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Federal gun control laws could reduce deaths up to 90 percent, study says

New research on gun-related deaths across the United States finds that just three laws, relating to background checks and firearm identification, implemented federally could have an enormous impact on the number of gun-related deaths.

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By implementing certain gun control laws nationwide, the number of gun-related deaths could be cut by as much as 90 percent, according to a new study.

The research, published Thursday in The Lancet, considered 25 different gun laws across all 50 states during 2009, and compared them with data on gun deaths compiled by US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“We wanted to investigate what several studies have already indicated: restrictive gun laws can reduce gun deaths,” says lead author Bindu Kalesan from Boston University, in a telephone interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

“Then we wanted to investigate what might happen if we could implement one or two laws federally. Is there one that would work across all states?”

There is one important federal law already in existence, relating to this area – the Brady law – which requires background checks for gun purchases from federally-licensed dealers.

But outside of those parameters, state laws vary wildly, as do the rates of gun deaths and gun ownership.

“Gun control laws are only as good as the weakest link in the national chain,” says James Alan Fox, Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern University, in a telephone interview with the Monitor.

“Massachusetts has strong ones, for example, New Hampshire weaker ones, so there’s nothing to stop guns crossing the border. As we know, guns recorded in crimes in states like Massachusetts often originate out of state.”

What the study found was, of the 25 laws under consideration, nine were effective at reducing gun deaths, and the rest were either ineffective or inconclusive. “Stand your ground” laws, in particular, were associated with a seven percent increase in gun deaths.

On the other hand, three laws stood out for their ability to reduce gun-related deaths: background checks for purchasing guns, background checks for purchasing ammunition, and firearm identification.

Using predictive models, the researchers then looked at what effect federal implementation of each of these laws, or all of them together, might have on gun deaths nationally. They found that any one of them would result in a marked decrease of such incidents.

“We are not claiming that these reductions would occur overnight, or even within a year,” says co-author Jeffrey Fagan of Columbia University, in an email interview with the Monitor. “But after a longer period of sustained and intensive efforts to implement the three measures we cite, we would begin to see significant reductions in gun deaths in places that take implementation seriously.”

While many observers agree the study marks an important first step in providing solid scientific data, there is some skepticism about the depth of its claims.

In a Comment piece attached to the report in The Lancet, David Hemenway of Harvard School of Public Health laments that while the researchers did try to control for some variables, “many other important factors were not controlled for (e.g. poverty, alcohol consumption, urbanicity, and mental health).”

Dr. Fox of Northeastern concurs, saying that while unemployment is an important variable to control for (which the study did), so is the percentage of the population belonging to minorities (which it did not).

The claim that these laws could reduce gun deaths by as much as 90 percent also procures disbelief from both commentators, with Fox calling it “overambitious” and stretching his “thought of credibility”.

“Look at countries with very strict gun laws and low homicide rates, such as Australia,” says Fox, “and if we reduce our gun deaths by 90 percent, we might even get lower than them, and that’s not realistic because there are other reasons for our high homicide rates, aside from guns.”

He cites several, including: the United States is not a homogenous society, but rather a melting pot that occasionally boils over; there is a large economic underclass; there is a weak net to catch those who are struggling; gang culture.

Yet he also says the study is a good start, and its most important conclusion is that what is needed is federal law.

“The study has the power both to start conversations about the design of laws, and also to set a research agenda,” explains co-author Dr. Fagan. “Our research is only a narrow slice of time, more research on the effects of gun laws over longer periods of time is critical to identifying the range of effects.”

What this research shows, according to lead author Dr. Kalesan, is that President Obama was right, when he “tried really hard but failed to implement comprehensive background checks”.

Moreover, a Pew Research Center survey in July 2015 found enormous bipartisan public support for the implementation of background checks, with an average of 85 percent in favor.

“This is a first definitive step towards providing sound policies,” says Kalesan. “We need to inform the public: nobody’s trying to take the guns away, but just introducing background checks could help reduce injuries and deaths across the country.”

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