NEWS | April 4, 2018

Study does not find change in firearm homicide or suicide rates through 2008 after repeal of comprehensive background check laws in two states

More research needed into comprehensive background checks as preventive measure. Permit-to-purchase laws may be more effective than comprehensive background checks.

(SACRAMENTO, Calif.)

A study  of firearm homicide and suicide rates in the 10 years after two states repealed their comprehensive background check laws in 1998 found no change in the rates of either cause of death from firearms through 2008. The repeals eliminated background check requirements for private-party transfers, but not for firearm transfers from licensed dealers.

The study, which posted online April 4 in the journal Epidemiology, offers a historical estimate of the effects of the repealed law and provides an important foundation for future studies assessing improvements in data and practice since then. The work also supports a growing body of research that suggests how comprehensive background check policies are designed, implemented and enforced and have important implications for their effectiveness.

The study, conducted by the Violence Prevention Research Program (VPRP) at UC Davis and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, compared firearm homicide and suicide rates following the repeal of comprehensive background check policies in Indiana and Tennessee in 1998 with rates from a weighted control group of states that had comprehensive background check or similar policies during the entire study period. These states included Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina and Rhode Island.  

“Our results showed small increases in firearm homicide and suicide rates following repeal relative to controls, but these differences were within the range of what could be expected given natural variation,” said Rose Kagawa, a Robertson postdoctoral research fellow with VPRP and first author.

“It’s possible that incomplete reporting of prohibiting data to background check systems in the 1990s, prior to the repeal, was an important limiting factor,” she said. “This would have resulted in some people passing their background checks even in cases where, according to law, they should have been prohibited from purchasing a firearm.”

The data upon which background checks are completed has improved significantly since the 1990s. Studies on the impact of comprehensive background check policies from other states, especially using more recent versions of these laws, will be important for understanding their current effectiveness.

A lack of compliance with, and enforcement of, comprehensive background check laws during the study period may be another limiting factor. A VPRP study recently published in Injury Prevention assessed changes in the number of background checks completed from 1999 through 2016, following the implementation of more recent comprehensive background check policies in Washington, Colorado and Delaware. The study did not find an increase in background checks in Washington and Colorado, suggesting a lack of compliance with and enforcement of these laws, Kagawa said.

The results of the current study are in contrast to findings from other research conducted in Missouri and Connecticut, where comprehensive background check policies are part of more rigorous gun purchasing provisions.

“We know from previous research in other states that more rigorous permit-to-purchase laws are associated with lower firearm death rates, by as much as 40 percent for homicides and 16 percent for suicides,” Kagawa said. “These laws often require prospective purchasers to obtain a permit from a law enforcement agency, rather than completing a background check at the point of sale, among other measures. Straw buyers or others with criminal intent may be less willing to risk law enforcement scrutiny.”

In addition, the need for prospective buyers to have a permit may make it easier for law-abiding sellers to identify a prohibited buyer without having to involve a gun dealer to conduct a mandated background check, as is needed in comprehensive background check states.

“Comprehensive background check policies have become a focal point in the effort to reduce firearm violence,” Kagawa said. “Yet this study and others indicate that if background checks are to be an effective means of preventing firearm violence at the population level, we need to further understand how these laws can be improved and then test whether improvements truly lead to reductions in firearm death.”

Other authors on the study include Alvaro Castillo-Carniglia,, Magdalena Cerdá,, Aaron Shev, Kara E. Rudolphand Garen J. Wintemute from the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine; Jon S. Vernick , Daniel Webster and Cassandra Crifasi from  the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

This study was funded by the Joyce Foundation (grant ID 15-36377), the Robertson Fellowship in Violence Prevention Research in Becas Chile as part of the National Commission for Scientific and Technological Research (CONICYT), and the Heising-Simons Foundation (grant ID 2016-219).

The UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program (VPRP) is a multi-disciplinary program of research and policy development focused on the causes, consequences and prevention of violence. Studies assess firearm violence and the connections between violence, substance abuse and mental illness. VPRP is home to the University of California Firearm Violence Research Center, which launched in 2017 with a $5 million appropriation from the state of California to fund and conduct leading-edge research on firearm violence and its prevention.