Once again, a mass shooting in the US has fired up debate about gun control laws. Wherever you might stand ideologically on the issue, it’s becoming increasingly clear what the science says: tougher firearm laws can have the power to reduce gun deaths. However, among the (surprisingly scant) body of research, it's also apparent some legislation is more effective than others.
One large study from 2016 looked at 130 studies conducted between 1950 and 2014 in 10 countries that had overhauled their gun law. Overall, they found that tightening up firearm legislation was linked to a reduction in the firearm death rates in most countries.
They found that some types of legislation were more effective than others, however. This one study found that laws regarding carrying concealed weapons or “standing your ground” had little-to-no effect on gun deaths or increased gun violence. Meanwhile, background check laws helped to reduce intimate partner homicides and gun storage policies also reduced unintentional gun deaths in children.
The RAND Corporation carried out a meta-analysis of gun control research focused on the US, finding similar conclusions. There was moderately strong evidence that background checks and gun prohibitions associated with domestic violence reduced firearm deaths. There was also decent evidence that laws against "stand your ground" could reduce violent crime rates. Furthermore, there was conclusive evidence that child-access prevention laws were linked to reduced rates of suicide and unintentional death or injury.
However, they found it was inconclusive whether any legislation could prevent mass shootings.
Other studies have found a relationship between lax gun laws and mass shootings. A 2018 US study by Columbia researchers, published in the British Medical Journal, concluded that states with more relaxed gun laws and higher ownership of firearms had higher rates of mass shootings compared to states with tougher legalization on gun ownership. It also found that gap in the number of shootings between restrictive and permissive states was growing.
Ironing out the relationship between homicides and gun laws can be complicated because crime rates are influenced by an array of complex and intertwining factors. For instance, a study published earlier this year found that the Federal Assault Weapons Ban in the US, in action between 1994 and 2004, also saw a decline in the number and rate of gun deaths. However, it’s also worth considering that many types of crime dropped significantly in this period, not just gun crime.
Internationally speaking, it’s notable that the UK and Japan have some of the toughest gun laws in the world and often boast the lowest rates of gun homicide. One study argued that this is primarily because these two countries have taken a particularly strong stance against handguns, the weapon of choice in most gun murders. Fully automatic, burst-fire, and semi-automatic guns are also totally prohibited by the law in both countries.
There are some notable exceptions to this rule. For instance, European countries like Finland, Norway, and Switzerland have relatively high gun ownership rates compared to many of their neighbors, but a surprisingly low rate of firearm homicides. The National Rifle Association in the US has been known to point to Switzerland as an example that more rules on gun ownership aren't necessary. However, just because there are a lot of guns in the country, it doesn’t mean they aren’t strongly regulated.
People with a criminal record or current drug addiction aren't allowed to buy guns in Switzerland. Fully automatic guns are banned aside from military or police purposes, as are most semi-automatic guns. Furthermore, people are only allowed to carry a weapon in public if they have a license, which they’ll receive if they prove it's necessary to protect themselves, such as security guards.
Gun culture is vastly different in Switzerland too. Switzerland has mandatory military service, in which all men between the ages of 18 and 34 deemed "fit for service" are given a gun. After receiving extensive training with the gun, they are allowed to keep the firearm. Some also argue that countries like Switzerland have high levels of social cohesion, low crime rates, and internationally high levels of trust in social institutions, which also appears to be linked to reduced levels of gun homicide.
Considering how prominent the problem of gun violence has become in public debate, the issue of gun control is stunningly under-researched in the US. With that said, it’s clear that most of the scientific studies are created almost always point in the same direction. To fully understand this complex and deeply divisive issue, more research and the necessary funding are urgently needed.