Gun violence can feel like an unsolvable problem, with every mass shooting, like last week’s killings in Maine, affirming that the situation is getting worse. Still, the U.S. has made some progress over the past few decades, enacting policies that have saved lives. So concludes a new study by Patrick Sharkey and Megan Kang at Princeton, reports the New York Times. Stricter gun laws passed by 40 states from 1991 to 2016 helped reduce gun deaths by nearly 4,300 in 2016, or about 10% of the nationwide total. States with stricter laws, such as background checks and waiting periods, consistently had fewer gun deaths. “The challenge of gun violence is not intractable, and in fact, we have just lived through a period of enormous progress that was driven by public policy,” Sharkey said. The national conversation about gun violence focuses on big federal policy ideas. Activists and pundits often speak about the need for a federal law enacting universal background checks or banning assault weapons.
It’s true that guns kill many more people in the U.S. than in other rich countries, and the U.S. will likely remain an outlier for the foreseeable future. However, the study by Sharkey and Kang shows that changes at the state level can have an effect. Even policies that seem limited, like safety training requirements or age restrictions, add up. “There’s no single policy that is going to eliminate the flow or circulation of guns within and across states,” Sharkey said. “But the idea is these kinds of regulations accumulate.” The gun problem is rooted in easy access to firearms. Anything that adds barriers to picking up a firearm in such moments reduces deaths, whether it’s incremental state policies or broader federal laws. The new study is one part of a broader line of research demonstrating that point. The Times reports a "major caveat" to the progress that Sharkey and Kang documented: It seems to have ended. Since 2016, many states have loosened their gun laws, and firearms sales have surged, particularly during the COVID pandemic. Gun deaths have increased over the same period, and mass shootings have become more common. A rise in deaths, looser laws, and increased firearm purchases are likely related trends, Sharkey said.