Background checks save lives

It’s satisfying and reassuring when the facts confirm common sense.

When 59 percent of Washington state voters passed Initiative 594 last fall, most voted for the initiative with the conviction that it made sense, common sense, to make it more difficult for felons and others barred from owning firearms to get their hands on a gun by requiring background checks for all sales. I-594 closed what had been called the gun-show loophole, requiring background checks for those purchasing firearms not only at gun shops, but any sale, most notably those between private individuals.

What voters didn’t have to back up their convictions at the time was much in the way of data that showed how effective such a law could be. We’re starting to see that data now.

A story in Friday’s Washington Post tells the tale of two states with diverging experiences with such laws.

In Connecticut, the Post’s Jeff Guo reported, researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the University of California at Berkley, have reviewed homicide data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention following Connecticut’s passage in 1994 of a law that required gun purchasers to pass a background check and a gun-safety training course. The study, released last week in the American Journal of Public Health, found that the law reduced homicide deaths by firearms by 40 percent, a difference of 296 lives that were saved between 1996 and 2005.

Certainly, most states saw a drop in violent crime during that period, but Connecticut’s rate fell more quickly and further compared to states where no such law was on the books and compared to a statistical model of Connecticut that estimated what would have happened had the law had not been passed. Going deeper into the numbers, the researchers found that the state’s nonfirearm homicide rate more closely tracked the decline in other states, confirming the law’s effectiveness.

Some of the same researchers also looked at what happened in Missouri after it went in the opposite direction and repealed its background check law in 2007. Law enforcement began seeing more Missouri firearms at crime scenes in Missouri, Iowa and Illinois, and Missouri’s firearm homicide rate spiked 23 percent, an additional 55 to 63 murders each year from 2008 to 2012, according to a Johns Hopkins study published in 2014.

“People assume incorrectly that criminals will do anything and everything in terms of cost and risk to get their hands on a gun,” Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, said in the Post story. “But that simply is not what the data tell us.”

Initiative 594, admittedly an inconvenience for law-abiding gun owners, has enhanced security for all by making it more difficult for felons and others banned from gun ownership to acquire firearms. It has survived one court challenge earlier this spring; it may face others. But the initiative’s opponents now will have to argue against data as well as common sense that says I-594 will save lives, if it hasn’t already.

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