The Relationship Between State-Level Gun Policies and Gun Deaths

May 19, 2021 | Justice


Nearly half of Americans believe that they or a family member are likely to be the victims of a domestic terror attack due to the insurgency of gun violence. For many, the fear of domestic terrorism impacts daily life. Identifying the outcomes of various gun policies across the country is critical to addressing this crisis with effective legislation. Legislators will participate in security policy if it benefits their re-election efforts, and the public’s power to engage in civic discourse has a significant influence on how policymakers vote on gun control policies.

Gun control is a divisive topic in the United States. While many people are hesitant or opposed to widespread gun ownership—often due to mass shootings—others adamantly protect their gun ownership rights. Considering this political divide, should we demand policymakers respond to mass shootings with new gun control measures? States with gun control policies consistently have fewer gun deaths than states with lax gun restrictions. By explaining how gun policies influence gun violence, policymakers and advocates can more effectively communicate the benefits of gun reform.

In the U.S., state governments are the primary regulators of firearms. Federal law establishes a minimum level of gun control nationwide, which state and local policies augment to varying degrees. The federal government has placed some restrictions on firearm commerce, gun possession by potentially dangerous individuals and the ownership of certain types of firearms and ammunition. The Giffords Law Center’s annual Gun Law Scorecard shows that, overall, gun laws work. On average, the gun death rates in states with strong gun laws are a fraction of those in states with weak gun regulations. It’s well beyond time that these demonstrated, lifesaving solutions are instituted across America. 

Over the past year, the fight for racial equity crossed the country after the violent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and numerous others, reviving public debate over the connection between policing and gun violence. Ending this crisis of racist gun violence will require sustained work by the new Biden Administration, state legislatures and advocates—including policing reform and funding for community violence-intervention programs—to create a safer and more just America. Data on gun laws and violence reveal that states with the weakest gun regulations have wider racial disparities in gun deaths than states with stronger gun laws.

The Annual Gun Law Scorecard, published by the Giffords Law Center, is essential in tracking the relationship between gun laws and shootings across the country. The project allows attorneys to analyze gun legislation in all 50 states, assigning point values to laws and policies based on their respective strengths or weaknesses. These points are tabulated, and each state is given a letter grade reflecting the strength of its gun regulation. When comparing these grades to each state’s CDC-reported gun death rate, gun restrictions strongly correlate with fewer gun deaths.

Analysis of gun law scores and gun death rates demonstrate that when states have restrictive gun policies, they experience significantly fewer gun deaths. For each increase in a state’s score on the Gun Law Scorecard, the rate of gun deaths decreased by an average of 1.2 deaths per 100,000 residents. These results indicate a strong relationship between gun control and gun deaths. Centering the public’s debate on guns around the effectiveness of gun control can pressure elected officials and policymakers to pass these life-saving gun policies.

graph depicting how strong gun policies correlate with fewer gun deaths.
Depicts 2020 gun death rates and gun law scores as provided by the Giffords Law Center.

Though gun control can reduce a state’s gun death rate, the issue may be too polarized for elected officials to reach a broad consensus. Effective gun reform may also require the restriction of existing gun rights at the state level. Furthermore, these statistics reveal a concerning divide in the rates of gun deaths between restrictive and permissive states. If state-level gun preferences drive this polarization, we can expect states with higher gun-ownership rates to loosen their gun policies—increasing gun deaths in states nationwide. Further research must also investigate gun deaths and ownership, their disparate effects on minority communities and their relationship to mass shootings.

Featured image by Chip Vincent on Unsplash.