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Claire McCarthy, M.D. Headshot

Do More Gun Laws Lead to Fewer Gun Deaths?

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All of us, especially those of us with children, have been shaken by the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. None of us wants to see something like that happen again -- and because of that, our country has been talking a lot about guns and gun safety.

A study just released in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) has something to add to the conversation. It finds that the states with the most firearm legislation have fewer deaths from guns than the states with the least firearm legislation.

Using information about firearm legislation in different states collected by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, researchers from Boston Children's Hospital and the Harvard School of Public Health divided the states into quartiles based on the amount and breadth of their firearm legislation. They then compared this with data on firearm deaths reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What they found was striking:

• States with the most firearm legislation had 42 percent fewer deaths from firearms than states with the least legislation
• It wasn't just homicide that was less (by 40 percent) -- suicides using firearms were also lower, by 37 percent.
• People didn't find other ways to kill others or themselves -- in the states with lower deaths from firearm, there weren't more homicides or suicides from other causes.
• States with the most firearm laws had the lowest levels of household gun ownership

The last point is an important one, because it gets at the chicken-or-egg problem of this study. As the authors point out, they can't tell whether having more laws is the cause of the fewer deaths. It could actually be the other way around: It may be that in states with more guns, it's harder to get gun laws passed because of the way people feel about guns in that state. And as other studies have shown, when there are more people who own guns, there are more deaths from guns.

So it may be that more gun laws don't actually lead to fewer gun deaths.

But what if they do? Or -- what if some particular laws do? In the study, the types of legislation most clearly associated with decreasing rates of death were laws involving universal background checks and those that required permits to purchase firearms.

In 2010, 31, 672 people died from firearms. Of them, 380 were less than 15 years old --including 11 infants, and 71 toddlers and preschoolers. 6, 201 were between the ages of 15 and 24.

That's a lot of lives cut short.

"Our hope is this study will help inform the ongoing public debate related to firearms," said Eric Fleegler, MD, the lead author. That public debate has been contentious at times, and the debate about this study will likely be contentious too. But this isn't your average chicken-or-egg problem. Lives are at stake.

All of us, however we might feel about guns, want to keep our family, friends and neighbors safe. So let's take this study and really look at it and learn anything we can from it. Let's work together to find the solutions that make sense -- and save lives.