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WHAT OTHERS SAY: Study shows weak gun laws spur 16 percent increase in deaths

Monday, February 24, 2014 | 1:08 p.m. CST

What if Daniel Webster is right?

What if weaker background check laws on gun purchases result in more gun deaths? Mr. Webster’s new study indicates that is precisely what happened in Missouri.

As Missouri lawmakers prepare to vote on yet another bill that weakens or attempts to weaken gun laws, they should ask themselves, what if Daniel Webster is right?

Mr. Webster is the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. He’s also the lead author of a new study that examined the effect of a change in Missouri law in 2007.

Until then, everybody in the Show-Me State who wanted to buy a handgun had to undergo a background check conducted by his local sheriff. The gun lobby convinced lawmakers the law was a hassle. It made people wait too long to get guns. Lawmakers repealed it. Gun sales boomed.

But here’s what else happened, according to Mr. Webster’s study, which will be published in the next issue of the Journal of Urban Health: More criminals got guns. More people died.

Weak laws, more murders

The study determined that in Missouri, after the background check law was repealed, gun deaths increased an average of 16 percent per year. That means 55 to 63 more murders take place in Missouri every year because of the state’s lax gun laws.

Keep in mind, Mr. Webster’s study controlled for differences in state laws, for changes in poverty, unemployment and policing techniques. The results shouldn’t be surprising.

Last year, we reported on Mr. Webster’s previous work studying the repeal of the 2007 law, and how there was a boon in what researchers call the “time-to-crime” ratio. That’s how long it takes between the retail sale of a gun and its later use in a criminal action, in some cases after it is stolen.

After repeal of the 2007 law, the share of guns seized by a Missouri police agency that had a short “time-to-crime” interval more than doubled.

The results of the Johns Hopkins study were announced the same day the Missouri Senate was voting on yet another bill to weaken gun laws. This one would attempt to nullify every federal gun law ever passed. It would make criminals of any federal law enforcement official who tried to enforce such laws.

Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed a similar bill last year. He’ll probably do the same thing this year. If the legislature overrides the veto, the law will be tossed in court because of its conflict with federal law. But for a moment, imagine you live in the legislature’s fantasy world where Senate Bill 613 is in place.

Mr. Webster wouldn’t be able to study its effects on the murder rate because it would become impossible for federal officials to actually trace the source of guns used in crimes. Lawmakers would create a situation where judging the effect of their work is nearly impossible.

Maybe that’s what they want.

We’re positive that some lawmakers (Republicans and Democrats) will scoff at Mr. Webster’s work. They’ll ignore the academic rigor. They’ll suggest, perhaps, that the additional 55 to 63 murders in Missouri are all people involved in criminal activity who deserved to die.

This would be a mistake.

When Charles Lee “Cookie” Thornton shot up Kirkwood City Hall on Feb. 7, 2008, not long after the repeal of the background check law, it was with two stolen handguns, a revolver and a .40-caliber semi-automatic he took from the body of his first victim, Police Sgt. William Biggs.

Sgt. Biggs, Officer Thomas Ballman, Connie Karr, Michael H.T. Lynch, Michael Swoboda and Ken Yost didn’t deserve to die.

We don’t know if the 2007 law would have saved their lives. But according to Mr. Webster’s research, it would have saved dozens more that year and every year since.

You add them to the 700 who die prematurely each year for lack of Medicaid insurance, the legislature is racking up quite a record.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.


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