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Earlier this week, the U.S. Senate failed to pass new gun control regulations that would have broadened background checks and prevented people on government terrorist watch lists from buying a gun.
The votes came just eight days after the massacre of 49 people in Orlando. And it’s not the first time that Congress has failed to act on this issue -- which means it falls to individual states to enact tougher gun laws.
We hear again and again that Massachusetts has some of the toughest gun laws in the nation. They include restrictive licensing requirements, safe gun storage rules, a ban on semiautomatic assault-style weapons and large-capacity magazines, and rules that allow local police chiefs to deny gun permits.
But do they work?
In a piece I reported last week, we heard John Rosenthal, founder of Stop Handgun Violence, say that Massachusetts makes it very difficult for criminals to get their hands on guns. "That's why we've been able to reduce gun deaths in this state by 60 percent since 1994," he said.
But we heard something very different from Jim Wallace, president of the Gun Owners Action League of Massachusetts, the local NRA affiliate. "Since the 1998 gun laws were put in place in Massachusetts, gun crime actually tripled — while the rest of the nation's gun crime was declining," he said.
So what's going on here? It turns out that Rosenthal and Wallace were referring to different time periods and measuring different things. For example, Rosenthal was referring to all forms of gun violence, while Wallace’s figures omitted suicides, which account for the majority of the country's gun deaths.
But what do we really know about guns, and about how well gun laws work?
"There are so many things we don't know,” according to David Hemenway, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. Hemenway says among the reasons we know so little is that Congress — abetted by the NRA — prohibits the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health from using federal funds to "advocate or promote gun control."
Speaking recently on the public radio show Science Friday, Hemenway says this policy has a chilling effect on the study of guns. "The CDC has been afraid to do gun research and really afraid to say the word 'gun,' " he says. "If there's any research that looks bad — that indicates that having a gun in the home is not such a good thing — CDC [researchers] get hauled before Congress and beaten up."
This political climate has created a dramatic mismatch in the allocation of research dollars. For example, in the United States, from 1973 to 2012, there were about 2,000 cases of cholera, diphtheria, polio and rabies combined. Compare that to more than 4 million gun injuries during that same period. But during those years, the NIH funded almost 500 studies on those four infectious diseases. And the number of studies the NIH funded on gun safety? Three.
So Hemenway says there's a lot he'd like to understand about guns.
"I'd like to know is who is using these guns inappropriately, and how they get them. We really don't know that,” Hemenway says. "We know so little about gun theft, about gun storage, about gun training, about concealed gun carrying. You name it — we hardly know anything."
But that could change. Following the massacre in Orlando, the American Medical Association called gun violence in the U.S. "a public health crisis," and said it would begin lobbying Congress to overturn legislation that blocks federally funded gun research.
In the meantime, we do know a few things about gun laws. "We can very clearly say that if you live in states that have higher numbers of gun laws, the likelihood of dying from a gun is significantly lower," according to Dr. Eric Fleegler, a pediatric emergency physician at Boston Children's Hospital and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
Back in 2013, Fleegler authored a study that was published in JAMA Internal Medicine, which researched the relationship between gun laws and gun deaths. He found that between 2007 and 2010, states with the most gun laws — like Massachusetts — had 42 percent fewer gun deaths than states with the fewest gun laws — like Louisiana. Fleegler says the study showed a dramatic correlation between the number of people who own guns and the number of gun deaths.
“In states that have more laws, what you see is that the firearm ownership rates go down,” Fleegler says. “As the firearm ownership rates go down, you see a very dramatic drop in the firearm fatality rates."
Fleegler found a dramatic drop in both homicides and suicides, but his study only goes so far. It shows that more gun laws are generally associated with fewer gun deaths — but there's no proof that the laws are responsible. In other words, correlation does not imply causation. For example, it could be that states with low rates of gun ownership are more willing to enact gun laws. And the study can't say which gun laws work and which don't.
But Hemenway, of Harvard, says the idea that fewer guns in the home lead to fewer deaths has been borne out by several studies.
"One of the few areas where we have incredibly good, solid research is around the fact that a gun in the home really increases the risk of suicide dramatically — maybe threefold — for everyone in the house," Hemenway says. "That's one of the things we really know well."
Another thing we know is that without federal action on guns, it's left up to individual states to enact gun laws — or not. This creates a patchwork, in which a state like Massachusetts has relatively restrictive laws that are compromised by nearby states, like New Hampshire and Maine, which have less restrictive laws. That patchwork also includes Florida, which permitted Omar Mateen, who'd been on a terrorist watch list, to buy a military-style rifle with a high-capacity magazine.
This week, once again, Congress left that porous patchwork of laws in place.
This segment aired on June 23, 2016.
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