ID Check Repeal Prompts Spike In Murders, Study Finds

In 2007, Missouri repealed a law requiring gun buyers to obtain a license demonstrating they'd first passed a background check. In the years that followed, the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research tracked the results. In the forthcoming issue of Journal of Urban Health, the center will release it's findings: The law's repeal was associated with an additional 55 to 63 murders per year in Missouri between 2008 and 2012. For more on the report, Audie Cornish speaks with Daniel Webster, the director of the center.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. In 2007, the state of Missouri made a big change to its gun laws. It repealed a long standing law that required anyone who wanted to buy a handgun to obtain a license proving they'd passed a background check. So no matter who the seller was, a buyer had to have this license. Well, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research have been studying what happened in Missouri after this repeal and they've just released their findings.

I'm joined now by the director of the program, Daniel Webster. Welcome to the studio.

DANIEL WEBSTER: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So before we get to what happened, let's be clear. What did you need to buy a gun, a handgun in Missouri?

WEBSTER: Well, following the repeal, if you were going to purchase a handgun from a licensed dealer, you would apply right there with the dealer, give your information and then they would submit it for a background check. However, if you found that inconvenient, you could simply go to a private seller, maybe you would connect at a gun show or through the internet or some other means and that seller would have no obligation to ask any questions, whether you were prohibited or not. They deregulated private transactions for handguns.

CORNISH: In your research, what did you find happened after the repeal?

WEBSTER: Well, firearm homicide rates increased sharply immediately after the repeal of the law. For more than a three-year period following the law, firearm homicides increased by 23 percent.

CORNISH: Give us a sense of what those numbers mean. I don't know if that's hundreds of murders or, you know, dozens.

WEBSTER: Oh, sure. We estimate that the repeal of the law was associated with roughly 60 additional homicides per year that the law was no longer in place.

CORNISH: And so how exactly did you measure that, though? I mean, how did you go about narrowing it down to say, yes, it's because of this law?

WEBSTER: Well, we wanted to first statistically control for other things that might explain changes in the homicide rates, so we controlled for policing levels, incarceration rates, unemployment, poverty and changes to other laws that some studies show are related to homicide rates. We also wanted to know whether the change in homicide rates was specific to firearms or whether it was just an overall increase in violence that had nothing to do with firearms.

What we found is after we controlled for all those competing hypotheses that, again, there was a 23 percent increase associated with the repeal of this law, and it was only found in homicides that were committed with firearms.

CORNISH: And you also looked at criminal traces of weapons, I understand.

WEBSTER: Yes, we did. As we would've predicted, if the law is responsible for the increase in homicide rates, we would've seen an increase in the diversion of guns to criminals. Looking at data from guns traced to crime, that's precisely what we found. We found, basically, a twofold increase in the proportion of guns that were being recovered from criminals in crime scenes that had been purchased after the repeal of this law when there's less accountability in the system.

CORNISH: So this increase was 23 percent for firearm-related death in Missouri, but what was going on nationally or even in the border states?

WEBSTER: Well, the trends in the border states and nationally were in opposite direction. Bordering states aggregated saw a 2.2 percent decline in firearm homicide rates during that period and nationally there was a 5.5 percent reduction in firearm homicide rates.

CORNISH: What is the kind of greater context for this? I mean, does this speak to a direct correlation when it comes to background checks? And can you make that leap given how few states actually have these kinds of laws?

WEBSTER: Well, we've done studies in the past that looked at these laws in particular and their association with keeping guns from being diverted to criminals and we've found, and very consistently, that these are probably the most effective single tool for preventing diversions of guns to criminals.

CORNISH: Daniel Webster, he's the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. Thank you so much for coming in to talk with us.

WEBSTER: Thanks for having me.

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