Do California's gun laws work?

Supporters of California’s rigorous gun controls have a pretty compelling argument on their side: California has tough gun laws and it has relatively low rates of gun violence. And that’s a relationship that generally holds true across all 50 states.

But as with any thorny sociological question—particularly one where lives, livelihoods, deeply held values and constitutional law all hang in the balance—it’s probably more complicated than that. 

Do tight gun laws lead to lower deaths? Or is it that states with less gun violence (due to different cultural attitudes about guns or varying economic and demographic patterns) are more likely to adopt tighter gun controls? 

There seems to be relatively strong evidence that denying firearms to at least certain “high-risk” individuals leads to lower levels of violence. Three separate studies found that in states that keep guns away from those under domestic violence restraining orders, gun homicide rates between partners are 9 to 25 percent lower. California has such a law on the books. A similar study found that denying guns to those with misdemeanor violent crime convictions reduced their chances of being rearrested for another violent crime by 30 percent. California has this type of gun ban in place too.

Do comprehensive background checks keep guns away from those who shouldn’t have them?

One study concluded California’s law had relatively little effect—suggesting vendors skirting the rules and lax enforcement could be why. But another study estimated that when states require gun vendors to get licensed, conduct background checks and are subject to inspection, gun homicides can be expected to fall by more than 50 percent. An overview of the research from the RAND Corporation found suggestive but “limited evidence that background checks reduce violent crime.”

And concealed carry laws?

landmark economic study from the mid-1990s found evidence that making it easier for people to carry reduced crime, supporting the NRA’s “good guy with a gun” theory. But more recent research using the same statistical techniques but with a larger dataset claims to show the exact opposite.

“What probably has the greatest impact are a number of things acting together—just the pure volume of laws,” said Eric Fleegler, a pediatric emergency physician at Boston Children’s Hospital and professor at Harvard University. “We are studying legislation and not randomized control trials. But overall, when you look at systematic reviews of legislation on homicides and suicides, it is fairly clear that legislation designed to place reasonable restrictions on how firearms are sold or maintained or stored does lead to decreased fatality rates.”