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Measuring the effectiveness of gun laws


For those who believe the country needs more restrictions on access to guns, the week brought progress and setbacks. On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a New York state law that imposed certain requirements for carrying concealed weapons. On Friday, Congress ended decades of legislative inaction when it passed a narrow gun control bill that, among other things, will expand background checks and provide funding for mental health initiatives. President Biden signed that bill into law today.

But that invites the question of whether those measures will have an effect on gun violence and when we might see it. We called Jeffrey Fagan to answer that question. He is a law professor at Columbia University School of Law, and he has studied whether and how specific types of gun control legislation affect the level of gun violence in areas where they are enforced. And he's with us now. Professor Jeffrey Fagan, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

JEFFREY FAGAN: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: You co-authored a study in 2016 which was published in the medical journal The Lancet that assessed the efficacy of firearms laws. I want to get your expertise in having done that work, so let's start with the enhanced background checks for buyers under 21. In your research, how effective are background check laws?

FAGAN: Well, we found that, compared to most other gun control measures, that was the one that had the most promise for significant, substantial reductions in firearm violence.

MARTIN: Why is that? Did your research indicate why that is as well as that it is?

FAGAN: Background checks are what stands between an individual and their ability to purchase a firearm, under most state laws that have background checks. They have to show their fitness for it by not having a criminal record, not having mental health problems that have been documented, not having a history of violence. So that creates a filter on who's able to get access to a firearm, who's able to purchase a firearm. And those are very important filters because people need to be responsible gun owners. If they're not, they should be denied access to the firearm. So the background check is probably the strongest measure to determine who's fit and who's unfit and therefore who can have access to a firearm.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, the Supreme Court struck down a New York state law this week that restricts the carrying of concealed weapons. And the court's decision sort of minimized the impact, but obviously, people who work in the space have a very different view that they think this will affect, you know, concealed carry laws around the country. And many people are very worried about that. What is your take on that, based on the research that you've done? Do concealed carry laws make any difference here?

FAGAN: They have some effect. It's not a huge effect, but they do have some effect. And places that curtail concealed carry have somewhat lower gun violence rates and gun injury and gun death rates than other places. But I think the thing that's important to note about laws such as concealed carry is that when the prohibitions on concealed carry or other prohibitions on both gun ownership and gun carrying - when those provisions are repealed, that's when the homicide rates tend to go up.

So for example, there's a study in Missouri about you had to have a permit to purchase a firearm. And that's a fairly stringent barrier between the would-be consumer and obtaining a firearm, and that's for everybody. When that was repealed by the state legislature, within a year, the homicide - the gun homicide rate had gone up considerably. So it's the idea that when you take away restraints, it creates a much more deregulated environment where people can carry guns and use them when they feel guns are necessary.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, as we mentioned, this measure, it is the first the Congress has been able to sort of get through both bodies in some three decades. So there is that. But it is, as we said, a fairly narrow measure. It sort of slows down the opportunity for 18 to 21-year-olds to buy battlefield weapons. It does close what people are calling the boyfriend loophole.

FAGAN: It expands red flag laws, and I think red flag laws have proven to be fairly effective.

MARTIN: So taken together, do you think this measure will make a difference? And how soon do you think Americans might see that difference?

FAGAN: I think one of the things we've learned over almost a decade now of research on the effects of firearm laws is that in places that have more laws, more regulations on access to firearms and purchase of firearms as well as carrying firearms, those places have much lower gun homicide rates compared to places that have a lower density or weaker sets of gun regulations in place. So there's nothing about the accumulation or the aggregation, if you will, of the number of gun laws, the density of gun laws in a jurisdiction that seems to have a protective effect on gun violence rate. So passing one law is important. Some laws, as I said, some laws are more important than others. But the more you pass, the better off the society is of - from being free of firearm violence.

MARTIN: Is there some misconception that you think many people have about this kind of legislation on either side of what does work or what doesn't work that just drives you crazy based on the fact that you follow the facts that you would just like to clarify?

FAGAN: I think people assume that a gun regulation in place - say, for example, whether it's background checks or an age restriction or waiting period - will ultimately deny that would-be buyer from purchasing a firearm. That's just not true. There is some - there may be some delay. It may make it - they may have to go through a couple of additional steps. But ultimately, assuming that they can pass a background check, they will be able to obtain a firearm and a firearm of their choosing. So I - the scare tactic of saying, this is going to basically take guns out of our hands, I think that's wildly, wildly overstated, and it does - as you say, it does drive me a little bit crazy.

I think the assumption that some gun regulation is going to be a silver bullet to stop mass shootings and - or street homicides, I think that's overstated. And one shouldn't have a Tinker Bell idea about how gun regulations work. Again, it takes some time for the gun regulations to take root. It takes some time for the populations of people with guns to either lose their guns or just simply to be taken out of that kind of circulation by incarceration or some other measure.

So we need to be sober about what these laws can do and what they can't. I think we need about four or five years of study once a law goes into place and with the accumulation of other laws or accompanying laws, in other words, that net of gun regulations - for that to take place, that to settle in before we can understand what the net effect is going to be of those regulations.

MARTIN: That's Jeffrey Fagan. He is a professor of law at Columbia University's School of Law, and he studies how specific types of gun control legislation affects levels of gun violence in the U.S. Professor Fagan, thanks so much for talking with us today.

FAGAN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.