Thanks to new restrictions passed by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Martin O'Malley this year, Maryland is now in the top tier of states when it comes to the strength of its gun laws. It had been close to the top before, but now it ranks fourth, behind only California, Connecticut and New Jersey, according to a new report from the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the Brady Campaign. Another part of the report demonstrates why moving up a few slots was important: Unlike most of the top 10 states for gun laws, Maryland is not among the lowest for gun deaths.

Seven of the states the law center and Brady Campaign rank as best for gun laws are in the bottom 10 for gun deaths, but Maryland ranks 17th — better, perhaps, than many would expect, given Baltimore's perennial status as one of the most violent cities in America. Part of the reason for that disconnect is that the gun deaths statistic includes suicides and accidental deaths in addition to homicide, and part of the reason is that the gun violence in Baltimore is an aberration compared to the rest of the state, fueled in large part by the circumstances of the drug trade. There is good reason to believe that the new laws Maryland passed will help it join the seven states that rank best for gun laws and lowest for gun deaths.

Much of the debate about gun laws in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting nearly one year ago focused on proposals to ban assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines, and Maryland took action on both fronts. Those were important advances, given that such weapons are frequently used in mass shootings and are not needed for hunting or self defense. But it's the other parts of the law that are most likely to improve Maryland's standing.

Perhaps the most important component of the new law is a requirement that handgun purchasers be licensed by the state and provide their fingerprints to the state police. Similar laws have long been in effect in many of the top-tier states, and their chief purpose is to cut down on so-called "straw purchases." That's when someone who is prohibited from buying a gun, for example because of a criminal record, gets someone else to do it for him. Many people assume that criminals typically steal guns or buy them on the black market, but that isn't so. Most commonly, the guns that show up at Maryland crime scenes come from Maryland gun dealers, often via a straw purchaser.

The theory is that people will be less inclined to make straw purchases if the state police are going to have their names and fingerprints, and the data seem to bear that out. Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center for Gun Policy and Research, found rapid increases in the share of crime guns in Missouri that went from a dealer to a crime scene in less than two years — a hallmark of straw purchases — in the years after it dropped a similar licensing requirement. At a time when gun violence declined across the Midwest, it rose in Missouri.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, elected officials nationwide — and even the National Rifle Association — focused on the link between mental health and gun violence. Though there's good reason to imagine that mental illness played a role in the Sandy Hook shooting and some other mass shootings, it is not, overall, a major driver of the homicide rate. It is, however, perhaps the most significant factor in the gun death rate. The reason is that suicides by firearm far outnumber gun homicides — 19,392 to 11,078 in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Breaking the link between mental illness, gun access and suicide could go a long way toward improving Maryland's standing.

To that end, Maryland's new gun law changes an existing restriction on gun ownership by those who suffer from mental illness to more closely tailor the prohibition to those who present a danger to themselves and others. Now, those who suffer mental disorders and have a history of violence against themselves or others, those who are voluntarily committed to a mental health facility for 30 or more consecutive days, or those who are involuntarily committed for any length of time, are ineligible to own firearms. That could prevent an extraordinary tragedy like the Sandy Hook shooting, but more likely, it will prevent the sadly common tragedy of suicide.


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