Can Stricter Gun Laws Curb Criminal Activity?

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It sounds like a no-brainer, but like any new information in the battle over gun control, it’s bound to ruffle a few feathers: Registration and licensing requirements deter criminals from buying guns. That latest bit of data in the gun control debate, courtesy of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins University, indicates that stricter guidelines for gun purchases mean fewer firearms end up in the hands of criminals. States with the lowest incidence of criminal gun activity are those with both licensing and registration guidelines. And the best results of all, according to the Hopkins study, come in states surrounded by other states with similarly tough gun laws, so that criminals can’t simply slip over state lines to replenish their supplies.

"We believe that the expense and time involved in connecting with an interstate gun trafficker could lead to a decrease in actual gun activity in the state with tough restrictions," says Daniel Webster, the lead author of the study.

Both licensing and registration have been on the books for years, but the combination of both laws is only on the books in seven states. It's that one-two punch, though, that proves to be most effective. "We found there was only marginal benefit to having one restriction," says Webster. "This is particularly significant for states like Maryland and California, where registration is required but licensing is not."

Registering a gun, says Webster, makes it much easier to trace if it is involved in a crime. Licensing means the application process goes through a law enforcement agency, rather than being processed by a gun dealer. Creating that filter has already proven useful, says Webster. "We know from previous research that that there are some seriously shady gun dealers out there," he says. "In fact, we’ve found one percent of gun dealers sell more than one-half of guns used in crimes."

The idea of registration and licensing strikes most gun control advocates as common sense. The National Rifle Association, however, does not share that attitude. The NRA website fiercely decries both licensing and registration as an infringement on Second Amendment rights. "Those who wonder what motivates American gun owners should understand that perhaps only one other word in the English language so boils their blood as the word ‘registration,’ and that word is ‘confiscation.’ Gun owners fiercely believe those words are ominously related." (We contacted the NRA for comment on this story, but they were unable to provide us with a response.)

"The gun lobby will argue: Laws don’t matter to criminals, they’re just going to get around the laws," says Webster. "It’s only infringing on rights of law-abiding citizens. There are a couple of responses to that argument. One, when you force criminals to go out of state, you increase the price of guns, sometimes substantially, not just in terms of actual price but in terms of time, risk and hassle. And two, this research seems to suggest that if broader laws were in place in more states, it would make criminals even less likely to own guns."