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.

  • Elwood
  • JohnW

    Here’s the LA Times 1990 story on the shooting. Mr. Kemp definitely picked on the wrong lady. He had a strap around her neck and was dragging her by the neck when she somehow managed to get her gun and shoot him. Impressive Cold Case work.


  • Bruce R. Peterson, Lafayette

    Handguns are the most effective way to commit suicide. So if there are no handguns, suicidal people try bridges, knives, pills, cars or trains. This study, A.K.A. propaganda piece, lumped suicides & homicides together.

  • Auntie BS

    This is a lie. Look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gun_violence_in_the_United_States_by_state and you will see one of the highest gun crime rates in Washington D.C– where gun laws are the strictest, and Idaho, which has lax gun laws, being among the lowest. Similarly, California, New York, and Illinois– states with strict gun laws, are similar to Arizona, Texas, and Wyoming– states with fewer gun laws.

    I have analyzed this extensively and have found almost no correlation between the gun laws and gun crime, clearly indicating that other factors dominate. Consider the demographics of drug gangs, for example, who commit something like 70% of the shootings. Could THAT be the dominant factor?

    I find it amazing that an organization like the AMA would stoop so low as to hand-pick data to make these wild claims!

  • JohnW

    I’m in favor of constitutional gun control, but this particular study didn’t impress me. If you look at states with low rates of gun deaths, some of them have tough gun control laws and others don’t. I suspect Hawaii’s low rate has as much or more to do with cultural and socio-economic factors as with gun laws. Also, some states have moderate rates of gun homicides but higher than average rates of gun suicides. As noted in @3, those are separate issues; just as events like Newtown are a different issue than street violence in Oakland.

    I’m more impressed by a study reported by USA Today earlier this week that shows that gun violence costs $12 billion per year in uncompensated medical bills, law enforcement and court court costs and other related costs. None of these costs are borne by those who profit from the manufacture and sale of firearms. In fact, the more episodes of gun violence, the more their sales grow. It’s a classic case of externalized costs that, if they were internalized, would result in different behavior by the manufacturers and sellers. They would suddenly be all in favor of universal background checks and giving law enforcement the tools to shut down gun trafficking networks.

  • StevefromSacto

    The reason that strict gun control laws in places like DC and California are not working is because anyone can easily access weapons by going to another jurisdiction or state to purchase them.

    For a fairer analysis, let’s put California’s law into effect in all states and see how quickly crime drops over time.

  • Elwood

    This looks to me like one of those studies where the desired result is known before the study is done.

    When reading this and similar studies one should always remember:

    Correlation does not equal causation.

  • Publius

    RE #5:

    “None of these costs are borne by those who profit from the manufacture and sale of firearms.”

    Last time I checked gun makers and their employees pay taxes.

    Following your mode of thinking, the producers of box cutters, fertilizer, lousiville sluggers, Ginsu knives, hammers and rope should bare the costs of crimes committed with their products. This wrong headed approach would set a bad precedent.

    The main conclusion of this weak study is that they need more money to study the problem, and our ever spending government will give it to them.

  • Max Allstadt

    We already know that red states tend to have higher poverty & divorce rates and lower average education than blue states.

    It’s pretty reasonable to expect stronger gun laws in blue states.

    But if we’re looking for causality here, the murder rates seem a lot more likely to be linked to poverty than gun laws. Look at the Bay Area: Oakland has a high poverty rate, high murder rate. Walnut creek has a low poverty rate, low murder rate. Both cities have the same gun laws.

    It’s the poverty. It’s always been the poverty. Look at murder rates in Appalachia. Poverty.

  • Elwood

    @ Max #9

    Try to remember that correlation does not equal causation.

  • JohnW

    @9 Max Allstadt

    Murder rates in Appalachia?

    Haven’t heard about that before. Not doubting. Just asking.

    No wonder former SC gov Sanford decided not to hike the Appalachian Trail and went to Argentina instead.

