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State Laws Govern Gun Purchases Very Differently Across The Country


From state to state, you'll find a patchwork quilt of gun laws. New York is among a handful of states with very strict laws; Massachusetts, Connecticut, California and New Jersey are others. Among the states with the fewest restrictions: Arizona, Montana and Vermont. For a sense of how laws govern the purchase of guns, we turn to Daniel Webster. He directs the Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He lays out a scenario comparing a state with tight laws, New Jersey, and a state with looser laws typical of those in much of the country, Virginia.

DANIEL WEBSTER: In Virginia, if you want to purchase a gun, you can either choose to go into a licensed gun dealer, pick out whatever you want, a quick background check. You know, you're in and out of there 20, 30 minutes with no problem. In New Jersey, for example, it would be very different. Your first step is you'd have to go and apply for a license at a local law enforcement agency. They would fingerprint you, photograph you. They would have up to 30 days to complete a very thorough background check, and then you would make your way to a licensed gun dealer. And then, of course, private sales are very different in those two comparisons as well. In Virginia, if I happen to know someone, maybe I met him online, maybe I saw him in a gun show, as long as I had the cash, I can pretty much make that exchange. No background check, no records, no regulation whatsoever. New Jersey, private transactions, you have to first verify that the person has a valid handgun purchase license.

BLOCK: Why would that be a disincentive? Why would some people not want to get a permit?

WEBSTER: Well, of course, some people aren't actually legal to possess a gun. And so they would much prefer to be in a less regulated environment. They could get someone to be a straw purchaser for them. In a state like Virginia, all you have to do is convince them to go to some gun store where, you know, they don't frankly pay that much attention. As long as you got the cash and show an ID, they'll make the exchange.

It's a very different experience to ask someone to be a straw purchaser. They first have to go down the local law enforcement agency and sign, verify that they're going to abide by the laws of the states with - as it relates to handguns. They're going to fingerprint you. I'm sure it's a much more intimidating process to get someone to agree to do that for you. And that's what the data indicate in a pretty strong way. Far fewer guns sold in the state of New Jersey are later diverted into the hands of criminals. The vast majority of their guns that are used in crime were sold on states with much weaker gun laws.

BLOCK: It is a real question, isn't it, because if gun laws vary so much from state to state, and we know that guns are trafficked freely, how effective would any one state's laws be?

WEBSTER: Clearly, the effectiveness of the strictest gun laws are being compromised by states that have weaker laws, that's without a doubt. We, nevertheless, do see beneficial effects simply because there is a cost for interstate trafficking. You're asking people to subject themselves, if they are caught, to the federal penalties. We see much higher street prices for guns on the streets, let's say at places like New York City, than we do in, say, in Richmond, Virginia. That tells you guns are more scarce on the streets of New York probably as a result of their strict gun laws.

BLOCK: Well, one big question, and a question that's really hotly debated is when you look at gun laws and crime rates in individual states, whether or not there's any correlation there, whether there are just too many variables and you can't tie one to the other.

WEBSTER: Right. So this can get very complex because typically the states with the most lax gun laws are more rural states. And the states that have chosen to adopt stricter gun regulations tend to be more urban states. So I think that's one thing that's sort of makes this very confusing because we start to compare apples to oranges.

But when you control for things like age and poverty, urbanization, you do see significantly lower firearm death rates in the states with the most comprehensive regulations.

BLOCK: And is that debated? Is that in dispute?

WEBSTER: Oh, I'm sure it's in dispute. Almost anything related to guns is in dispute. But my own looking at the data, my assessment is that, again, when you control for the key drivers of violence and look at the subset that have the most comprehensive regulations, they do stand out as having lower gun homicide and lower gun suicides.

BLOCK: Daniel Webster directs the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University. Daniel Webster, thanks so much.

WEBSTER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.