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The case for requiring gun licenses

Politicians tend to focus on universal background checks. License requirements have more evidence behind them.

A man walks with a rifle and a Texas flag attached to it during a police appreciation rally in Houston, Texas, on June 18, 2020.
A man walks with a rifle and a Texas flag attached to it during a police appreciation rally in Houston, Texas, on June 18, 2020.
Mark Felix/AFP via Getty Images

After a shooting in America gets national attention, the debate usually centers around a few gun control measures, particularly universal background checks and an assault weapons ban. That’s what happened after the April mass shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis — with President Joe Biden calling on Congress to pass both measures.

But if America wants to make a real dent in gun violence, it might want to consider another approach: requiring a license to buy and own a firearm.

For one, the evidence on the effects of universal background checks and assault weapons bans is pretty weak. Several studies in recent years have found that universal background checks, at least on their own, don’t seem to have a big effect on gun deaths. Similarly, the research on assault weapons bans, including the national ban that Biden helped pass in 1994, found they have little effect on gun violence, largely because the vast majority of such violence is committed with handguns.

But there’s some solid evidence that a license system reduces gun deaths. A 2018 study from researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that universal background checks alone correlated with more gun homicides in urban counties, while license systems were associated with fewer gun homicides. Other studies have similarly found that license requirements lead to fewer gun deaths.

One way to explain these findings is that the reach of universal background checks and assault weapons bans is too small. The US already has background checks for most legal gun purchases, and all universal background checks would do is cover the minority of gun purchases not detected in the existing system. An assault weapons ban would cover a minority of guns used in crimes and would probably have loopholes that miss segments of that minority.

A license system, though, is more comprehensive. In Massachusetts, one of the few states with a license system, obtaining a permit requires going through a multi-step process involving interviews with police, background checks, a gun safety training course, and more. Even if a person passes all of that, the local police chief can deny an application anyway. That creates more points at which an applicant can be identified as too dangerous to own a gun; it makes getting and owning a gun harder.

Whatever one makes of all of this, the evidence strongly suggests the license requirement works. Massachusetts, for one, has the lowest rate of gun deaths in the country.

Democrats in Washington, DC, however, seem unenthusiastic. Only a few lawmakers, like New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker have embraced a license requirement. On the campaign trail, Biden voiced skepticism about the idea, claiming it “will not change whether or not people buy what weapons — what kinds of weapons they can buy, where they can use them, how they can store them.”

Public opinion can’t be blamed here. A recent poll by Data for Progress found that 69 percent of Americans, including a majority of Republicans and gun owners, support a license system — more support than an assault weapons ban received in the same survey.

Now, the reality is Democrats are unlikely to do anything big on guns in the coming years, given their razor-thin margins of control in the House and Senate. But if Biden and other party leaders want to raise the issue of gun violence, they might as well focus on the policies with the strongest evidence behind them — especially if those same policies happen to have the public’s support.

It’s not clear if universal background checks and an assault weapons ban meet those criteria. But requiring a license to buy and own a gun does.

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