More gun laws equals less gun deaths, maybe

New study finds gun deaths may be significantly reduced by stricter gun control laws, but what is needed is more research

Glock with lock Wikimedia Commons

Glock with lock Wikimedia Commons

 From my column at Communities @ Washington Times

This piece got over 50 comments when it was first published on the Times website.  No matter what your position is, some people’s comments show that we can actually have an intelligent discussion about this- sometimes.  Check out the comments here.

WASHINGTON DC, March 07, 2013 – Every year in the U.S. there are over 30,000 firearm-related deaths.  According to a study published Wednesday in the medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine, U.S. states with stricter gun control laws have 42% less gun deaths per year. 

As with every other debate on gun control, there are passionate opinions on both sides, and while many are praising the study, several others are also discrediting it.  Whatever the position, however, it is clear that objective research in this area is lacking and sorely needed.

The objective of the study was to evaluate whether more restrictive gun laws resulted in fewer gun fatalities between 2007 and 2010, during which there were 121,084 firearm deaths reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The study ranked all 50 states by the strength of their gun control laws, giving each state an annual “legislative strength score” ranging from 0 (Utah) to 24 (Massachusetts) out of a possible 28.  The higher the score, the more restrictive the gun laws in that state.  Then, researchers divided states into quartiles depending on score; the highest quartile (11 states) consisted of states with a score of nine or more, and the lowest quartile (14 states) was made up of states with a score of two or less.

Researchers then calculated average firearm fatality rates per 100,000 individuals per year for each state.  Firearm fatality rates ranged from a low of 2.9 (Hawaii) deaths per 100,000 individuals to a high of 17.9 (Louisiana).

The study found that there was a lower overall, homicide, and suicide firearm fatality rate in states in the highest quartile, with strong gun control laws (score of nine or more), compared to the states in the lowest group with little to no gun control (score of two or less).  There was an overall rate difference of 6.64 deaths per 100,000 people per year between states in the highest and lowest groups (6.25 for suicide and .4 for homicide).

Not everyone agrees

Dr. Eric W. Fleegler, one of the study’s authors and researcher and ER pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, admits that the study does not prove that gun laws lead to fewer deaths, but instead only shows an association between the two.

Many take issue with the way the study was designed. Dr. Garen Wintemute, gun violence expert, emergency physician, and director of the Violence Prevention Program at UC Davis, is one of the critics.  Dr. Wintemute argues that the study only proved correlation between fewer gun deaths and more restrictive gun control laws, but it did not prove that stricter laws resulted in less gun deaths.

Dr. Wintemute also argued that it is too difficult to create a rating system for the legislative strength of gun control laws that takes into account differences among similar state laws, how strictly states enforce their gun control laws, and the prevalence of gun ownership in each state, none of which were accounted for in this study.

Dr. Wintemute does not, however, criticize the study and its authors.  Wintemute argues that the study was done with what little research was available on this topic.  He states that this kind of study needs to be performed correctly, with current and in-depth research that can only be taken on by the U.S. government.

According to Wintemute, gun violence should be thought of as a large-scale health crisis, and as a health crisis, it should be addressed with research to determine how we can prevent future gun-related deaths.  However, no such information exists, “we effectively stopped doing research on this problem 15 years ago,” says Dr. Wintemute in a recent interview.

But (hopefully) we can agree on one thing…

As a society, we are not going to come to an agreement about gun control any time soon.  However, it is pretty safe to say that we all agree that gun violence in the U.S. is getting out of hand.

When young people think that walking into a crowded theater, political rally, or elementary school and shooting at innocent people at random is even an option, we can all agree that we have a problem.  No one can believe the tragedies of the past two years are in any way acceptable, and we can all agree that we want to find a solution.

Whether the solution is more or less guns, or more or less gun control, shouldn’t our government and our society invest our resources into research that can help us answer that question?

For those who are curious, states in the top group for “legislative strength” were: Massachusetts, California, New Jersey and Connecticut, New York, Hawaii, Maryland, Rhode Island, Illinois, Michigan and Delaware. State in the low group were Utah, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Kentucky, Alaska, Idaho, Arizona, West Virginia, South Dakota, New Mexico, North Dakota, Missouri, Kansas and Arkansas.  For the full study click here.  For a video of Dr. Wintemute, click here.

Read more of my column at Communities @ Washington Times