Hopkins study backs gun controls

Registration, licenses cut access by thugs

September 04, 2001|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

A Johns Hopkins University study has concluded that criminals in states that require licensing and registration of handguns have a harder time acquiring guns than those in states that don't have such laws.

The findings contradict the position of gun-rights advocates, who say that gun licensing and registration do little or nothing to prevent criminals from acquiring guns illegally, while threatening Second Amendment rights.

Gun-control advocates immediately seized on the study as evidence in favor of handgun licensing legislation in Maryland.

"It [the study] definitely shows that in states where there is licensing, that it limits the ability of the criminal, and juveniles, to get guns. I don't think there's ever been a study like that," said Ginni Wolf, executive director of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse. Her organization is considering whether to seek a licensing law during the next General Assembly.

But Greg Costa, a lobbyist in Maryland for the National Rifle Association, said, "The issue really is crime, not the supply of firearms."

"The fact is that licensing and registration do not make it any more difficult [for criminals] to obtain the firearm," he said. They are "simply an added hurdle for law-abiding citizens."

Maryland does not license handgun buyers. There is no registration per se, either, but police do retain records of handgun purchases.

Buyers also must wait seven days before taking delivery of their weapons while state police run criminal background checks.

The Hopkins study was funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was conducted by Daniel W. Webster, Jon S. Vernick and Lisa M. Hepburn of the Center for Gun Policy and Research, part of the Bloomberg School of Public Health. Their work was published in the September edition of Injury Prevention, a peer-reviewed journal.

Webster and his team looked at 25 cities in the United States and divided them into three categories:

Five cities in states requiring both the licensing of handgun purchasers and the registration of the guns themselves.

Seven cities in states that require either licensing or registration, but not both. (Baltimore was included in this group because police retain handgun purchase records.)

Thirteen cities in states that require neither licensing nor registration.

Using federal tracing data on 35,000 handguns recovered in crime investigations in each of the cities between 1996 and 1998, the Hopkins researchers calculated the percentage of guns that were first sold by legitimate dealers in that state and then used in crimes.

In the cities where both licensing and registration were required, an average of only 33.7 percent of the crime guns were originally sold by in-state dealers. The lowest was in New York City, at 14 percent.

In those cities where only licensing, or only registration were required, 72.7 percent of the crime guns, on average, were first sold by in-state dealers. (In Baltimore, it was 73 percent.)

And where neither licensing nor registration was required, an average of 84.2 percent of the crime guns originated in in-state gun shops. The highest was Richmond, Va., at 90.6 percent.

"We believe that when criminals must rely on out-of state sources, the price of guns increases significantly, and they are much more difficult to obtain," Webster said.

The crimp on the supply of crime guns is weakened by a city's proximity to a state with weaker laws, but not eliminated, the study found.

Asked how a smaller proportion of in-state crime guns translated into fewer illegal guns, or reduced gun crime, Webster said that was not what the study sought to prove.

Nevertheless, he said, "we think there is plenty of evidence to indicate that gun availability does increase homicide risk. So we believe it is highly likely that these laws will reduce homicide risk."

The notion is buttressed by previous studies showing that in states such as New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, where handgun laws are more restrictive, guns also are less plentiful.

Cities with both registration and licensing also proved to have a lower proportion of homicides involving firearms, the Hopkins study found.

The NRA's Costa said the Hopkins study demonstrated no link between the supply of in-state guns and gun crime. "I would doubt there is any cause-and-effect relationship between those figures," he said.

Webster acknowledged that a determined criminal, with good connections, will be able to obtain a handgun, regardless of his state's licensing or registration laws.

However, he said, many people involved in gun violence don't have the means or connections to readily cross states lines and buy guns.

"There are risks and costs involved, for both supplier and purchaser," Webster said. "They typically have to go into places they don't know so well, and where they don't know the people so well."

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