Challenging a major political taboo, Johns Hopkins researchers contend that tighter gun control laws will save lives and reduce violence, particularly if "high-risk" people such as alcoholics and youths under age 21 are barred from buying or having firearms.
In a report being released Thursday by the Bloomberg School of Public Health, they call for broadening current state and federal prohibitions on who can own guns while also closing loopholes in the regulation of gun sales.
"When you deny high-risk people access to guns, the evidence shows that saves lives," said Daniel W. Webster, director of Hopkins' Center for Gun Policy and Research and the report's lead author. "And when you regulate all gun sales, fewer guns get diverted to criminals."
Maryland, it turns out, is among a small number of states that already restrict or prohibit gun ownership among the high-risk groups targeted in the report. But Webster said more could be done to tighten federal and state oversight of gun dealers.
Only four other states besides Maryland bar residents under 21 from possessing handguns, Webster said. While studies to date have failed to find these laws put a dent in juvenile murders or suicides, he argued that such limits are warranted because homicide rates are highest among 18- to 20-year-olds.
"We do not allow that group to legally drink beer, but in 45 of 50 states, that group can legally own a handgun," he said.
The report argues for extending prohibitions already in effect against those convicted of crimes. It also recommends regulating gun designs to make them safer and less likely to be used in a crime or shooting spree — by, for instance, limiting ammunition capacity to 10 rounds.
Webster acknowledged that the report is unlikely to get much traction in this election season. Too often, he said, the issue of gun safety bogs down in what he called a "cultural debate" dividing camps into those in favor or opposed to guns or hunting.
"What we're trying to do with this report is show that there are several important reforms that need to be made, that evidence suggests would save lives and that wouldn't take any guns away from any law-abiding adult," Webster said.
Some polls have tracked waning public support for stricter gun laws. Other surveys, Webster said, show that many gun owners would favor certain reforms, such as requiring background checks on all gun transactions, even those between individuals, which are not mandatory in some states. A survey by Republican pollster Frank Luntz found 82 percent of gun owners, and 74 percent of NRA members, favored universal background checks.
Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, welcomed the report, saying it lays out research supporting restrictions he contends the American public wants, based on poll results.
"None of us wants to live in a country where 32 murders happen every day," he said. "This study points to solutions, like criminal background checks ... that can prevent some of these murders from happening."
A spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association declined to comment on the report until it was available for review.
But John H. Josselyn, legislative vice president for the Associated Gun Clubs of Baltimore, rejected the report's conclusions and contended that other studies show that gun controls do nothing to prevent violence or keep firearms away from criminals. He pointed to a 1991 Hopkins paper that found no clear differences between homicide rates in the United States and Canada in the late 1970s, even though Americans owned far more handguns then.
"Attempting to control criminal behavior through additional gun laws is the rough equivalent of trying to control drunk driving by making it more difficult for sober people to purchase a car," he said.
Sam Walters, owner of The Cop Shop, a downtown gun retailer, said Maryland already has stricter gun laws and tighter checks on firearms purchases than almost any other state. And Walters, a retired city police officer, said he's even more restrictive than the law requires to protect the police officers and security personnel who make up much of his clientele.
"I would rather lose a gun sale, or many sales, than sell to someone who should not have one," he said, as he displayed all the forms prospective buyers must fill out atop a glass case full of Glock pistols.
While Walters agreed it's prudent to deny guns to most 18-year-olds and people with drinking problems, he's leery of additional laws and regulations.
"Too many studies have shown restrictive gun controls don't work," he said.