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America's Gun Laws: How Did Your State Score?

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With over 100,000 gun deaths or injuries every year in America, it is clear what we're doing now to reduce gun violence is not working. Last week, the Brady Campaign released our State Scorecard for 2008, the latest in our annual rating of the 50 states. Each state is evaluated according to a detailed set of gun violence prevention laws that it does, or does not, have. You can read the Scorecard here.

The state scores for 2008 reflect a sad reality that many Americans don't realize. Contrary to the assertion that "thousands" of gun control laws are on the books, there are really only a few designed to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people - and even those have loopholes.

Thirty-seven states scored less than 20 points out of 100 on this year's Scorecard; 25 states scored 10 points or less. That means nearly three-fourths of the states in America lack even a basic gun violence prevention safety net to protect communities and families from dangerous people who find it easy to obtain firearms. America's five most violent states, for example - South Carolina, Tennessee, Nevada, Louisiana, and Florida -- have no laws to require a Brady criminal background check for every gun sale, no laws to combat illegal gun trafficking effectively, and no laws to restrict access to military-style assault weapons.

One result is that - as the most recent figures show - South Carolina has the highest violent crime rate in America; Tennessee has the fifth-highest rate of gun homicide; Nevada has America's fourth-highest gun death rate (including the fourth-highest rate of gun suicide); while Louisiana has the highest gun death rate, highest gun homicide rate, and highest accidental gun death rate in America.

Gun homicides in America rose over 14% between 1999 and 2005, according to the latest available figures. Ten states with the highest gun death rates in America have some of the nation's weakest gun laws, including Louisiana, Alaska, Montana, Tennessee, Alabama, Nevada, Arkansas, Arizona, Mississippi, and West Virginia.

Overall rates are influenced by a number of factors, but the consequences of dangerous behavior are only magnified by easy access to guns by dangerous people. Reasonable restrictions on who gets guns, what types of guns they can get, where guns can be taken, and how guns are sold, can help mitigate dangerous behavior while still respecting the Second Amendment. Even though such limitations on guns are a central part of last summer's Supreme Court decision, the gun lobby tries to ignore that part of the decision.

At the other end of the Scorecard is California. With almost 37 million people, California would rank among the most populous nations in the world. It also has America's strongest gun violence prevention safety net. Laws such as mandatory background checks on all firearm purchases, a "one-handgun-a-month" law to prevent bulk handgun purchases that feed the illegal gun market, a tough restriction on access to assault weapons, and many other effective gun laws work together to help keep dangerous weapons from dangerous people. Not surprisingly, California ranks in the lower half of all states in total gun death rates, with a gun homicide rate half of Louisiana's.

Other states are also making progress. For example, the Illinois legislature is considering a bill to extend Brady criminal background checks to all handgun purchases from unlicensed sellers, a crucial way to screen out as many felons, fugitives, domestic abusers and dangerously mentally ill as possible from the gun purchasing process.

New Jersey just passed new restrictions on military-style assault weapons, and is now considering a limit on the bulk purchasing of handguns to cut illegal gun trafficking. Also, New York has a bill pending to require handguns to "microstamp" ammunition each time a round is fired, helping law enforcement find criminal shooters faster. California recently enacted similar legislation.

After last year's Supreme Court decision in the Heller case, and the election of Barack Obama as President, it is a new day for gun violence prevention in America. There is much work to do, however, and I hope that in the year ahead you consider joining our grassroots effort to help improve your state's score, and make all of our communities safer from the threat of gun violence.

(Note to readers: This entry, along with past entries, has been co-posted on bradycampaign.org/blog and the Huffington Post.)

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