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Study: More state gun laws, fewer gun deaths

Having a higher number of firearm laws in a state may be associated with a lower rate of firearm fatalities from suicides and homicides, according to a new study.

The study across all 50 states is published online by JAMA Internal Medicine, a publication of the Journal of the American Medical Association. More than 30,000 people die each year in the United States from injuries caused by firearms, and this study comes even as Congress and state legislatures consider a new slew of gun-control and gun-rights measures.

Dr. Eric Fleegler of Boston Children’s Hospital and colleagues analyzed firearm-related deaths reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention using the Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System from 2007 through 2010. They also examined state-level firearm legislation across five categories of laws to create a “legislative strength score.” The authors then used statistical analysis to measure the association of that score with mortality rates.

“In an analysis of all states using data from 2007 through 2010, we found that a higher number of firearm laws in a state was associated with a lower rate of firearm fatalities in the state,” the authors said in a news release. “It is important to note that our study was ecological and cross-sectional and could not determine cause-and-effect relationship.”

Over the four-year period of the study, the authors note there were 121,084 firearm fatalities and the average state-based firearm fatality rates varied from a high of 17.9 (Louisiana) to a low of 2.9 (Hawaii) per 100,000 individuals per year. Annual firearm legislative strength scores ranged from 0 (Utah) to 24 (Massachusetts) of 28 possible points, according to the results.

“We found an association between the legislative strength of a state’s firearm laws – as measured by a higher number of laws – and a lower rate of firearm fatalities. The association was significant for firearm fatalities overall and for firearm suicide and firearm homicide deaths, individually,” the study concludes. “As our study could not determine a cause-and-effect relationship, further studies are necessary to define the nature of this association.”

In a related commentary, Dr. Garen Wintemute, a renowned gun-violence research at the University of California, Davis, said this would be an important finding “if it were robust and if its meaning were clear. … Ecological studies of association are inherently weak, however; correlation does not imply causation.”

In the end, he wrote, these researchers “provide no firm guidance. Do the laws work, or not? If so, which ones? Should policymakers enact the entire package? Some part? Which part?”

“To prevent firearm violence, our research efforts must be substantial and sustained. Physician engagement in developing that effort is particularly important. Some projects must have direct relevance to policy-based and other potential interventions. Others need to deepen our basic understanding of the problem,” Wintemute wrote, adding we need better data and direct evaluation of specific laws’ impacts. “Until we revitalize firearm violence research, studies using available data will be the best we have. They are not good enough.”

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.