  • Bruce R. Peterson, Lafayette

    #9 has a good point. Worldwide homicide rates are the highest in non Muslim Africa & Latin America. The weapons of choice were not disclosed in the chart I saw. In the countries where many people carry AK47’s and daggers, the homicide rates are not very high.
    I wonder what would happen to handgun suicide numbers, if assisted suicide was decriminalized? I saw a young man who failed at suicide. Not a pretty sight.
    Why don’t these A.M.A. people, study the desire people have to use drugs and/or commit suicide?

  • Max Allstadt

    Here is a well considered, data-analysis based rebuttal of the study Josh Richman writes about above:


    People want the solution to be simple and obvious. People who own and enjoy using firearms want firearms to be the solution. People who dislike guns want bans to be the solution. Think deeper. It will never be that simple.

  • Bruce R. Peterson, Lafayette

    @13. Good points Max. Good points never make the corrupt mainstream media,or the Supermarket Tabloids. They are just stuck at the bottom of 3 day old blogs.

  • JohnW


    The link does a good job of noting flaws in the JAMA statistical analysis, especially regarding the distinction between gun suicides and homicides.

    I would guess that areas with tighter gun laws and lower gun suicide rates also have lower rates of gun ownership. People contemplating suicide who don’t already own a gun are more likely to choose another method of suicide rather than go to the trouble of obtaining a firearm.

    It’s also no surprise that states like Utah and North Dakota with lax gun laws also have low gun homicide rates. In contrast to Louisiana, for example, they have lower violent crime rates in general.

    Hawaii is probably the best example of a state where there may actually be a cause/effect relationship between tighter gun laws and lower gun homicide rates. A gun trafficker can’t load a bunch of guns into a car trunk and drive across the border into Hawaii.

  • RR senile columnist

    Violence occurs in societies where nobody cares about anybody but themselves. This isn’t selfishness, it’s a breakdown in standards of behaviour.

  • Elwood

    @ RR #16

    Oakland comes to mind.

  • JohnW

    @ 16 & 17

    By the measure defined in #16, the societies of Ireland, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, UK, France and Canada apparently care more about others than the U.S. society, by a factor of at least 3x. Must be the socialized medicine.


    Interesting story in the Wall Street Journal Weekend Edition about suicides at a shooting range in Royal Oak, Michigan. I guess if you don’t have an iconic bridge nearby, you just go to your friendly shooting range, rent a gun and make yourself the target. Who needs physician-assisted suicide? You don’t even have to leave a mess at the house for your family to clean up.

    Cause of U.S. Firearms deaths in 2011:

    Suicide: 19,766
    Murder/assault: 15,593
    Accident: 851
    Unknown 222

    Gun homicides since Newtown: 2,500 and counting

    American exceptionalism!

  • Elwood

    Study Shows Reverse Evolution Possible


    Consider, for example, Oakland. Or Richmond. Or Antioch.

  • Bruce R. Peterson, Lafayette

    I hear Heroin is the best way to commit suicide. Some people who are saved from their overdose, complain about being saved. The problem is: Heroin is illegal & the average suicidal person doesn’t know how to obtain or use it. So they blow their brains out with a handgun & leave a mess. If they live or die, it’s not pretty. Waving a gun or knife around with police present, is another way to commit suicide.

  • JamesR123

    What nonsense. What laws? Pass a law that mandates life in prison for the felonious use of a firearm in the commission of a crime. Pass another law that restricts certain cosmetic features on a rifle. Which law reduces violence. The law targeting the criminal or the gun?

  • JohnW

    My conclusion from the Hawaii/Louisiana comparison is that if people in Louisiana got leied more often, there would be fewer injuries from firearms.

    Note to JamesR123. We already have gun enhancement laws for felonies committed with guns. Mandatory life may be a fine idea, but it wouldn’t do a damned thing about people who go mental with guns, or who commit crimes of passion or about gang culture shootings.

  • JohnW

    I imagine about now that the people who didn’t bother to show up to vote in the successful special election in Colorado to recall 3 legislators who voted for gun laws wish they had a do-over.