In the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque shootings last month, New Zealand’s parliament voted to tighten the country’s gun laws. Across the United States, however, many policymakers dispute the best approaches to preventing gun violence.
A group of researchers in the Boston University School of Public Health recently analyzed state gun laws to determine which were most effective in reducing homicide and suicide rates. They concluded that policymakers should focus on restricting who has access to guns rather than limiting the types of weapons available, according to Dr. Michael Siegel, who led the research.
Siegel, a professor of community health sciences in SPH, led a team to study the gun laws in all 50 states over the last 26 years. Their findings were published in late March in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.
Molly Pahn, an SPH alumna who now serves as a research manager for the school, said she was interested in joining the research team because she believes gun violence should be treated as a public health crisis.
“He told me that he wanted to make a complete database of all the gun laws in every state, which had not existed before. That way we could do the largest study to date,” Pahn said. “We needed to make this database in order to do concrete, measurable, effective research.”
Siegel explained in an interview that policymakers across the country take different approaches when dealing with gun laws, so the team wanted to conduct research that could better inform these decisions.
“What we were really trying to do here was to identify different policies that seem to have the greatest impact that really could be a priority for policymakers, given all the options that are out there,” Siegel said.
According to Siegel, this study was unique compared to past studies on state gun laws. While other researchers had studied the effects of one or two types of laws at a time, Siegel’s team analyzed 10 different types of laws over 26 years, he said.
“We wanted to use that same analysis model to look at a wider range of laws to see what laws seem to have the greatest impact on population rates of homicide and suicide,” he explained.
The team found that bans on assault weapons did not have an impact on the overall homicide rate, according to Siegel.
“If we can have stronger procedures to identify and disarm people who were convicted of violent crimes, then it appears we can have a major impact on homicide rates,” he said.
Siegel said he was most surprised by the degree of impact of some of the laws he studied. For laws that prohibit firearm possession from people who have previously committed a violent crime, there was an associated 18 percent reduction in homicide rates.
Pahn said she was surprised to find that universal background checks were associated with a 15 percent reduction in homicide rates, which amounts to about 2,250 people per year.
“I think if we could just save one life by passing a law, it would be worth it, but we could save thousands of lives each year, and that’s just with one policy provision,” Pahn said. “If the country could just come together and pass this one common sense law that we’ve now proven works, then maybe we could just save more lives.”
Specific markers for violence can be identified and used to prevent people from possessing firearms, according Siegel. He explained people who have a history of violence pose the highest risk of committing future acts of violence, particularly in domestic settings.
“If men or women who commit domestic violence were prevented from getting firearms, that would save a lot of lives,” Pahn explained. “I think passing universal background checks for every gun sale, including private sales, is necessary.”
Siegel also acknowledged there are disparities in homicide statistics based on race, so he would be interested in looking at the impact of these laws on black versus white homicide rates to see if there are different effects on different racial subgroups.
With high profile shootings of black men, such as Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, making national headlines years ago, Pahn said she was disappointed there was previously such little research done on the topic of gun violence.
She said she hopes that moving forward the team’s work can open doors for future studies and provide researchers and policymakers with better understandings of which laws effectively reduce gun violence.
Ivy Fan, a freshman in the Questrom School of Business, agreed that tighter gun control laws are essential.
“Words and prayers will not breathe life back into the dead,” Fan said. “They can’t come back, so prevent them from leaving in the first place.”