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Gun Policy

Can the U.S.’s 32,000 Annual Gun Deaths Really Be Cut in Half?

One 2016 presidential candidate has vowed to do that — and one researcher says it's possible. But only if Washington has the will to make the number drop.

On Monday, Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley made gun reform a signature issue of his campaign. In a detailed memo and a subsequent round table event in New York City, the former Maryland governor laid out a comprehensive, multi-part plan, which included, among other things, universal background checks, the creation of a federal gun registry, fingerprint licensing for firearms purchases, and the implementation of a national age requirement for handgun possession. The proposals were less groundbreaking than they were a collection of greatest hits — a bunch of number one singles that, taken together, would have a deep and lasting impact, a kind of “Jock Jams” for gun safety.

The overarching goal, O’Malley said, is to cut “deaths from gun violence in half within ten years.” With roughly 32,000 gun-related fatalities in the United States each year — a figure that includes homicides, suicides, and accidental shootings — O’Malley’s target would sit right around 16,000 deaths per year. That’s a rather dramatic drop. But according to Daniel Webster, the Director of the John Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, the goal isn’t as unrealistic as skeptics might think.

“If you compare the U.S. to other high-income western democracies, and account for all the different metrics, we are not a more violent nation,” he tells The Trace. “Our teens don’t get into more fights. There’s not more bullying, or substance abuse, or more general urban crime. What makes us unusual is our homicide rate, which is almost seven times higher. And that’s because our gun homicide rate is about 19 times higher. So if we could get anywhere closer to the norm of those high-income countries, we’d have well more than a 50 percent reduction.” (According to a 2012 report, there are 2.97 gun homicides per 100,000 people in the United States. France, for example, has .06, and England has .07.) What’s more, policies shown to reduce gun murders also seem to reduce the gun suicides that make up the majority of America’s firearms related deaths. Other proposals in O’Malley’s package could curb the unintentional shootings that are another, smaller share of the total by issuing federal standards for gun locks and safes and extending safety device requirements to private gun sales.

Webster has been researching firearm policy for almost three decades. “Gun deaths are probably, at this point, half of what they were than when I first began working on this problem,” he says. “The bulk of that reduction occurred within a span of five years, between 1994 and 1999.” At that time, there was a lot of energy in reform. “Because the rates were so high, there was a lot of investment in policy, prevention, and law enforcement,” Webster says.

The signature achievement of the mid-’90s was the passage of the Brady Background Check Bill. Its loopholes notwithstanding, the law has blocked more than 2.4 million people from obtaining guns since 1998. O’Malley, of course, wants to close the gaps in the system, requiring background checks for both private and Internet sales, not just purchases made through federally licensed dealers. Many of his other proposals are rooted in laws that have proven to work on the state level. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’d have the same results if rolled out nationwide, Webster cautions, but the data points toward how the changes O’Malley is advocating would chip away at the death toll. After Connecticut, for example, enacted a law in 1994 that required residents to acquire a purchasing license before buying handgun, the state saw a 40 percent reduction in gun homicides by 2005. O’Malley, drawing from this legislation, would require gun buyers to obtain fingerprint licenses and undergo safety training. And though there’s no data on whether creating a national age requirement — in this case, 21 — for handgun purchasers would help curb gun deaths, it is true that a quarter of gun crimes are committed by people 21-years-old and younger, who could now be arrested for gun possession before turning that gun on a victim.

None of this guarantees that O’Malley’s proposals would yield a 50 percent reduction in gun deaths, of course. For that to happen, a more crucial element of the equation would need to be in place. “If we had leadership that made reduction a priority,” Webster says, “we could do it again.”

[Photo: Flickr user Emily Stanchfield]