Reducing Handgun Violence -- One Step at a Time

From the WebMD Archives

Feb. 27, 2001 -- According to researchers at the University of California-Davis Medical Center, when people who have committed misdemeanor crimes are restricted from purchasing handguns in the future, there is a subsequent decrease in new gun crimes among high-risk populations.

Common sense? Maybe, but experts say that studies like this are valuable in order to design new gun laws and cut the epidemic of gun violence in this country.

In 1999, more than 560,000 violent crimes, including 10,000 homicides, were committed with guns in this country, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. While grassroots efforts and state-level programs work to cut gun violence, the nationwide cost of handgun crimes is estimated at $100 billion a year.

Stephen P. Teret, JD, MPH, professor of health policy and management and director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, says this latest analysis is another important step in the prevention of handgun brutality.

"This study and others like it help form a larger picture of the direction we need to move toward gun policy in the U.S.," Teret tells WebMD. The sobering fact, he says, is that 30,000 people die each year looking down the barrel of a gun. "Our long-term goal is to reduce the incidence of gun deaths in the U.S.," he says, however that can be done.

Michael D. McGonigal, MD, director of the Trauma Center at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, Minn., agrees, and says that while much has been done, there's much left to do. "If there were high-impact things still to do regarding gun violence, we would probably already have thought of them," he tells WebMD. "Anything like this study adds one more increment in the overall solution."

McGonigal, who is director of Calling The Shots, a program designed to change attitudes and behavior toward gun violence, says, "Essentially, what this study shows is that access to handguns for people with a history of not being law-abiding citizens should be limited and can make a difference."

The study, published in the Feb. 28 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), was undertaken by Garen J. Wintemute, MD, MPH, and colleagues at the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis. They studied the records of more than 1,500 people who made applications for a handgun in California during 1989-1991. All of the applicants had at least one violent misdemeanor conviction during the preceding 10 years. Of the applicants, 986 persons were denied the purchase of a handgun, and 787 people purchased one.

Researchers found that over a three-year period, one-third of those who purchased handguns were arrested for a new crime. In addition, denial of handgun purchase was linked to a slight decrease in the risk of arrest for either new gun or violent crimes.

In an editorial in the same issue of JAMA, Thomas B. Cole, MD, MPH, contributing editor of the journal, writes: "[The researchers] have provided solid evidence that denying handguns to individuals who have been convicted of violent crimes -- whether misdemeanors or felonies -- prevents subsequent violence. Unless better evidence proves otherwise, this intervention works."

Some critics argue that people with criminal intent who are prevented from buying guns legally will simply acquire them elsewhere. Although this may be true for some people, the researchers stress that the "legal gun market is an important source of guns for purchasers with criminal intent."

Teret and McGonigal agree that a mandated law for all states would be best, but McGonigal says "the way that people and states perceive gun rights, [a law] will probably need to move forward on state levels first."

The good news, McGonigal says, is that the rate of handgun violence is coming down -- at least in some populations, and he expects that overall rates will begin to turn around over the next few years as well.

McGonigal appeals to those who are staunchly cognizant of their rights to keep weapons, to remember: "This study is not recommending that the right to access guns be taken away from the general population. The NRA has always said it's not the law-abiding citizens that are the problem."