Massachusetts gun-control legislation had no impact on violent crime rates

WASHINGTON — While Congress has yet to pass nationwide gun control legislation measures, some state legislatures have enacted stricter gun control laws aimed at reducing violence in their communities. However, a recent study finds gun laws in at least one state aren’t doing that job. A team at American University analyzed the impact of one such measure in Massachusetts and found stricter background checks and licensing policies made little to no difference in curbing violent crimes.

In light of these results, study authors ponder if officials are doing enough to enforce these new policies.

“Gun violence remains at the forefront of the public policy debate when it comes to enacting new or strengthening existing gun legislation in the United States,” explains study author Janice Iwama, assistant professor of justice, law, and criminology at AU, in a media release. “Yet the political polarization and relatively limited scholarly research on guns and gun violence make it difficult for policymakers and practitioners to enact and implement legislation that addresses the public health and safety issues associated with gun violence.”

How is Massachusetts cracking down on gun ownership?

Massachusetts passed new background check requirements for firearms sold at gun shows or through private sales. Lawmakers also created changes to firearm regulations by adopting new gun licensing procedures in 2014. The new law went into effect in January 2015.

To get an idea of how these gun access changes impacted state crime, researchers analyzed changes in public safety statistics and trends, including violent crime in Massachusetts counties between 2006 and 2016. The team used data from the Firearms Records Bureau for this work. The FRB is a state agency that keeps track of all licenses issued and records of firearms sales by gun dealers, as well as private transfers of weapons in Massachusetts.

From there, models and additional data provided by the FBI were all used to predict counts of violent crimes. During this process, study authors accounted for factors such as the percentage of all denied applications, the percentage of denied applications due to unsuitability, and the percentage of denied applications due to statutory disqualification (criminal record, documented history of mental health issues, fugitive status) across all counties.

No ‘consistent effect’ on crime rates

Using this approach, the research team was able to estimate, based on percentage of firearms licenses, that one to five percent of adult Massachusetts residents had a gun license. However, results also show the new gun control measures did not have a “consistent effect” on reducing four types of violent crimes — murder or manslaughter, aggravated assault, robbery, and rape.

Notably, a one-percent increase in denied firearm licenses and denied firearm licenses following statutory disqualifications increased robberies by 7.3 and 8.9 percent, respectively.

In conclusion, study authors recommend that lawmakers revisit their legislation to ensure that state officials are implementing them properly and addressing any problems.

“It is important for policymakers, practitioners, and researchers to consider the magnitude of effects of their laws and how they may be influenced by different levels of enforcement in the state or by the lack of enforcement in surrounding states,” Prof. Iwama notes.

The study is published in the journal Justice Quarterly.