A US study suggests strong gun control regulations reduce a state’s firearm deaths, but having neighbors with more lenient laws undermines their effect.

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New research suggests that one state’s lax gun laws could undo the effects of its neighbor’s stricter firearm regulations.

In 2017, 39,773 people died from gun-related injuries in the United States, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

Overall, research indicates that stronger state laws governing the sale and ownership of firearms reduce firearm-related deaths. However, some states have relatively high rates of gun deaths despite strict regulations.

To investigate why this might be the case, scientists at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and the Boston University School of Public Health at Boston, MA, looked into the effects of firearm laws in neighboring states.

They used the Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System to obtain figures for firearm-related deaths in the 48 adjacent U.S. states from 2000 to 2017.

There were 578,022 firearm deaths in total, including homicides and suicides, but excluding deaths due to shootings by police or other law enforcement agents.

The scientists also searched the State Firearm Laws Database for laws in each state regarding:

  • background checks
  • gun dealer regulations
  • buyer regulations
  • gun-trafficking laws

The team used the number of these laws as a proxy for gun control strength in each state.

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Overall, stronger state gun laws were associated with reduced firearm deaths, but having a neighboring state with more permissive laws undermined this protective effect.

Larger policy differences across state borders were associated with increased gun-related deaths, suicides, and homicides, though the results were statistically stronger for suicide than homicide.

The authors conclude:

“This study adds to the growing literature emphasizing the role played by neighboring states’ firearm regulations in addition to own-state firearm regulations in firearm deaths. Failing to account for neighboring states with weaker laws, in some instances, can make a state’s own regulations appear less effective in reducing firearm deaths.”

The scientists calculate that, on average, failure to account for weaker firearm laws in neighboring states make it appear as though a state’s laws were about 20% less effective at reducing deaths than they really were.

They report their findings in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

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The researchers write that higher prices and strong marketing regulations can lead consumers to purchase firearms in adjacent, relatively unregulated markets. They say these are a frequent source of the guns used in crimes.

They believe their work supports the case for more cooperative legislation between neighboring states and at the federal level.

“I think the main message of this study is that to solve a nationwide problem we need to think of a nationwide or at least a regional-level (i.e. multistate) approach, like we may also need for the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Dr. Ye Liu, who is a doctoral student in the Department of Health Care Organization and Policy at the University of Alabama and the first author of the study.

“An ‘each state on its own’ approach is ultimately inadequate to address one of the biggest public health challenges in this country,” Dr. Liu adds.

The authors acknowledge the number of gun-control laws may not perfectly reflect the strictness of a state’s regulations. In addition, they note states may vary in how diligently they enforce these laws.

They call for further studies that might use alternative measures of regulatory strength, focus on specific categories of law, or explore the effects of regulations in more distant states.

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