 percent of those who say they prioritize gun rights over gun regulations expressing support for policies to expand background check requirements and close loopholes that allow gun sales without background checks.
But like most other gun safety measures with widespread public support, the gun lobby vehemently opposes licensing laws, apparently unmoved by the evidence that they improve public safety and save lives. With the National Rifle Association already railing against the newly-introduced measure, its fate in Congress is unclear. As the Baltimore Sun noted, the new legislation “amounts to a small step…but even that is likely too much for a National Rifle Association-influenced Congress, no matter how effective licensing might be.”
In related news, a study released this week by the Violence Policy Center found that, despite what the gun lobby would have you believe, firearms are very rarely used in self-defense. Using data from the FBI and the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, researchers found that for every justifiable homicide involving a gun, 32 criminal homicides were carried out with a firearm. Taking into account the tens of thousands of gun-related suicides and unintentional shootings, that ratio shifts to a staggering one justifiable firearm homicide for every 100-120 criminal homicides, suicides, or accidental deaths at the hands of a gun. Even in non-fatal encounters, civilians rarely use guns to protect themselves. Over a five-year period, “intended victims of property crimes engaged in self-protective behavior with a firearm” only 0.1 percent of the times they were targeted by a crook, the researchers found.