Evidence That Gun Control Works?

A new study on the effects of Missouri’s 2007 decision to repeal its background check requirement for gun purchases has found that it led to an increase in gun homicides:

“Coincident exactly with the policy change, there was an immediate upward trajectory to the homicide rates in Missouri,” the study’s lead author Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, told the BBC. “That upward trajectory did not happen with homicides that did not involve guns; it did not occur to any neighboring state; the national trend was doing the opposite – it was trending downward; and it was not specific to one or two localities – it was, for the most part, state-wide.”

The analysis of data compiled from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting system controlled for changes in policing, incarceration, burglaries, unemployment, poverty, and other state laws adopted during the study period that could affect violent crime. “This study provides compelling confirmation that weaknesses in firearm laws lead to deaths from gun violence,” said Webster in a release.

The research is not conclusive, but scholars expect it to bolster pro-gun control arguments:

Since this is only a single study, “it’s just suggestive,” warned David Hemenway of Harvard’s School of Public Health. It is “another piece of evidence that is consistent with the bulk of the literature, which shows where there are fewer guns, there are fewer problems… But you want eight more studies that say background checks really matter.”

And the study isn’t perfect:

Missouri also enacted a “stand your ground” law in 2007, creating some challenges in disentangling the effects. But [Duke University gun expert Philip] Cook said he is confident that background checks played a major role because the authors tracked an increase in guns that went directly from dealers to criminals—exactly the scenario background checks are designed to prevent. The study also notes an uptick in guns “purchased in Missouri that were subsequently recovered by police in border states that retained their [permit-to-purchase] laws.”

Gun rights advocate John Lott pushes back:

You can’t do a study like this on one state over time. There are 17 states with “universal background checks” … You can’t just pick one state. Let me give you an example. You flip a coin 20 times — ten heads and ten tails. If you specifically picked just five heads from the sample, could you conclude that the coin was biased? Presumably not. There is research on these universal background checks across all the states. Indeed, the third edition of More Guns, Less Crime provided one study on this, and, the Webster study, it show no benefit in terms of murder rates from these laws. The question the media should ask is: why pick one state when there are so many states with this law? …

The other question is why the paper only examines murder rates and not any other type of violent crime. Again, the answer is clear: none of the other violent crime rates, including robbery, showed the change that Webster desired.