Perception and reality
American gun violence can feel like an unsolvable problem, with every mass shooting, like last week’s killings in Maine, affirming that the situation is getting worse. But the U.S. has in fact made some progress over the past few decades, enacting policies that have saved lives.
That is the conclusion of a new study by Patrick Sharkey and Megan Kang at Princeton. Stricter gun laws passed by 40 states from 1991 to 2016 reduced gun deaths by nearly 4,300 in 2016, or about 10 percent of the nationwide total. States with stricter laws, such as background checks and waiting periods, consistently had fewer gun deaths, as this chart by my colleague Ashley Wu shows:
Source: Sharkey and Kang, Princeton University | Note: Gun death rates are averages from 2012 to 2016, and the gun regulation index is for 1991 to 2016. | By The New York Times
Sharkey told me that the results had surprised him. He has studied violent crime for years, and did not believe that stricter gun laws had a major effect in reducing it. His new takeaway: “The challenge of gun violence is not intractable, and in fact we have just lived through a period of enormous progress that was driven by public policy.”
The country’s progress on guns may surprise you, too. It certainly surprised me. It’s worth reflecting on why. If the data is clear, why haven’t we heard more about these outcomes? To my mind, the lack of attention shows the narrow view that many of us often take toward gun policy.
The smaller things
The national conversation about gun violence focuses on big federal policy ideas. Activists and pundits often speak about the need for a federal law enacting universal background checks or banning assault weapons. Anything short of action at the national level will fail to make the U.S. as safe as Canada, Europe or Japan, the argument goes.
It’s true that guns kill many more people in the U.S. than in other rich countries, and America will likely remain an outlier for the foreseeable future. But the study by Sharkey and Kang shows that changes at the state level can have an effect. Even policies that seem limited, like safety-training requirements or age restrictions, add up.
“There’s no single policy that is going to eliminate the flow or circulation of guns within and across states,” Sharkey said. “But the idea is these kinds of regulations accumulate.”
After all, America’s gun problem is rooted in easy access to firearms. In every country, people get into arguments, hold racist views or suffer from mental health issues. But when these problems turn violent, quick access to guns makes that violence much more likely to become lethal.
Anything that adds barriers to picking up a firearm in such moments reduces deaths, whether it’s incremental state policies or broader federal laws. The new study is one part of a broader line of research demonstrating that point.
Among the many new laws put in place since 1991: California required background checks on private gun sales in 1991, Massachusetts tightened child-access laws in 1998 and Virginia restricted gun ownership by people with mental illnesses in 2008.
Customers at Three Cousins Firearms, a gun shop in Lewiston, on Friday.Andrew Cullen for The New York Times
After 2016
There is a major caveat to the progress that Sharkey and Kang documented: It seems to have ended.
The new study cuts off in 2016 because later data was not available at the time of the research, Sharkey said. Since 2016, many states have loosened their gun laws, in some cases because Supreme Court rulings have forced them to do so. And firearms sales have surged, particularly during the Covid pandemic.
Congress did pass a narrow gun control law last year that extended background checks and funded anti-violence policies, and some states have continued tightening gun laws. On net, though, U.S. gun laws have become looser in the past seven years.
Gun deaths have increased over the same period, and mass shootings have become more common. These trends — a rise in deaths, looser laws and increased firearm purchases — are likely related, Sharkey said. He pointed out that the six states that had weakened their gun laws from 1991 to 2016 appeared to have experienced more gun deaths than other factors suggested they should have.
As more states have loosened their laws in recent years, they have set themselves up for more gun deaths. “If states take basic steps to regulate guns, it will save thousands and thousands of lives,” Sharkey said. The opposite is also true.

By Danniel

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