The United States got into gun control big time when we passed the National Firearms Act (NFA) in 1934. This law, still on the books, created a category of small arms that were considered too dangerous for everyday purchase or use – machine guns, sawed-off shotguns, etc. – and required people who wanted to own such guns to undergo a very lengthy and expensive background check process known today as Class III.
Many industrialized countries passed gun-control laws just before or after World War II, many copied our NFA with one, major exception; namely, countries like Germany, France, Italy, Austria and others put handguns on the restricted list. This is the reason we have gun violence and those countries don’t – it’s because Americans have easy access to handguns. And even though we still don’t know exactly how guns move from the legal to the illegal market and then get used in violent crime, what we do know is that, one way or another, it happens again and again where handguns are concerned.
Most states allow residents to buy a handgun following the standard, FBI-NICS background check. But some jurisdictions respond to handgun criminality by instituting a system known as permit-to-purchase (PTP.) There are currently 9 states which, in addition to the NICS process, also do a pre-purchase background check at the state level, thus making the vetting for handgun purchases more detailed. Our friends at the Hopkins gun-research group recently published a study comparing gun-homicide rates between states with and without PTP, and it turns out that states which impose PTP on handgun purchases suffer a much lower rate of gun homicides than states which don’t require PTP.
Notwithstanding the difference in gun-violence rates between states with a PTP process as opposed to states without, how can we be sure that a change in a specific legal process and a change in a specific type of behavior governed by that legal process is based on some degree of causality rather than just coincidence between two trends? To eliminate or at least discount other explanatory factors, the Hopkins researchers create regression models using poverty, unemployment, incarceration and other data usually associated with criminal events, as well as controlling for non-firearm homicide rates. Finally, and here is a major step forward in this type of research, the Hopkins group looked specifically at large, urban jurisdictions rather than state-level trends because most gun violence occurs within heavily-populated, urban zones.
Using what has become a standard list of characteristics associated with violence allows the Hopkins findings to be compared with other studies which utilizing similar demographic and criminal controls. But I wonder whether gun-violence researchers should perhaps widen the list of characteristics used to define these controls. For example, in Kansas City, reported gun thefts jumped 50 percent from 2015 to 2017 – from 588 guns reported stolen to 886. During the same period, gun homicides nearly doubled as well.
How do we know that the increase in Missouri gun homicide after 2007 wasn’t more related to an increase in the availability of stolen guns than in the ability of purchasers to buy a handgun without undergoing a PTP check? We can hypothesize all we want that by removing the PTP process from private handgun sales (which is what the 2007 change in the Missouri law was all about) that more guns moved from legal to illegal hands. As a matter of fact, it probably does mean something along those lines, but unless we know the provenance of all or at least some of those stolen guns, why should we assume that a change in the PTP law is what led to an increase in homicides tied to guns?
Homicide remains the most aberrant and inexplicable form of human behavior, made even more aberrant and inexplicable with the presence of a gun. I would like to believe that we can control this behavior with some rational and practical legal strategies, but do the studies tying gun violence rates to the absence or presence of certain gun laws prove this to be true?