After 31 people were killed in mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, over the weekend, bipartisan legislation for universal background checks is gaining traction in the US Senate.
Now, a new School of Public Health study finds that laws restricting who can have a gun are most effective in reducing firearm homicides, but that different laws are more effective in urban and in suburban/rural areas.
The study, published in the Journal of Rural Health, is the first to show how gun laws affect urban and suburban/rural areas differently. The researchers found that universal background checks came with a 13-percent reduction in urban firearm homicide rates, while laws that disqualify people with violent misdemeanor convictions from purchasing firearms came with 30-percent lower rates in rural areas. Requiring permits to buy and carry guns was associated with 21-percent lower firearm homicide rates in cities and 20-percent lower rates in suburban and rural areas.
“Taken together and viewed in light of previous research, these findings suggest that a set of laws designed to keep firearms out of the hands of people who are at high risk for violence (especially those with a history of violence) could be effective at substantially reducing overall population rates of firearm homicide,” says study lead author Michael Siegel, professor of community health sciences.
Siegel and his colleagues recently found that state laws restricting who can buy a gun—such as universal background checks and violent misdemeanor laws—are more effective than bans on certain kinds of guns.
For the new study, the researchers looked at six such laws: universal background checks for all guns at point‐of‐sale; requiring permits to purchase or possess any firearm; bans on firearm possession by people convicted of a violent misdemeanor (federal law only prohibits gun possession by people convicted of a felony crime); stringent “may issue” laws that require a concealed carry permit applicant to show why they need to carry a concealed firearm; “stand your ground” laws; and bans on gun trafficking.
The researchers looked at the associations between these different laws and firearm homicide rates in 48 states from 1991 to 2016, and compared large cities (those with more than 100,000 people in 1990) and all geographic areas outside of those cities. To track which states had which laws when, they used the State Firearm Law Database, a public access database created by the SPH research team. They used FBI data on police department homicide reports to track firearm homicide rates, and data from the US Census to classify urban areas and to control for demographic factors in their analysis. The researchers also controlled for other factors, including property crime rates, per capita number of law enforcement officers, alcohol consumption, and socioeconomic factors.
They found an association between two laws—universal background checks and “may issue” laws—and lower firearm homicide rates in large cities, but no association for suburban and rural areas. Violent misdemeanor laws were associated with lower rates in suburban and rural areas, but not urban areas. Permit requirements came with lower firearm rates in both urban and suburban/rural areas, while “stand your ground” laws and gun trafficking bans were not significantly associated with firearm homicide rates.
The findings will hopefully inform the Senate’s consideration of gun violence prevention legislation, Siegel says. “It is important for policy makers to consider the impact of legislation on all populations, and this seems to hold for gun violence prevention as well.”
The study was co-authored by Emily Rothman, professor of community health sciences; and Ziming Xuan, associate professor of community health sciences. The other co-authors were: Benjamin Solomon, research assistant in the department of community health sciences; Anita Knopov, who was a predoctoral associate in community health sciences while working on the study; Shea Cronin of the BU Metropolitan College; and David Hemenway of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.