At a time when Baltimore could desperately use some good news when it comes to the prospects of reducing violence, research from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health suggests we may already have taken a key step toward preventing gun homicides — it just may take a few years for us to feel the effects.
In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shooting massacre, Maryland enacted a series of gun control laws, one of which was aimed less at preventing a tragedy like that one and more at stopping the daily toll of gun violence in the streets of Baltimore. It requires that handgun purchasers apply for licenses through the state police and provide identifying information, including fingerprints. The idea was that it would keep guns out of the wrong hands by discouraging so-called straw purchases — that is, the practice of individuals buying guns on behalf of those who are ineligible to do so because of their criminal backgrounds or mental health problems.
But would the theory work in practice? Lawmakers at the time relied on a study from Hopkins gun policy expert Daniel Webster showing an otherwise unexplained 25 percent increase in gun homicides in the years after Missouri repealed such an ordinance. But new research examining gun violence in Connecticut makes an even stronger case.
A team led by Kara E. Rudolph, who got her Ph.D. from Hopkins last year and is now a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society Scholar at the University of California Berkeley and the University of California San Francisco, sought to measure the effect Connecticut's 1995 handgun purchase licensing law during the decade after enactment. That's not a straightforward proposition because it involves figuring out what Connecticut's gun violence rate would have been if the law hadn't been passed. The researchers overcame the problem by creating what they call a "synthetic Connecticut" — that is, a composite of statistics from other states that closely mirrored Connecticut's homicide rates in the years before the law went into effect.
The results offer two pieces of encouragement for violence-weary Baltimoreans. The first is that the gun homicide rate during the 10 years after enactment was 40 percent lower than the "synthetic Connecticut" would have predicted, while the non-gun homicide rate continued to track closely with the model — exactly what you might expect if there was a causal relationship between the law and gun violence. The second is that the effect did not show up right away. It took a few years for the trend lines to diverge, perhaps, the study's authors speculate, because of a spike in gun sales in the months before the law went into effect — something we certainly saw here in 2013 — and perhaps because it simply takes time for the law to prevent enough transactions to have an effect on the street.
There's reason to question whether Maryland's law will have as large an effect, simply because Connecticut enacted other restrictions in 1995 that had already been law here before 2013. But the study is nonetheless reason for policymakers to take note.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, announced simultaneously with the study's release that he would join with senators and a representative from Connecticut to sponsor the Handgun Purchaser Licensing Act of 2015. The bill amounts to a small step — it would authorize the Department of Justice to create a grant program to help states develop their own purchaser licensing systems rather than establish a federal one — but even that is likely too much for a National Rifle Association-influenced Congress, no matter how effective licensing might be.
We do hope, though, that Gov. Larry Hogan might look at the research as evidence that good public policy can keep guns out of the hands of criminals. We don't expect him to pursue new gun control laws, but we hope he will support vigorous enforcement of the ones we already have — in particular, a new measure that allows the state police to audit gun dealers' inventories to make sure weapons aren't going "missing" and another that requires individuals to report lost or stolen guns. The fact that he appointed as superintendent of the State Police veteran trooper William M. Pallozzi, whose last job was to oversee Maryland's gun licensing system, is encouraging.
We may not know what is driving Baltimore's recent epidemic of gun violence, but we can say for certain that it would not be possible if criminals didn't have such easy access to handguns. This new research shows that laws like Maryland's can make a difference; we just need to make sure it is enforced as diligently as possible.