There’s a question often asked in gun control debates: If gun control works, why do cities and states with strict restrictions on firearms still have so much gun violence?
A new report from the New York State Office of the Attorney General offers an answer: The firearms used in that violence tend to come from other places that don’t have strict gun laws.
The report, released this week, looked at the guns recovered from crime scenes in the state. It found that 74 percent of guns used in crimes between 2010 and 2015 came from states with lax gun laws.
The findings suggest that New York’s gun control laws are working, at least to some degree. But since other states tend to have less strict gun laws, would-be criminals can simply obtain guns from places outside New York.
Even before the attorney general’s report, this phenomenon was widely known as a big problem in New York, frequently called “the Iron Pipeline.” But it exposes the limits of local and state policy: A state can set restrictions on firearms all it wants, but it’s not going to be effective at stamping out gun crime until other states — or the federal government — follow.
Almost all guns used in crime start out as legal. Then they’re diverted.
Nearly all guns used in crimes begin as legal firearms.
But as the New York attorney general’s report notes, these guns can then be diverted in various ways. Federally licensed dealers and their employees may illegally sell guns off the books — without completing the necessary background check and paperwork. Thieves may steal guns after they’re obtained legally. Straw purchasers may buy a gun, complete the required paperwork and background check, and then give or sell the gun to someone else without completing any paperwork or a background check.
The New York report suggests this happens quite often in the state. It found that 74 percent of guns used in crimes and 86 percent of handguns used in crimes came from other states — well above the national 2015 average of 29 percent for all guns. And almost half of all crime guns came from just six states with weaker gun laws.
Not all guns recovered from crime scenes were successfully traced, but the New York attorney general estimates that 88 percent of the more than 52,000 firearms analyzed in the report were.
The report also found that guns that were seemingly trafficked were more likely to come from states that don’t neighbor New York but have lax gun laws. New Jersey, which borders New York but has fairly strict gun laws, “contributed less than one percent of New York’s trafficked guns.” Pennsylvania, which borders New York and has lax gun laws, contributed 13 percent. Six non-neighboring states with weak gun laws (Florida, Georgia, Ohio, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia) contributed 61 percent. This suggests that it’s these states’ lax gun laws — not just their proximity to New York — that drives the pipeline of firearms.
New York’s problem speaks to the need for federal gun control laws
New York’s problem appears to be worse than the average state’s, but New York is far from unique in experiencing a massive flow of guns from outside the state.
Another example is Chicago, where multiple reports have concluded that many guns used for crime in the city also come from outside the state. According to a 2014 report from the Chicago Police Department, 60 percent of the guns in crime scenes that were recovered and traced between 2009 and 2013 came from outside the state. About 19 percent came from Indiana — making it the most common state of origin for guns besides Illinois. The report also concluded that “Chicago’s violence problem is directly linked to the number of illegal guns available in the City.”
It isn’t even a problem exclusive to the US. Other federal data suggests that most of the guns — as many as 70 percent — used in crimes in Mexico, which has strict gun laws, can be traced back to the US, which has generally weaker gun laws.
All of this shows that strict local or state gun laws alone can’t be very effective at stopping gun violence. Only federal laws or state cooperation can truly take on this issue by curtailing interstate trafficking. Until that happens, America’s levels of gun violence will likely continue being much worse than other developed nations’.
More guns mean more gun violence
The US has nearly six times the gun homicide rate of Canada, more than seven times Sweden’s, and nearly 16 times Germany’s, according to United Nations data compiled by the Guardian. (These gun deaths are a big reason America has a much higher overall homicide rate, which includes non-gun deaths, than other developed nations.)
And there appears to be a correlation between America’s high levels of gun violence and gun ownership, as this chart from Tewksbury Lab shows:
Research has consistently shown that more guns mean more gun violence. Researchers have found this to be true not just with homicides but also suicides, domestic violence, and violence against police.
Studies have found this at both the state and country level. Take, for instance, this chart, from a 2007 study by Harvard researchers, showing the correlation between statewide firearm homicide victimization rates and household gun ownership after controlling for robbery rates:
This holds up around the world. As Zack Beauchamp explained for Vox, a breakthrough analysis in the 1990s by UC Berkeley’s Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins found that the US does not, contrary to the old conventional wisdom, have more crime in general than other Western industrial nations. Instead, the US appears to have more lethal violence — and that’s driven in large part by the prevalence of guns.
“A series of specific comparisons of the death rates from property crime and assault in New York City and London show how enormous differences in death risk can be explained even while general patterns are similar,” Zimring and Hawkins wrote. “A preference for crimes of personal force and the willingness and ability to use guns in robbery make similar levels of property crime 54 times as deadly in New York City as in London.”
Guns are not the only factor that contribute to violence. Other factors include, for example, concentrations of poverty, urbanization, and alcohol consumption. But when researchers control for other confounding variables, they have found time and time again that America’s high levels of gun ownership are a major reason the US is so much worse in terms of gun violence than its developed peers.
Given that, it should come as no surprise that the research has also found that tighter restrictions on guns can prevent deaths: A 2016 review of 130 studies in 10 countries, published in Epidemiologic Reviews, found that new legal restrictions on owning and purchasing guns tended to be followed by a drop in gun violence — a strong indicator that restricting access to guns can save lives.
Some countries can testify to the success of gun control measures. In Australia, after a mass shooting in 1996, lawmakers passed new restrictions on guns and imposed a mandatory buyback program that essentially confiscated people’s guns, seizing at least 650,000 firearms.
According to one review of the evidence by Harvard researchers, Australia’s firearm homicide rate dropped by about 42 percent in the seven years after the law passed, and its firearm suicide rate fell by 57 percent.
Although it’s hard to gauge how much of this was driven by the buyback program, researchers argue it likely played some role: “First, the drop in firearm deaths was largest among the type of firearms most affected by the buyback. Second, firearm deaths in states with higher buyback rates per capita fell proportionately more than in states with lower buyback rates.”
In short, more guns mean more gun deaths, and more restrictions on guns mean fewer guns and fewer gun deaths.
At the same time, New York’s example shows there’s only so much that one state can do. And that leaves it up to the federal government to really put an end to the nation’s extraordinarily high levels of gun violence.