State Experiments Can Point to Better Gun Laws

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Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

As Congress continues to stymie gun-safety proposals, individual states have been taking aggressive action on their own. As they do, they may provide a useful demonstration of exactly what gun safety laws can and cannot accomplish.

California recently banned the sale of certain semiautomatic rifles, outlawed the possession of ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 bullets, and mandated background checks for ammunition purchases. Hawaii, which already bans some semiautomatic handguns and large-capacity magazines, and registers virtually all guns, added “harassment by stalking and sexual assault” to the list of offenses that disqualify one from gun possession. In addition, gun buyers will have their names added to a federal database so that state authorities can be alerted when a Hawaii gun owner is arrested for a criminal offense elsewhere in the nation.

These two states have some of the most stringent regulations in the country, along with low rates of gun deaths.

Meanwhile, other states have been loosening their regulations. Texas now allows guns on state college campuses. Georgia sanctions carrying them in some bars and churches. And these states and others are dealing with the real-life consequences of the open carry movement. In 2014, for example, an openly armed Georgia man alarmed families at a children's baseball game, announcing that he had a gun and asserting, correctly, that they could do nothing about it.

Rarely do states adopt such drastically different legal approaches to the same issue. This creates trouble for highly regulated states, since guns are portable, concealable and easily transported across state lines. But it also sets up precisely the kind of laboratory conditions that can point the way to better laws.

There is a correlation in states between stronger gun laws and lower frequency of gun deaths, but it isn’t absolute. New Hampshire and Vermont, for example, have both relatively weak laws and relatively low instances of firearm deaths. So it will be instructive to see how California’s new restrictions advance safety, and whether states with high rates of gun violence pay an even steeper price for relaxing gun laws.

Research should provide answers. Given their vehement resistance to federal funding for gun-violence research, it seems that the National Rifle Association and its supporters in Congress already think they know the likely conclusions.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.