The Johns Hopkins Gazette: September 10, 2001
September 10, 2001
VOL. 31, NO. 2


Study: Firearms Licensing, Registration Deters Criminals, Juveniles

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

States that require mandatory licensing and registration of handguns make it harder for criminals and juveniles to obtain guns from within the state, according to a study conducted by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center for Gun Policy and Research.

The study appears in the September issue of the peer-reviewed journal Injury Prevention and is the first published study to focus on the licensing and registration of firearms. The findings may be particularly relevant for California and other states considering new legislation to require handgun licensing.

Analyzing data on guns recovered from crimes committed in 25 U.S. cities, researchers focused on differences in the proportion of the crime guns that were originally sold by in-state gun dealers. They found that the percentage of crime guns sold by in-state dealers varied by the state's gun control regime: 84 percent had been sold in cities with no licensing or registration requirements, 72 percent in cities in states with either licensing or registration but not both and only 33 percent where the state required both licensing and registration for handgun purchases. The large difference associated with these gun laws remained after the researchers accounted for other factors related to the state of origin of crime guns.

"A very low proportion of crime guns sold in-state indicates that criminals and juveniles are finding it difficult to obtain guns from local sources," explains the study's lead author, Daniel Webster, an assistant professor of health policy and management at the School of Public Health and co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research. "The costs and risks to both buyers and sellers of illegal guns increase when the guns have to cross state borders." Supporting this conclusion, the researchers found that cities with a high percentage of crime guns that had been sold by out-of-state gun dealers had relatively low levels of another indicator of gun availability to criminals: the percentage of a state's homicides that involve guns.

Close proximity to people living in states with few restrictions on gun sales increased the proportion of crime guns first sold outside the state. However, study co-author Jon Vernick says, "Although states with weaker gun laws should realize that this can cause gun trafficking to their neighbors, this does not negate the benefits for states that require licensing and registration." Vernick is assistant professor of health policy and management at the School of Public Health and co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research.

In most states with permit-to-purchase licensing systems, prospective handgun purchasers have direct contact with law enforcement agencies that scrutinize the application, and some laws require the applicant to be fingerprinted. Registration makes it easier to trace guns used in crime to their most recent owner and to investigate illegal gun sales. There was significant variation even among the cities in states with licensing and registration laws. The cities where criminals had the greatest reliance on out-of-state guns--New York, Jersey City, N.J., and Boston--were in states with additional restrictions on guns sales such as allowing law enforcement agencies more discretion to deny applications to purchase handguns, mandatory fingerprinting of applicants and long waiting periods.

Webster says, "Our findings suggest that many states that have either registration or licensing but not both may benefit by adopting more comprehensive handgun sales laws." Currently, only seven states have both permit-to-purchase licensing and registration of handgun purchases.

Lisa M. Hepburn also was an author of the study.