Study: Repeal of Missouri background check contributed to uptick in murders

Missouri’s 2007 repeal of a state law requiring all handgun purchasers to get a license verifying they went through a background check contributed to a 16 percent increase in the state’s murder rate, a new study shows.

The law’s repeal was associated with an additional 55 to 63 murders per year from 2008 to 2012 in Missouri, according to the study to be published in the Journal of Public Health.

Lead author Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, said the study provides “compelling confirmation” that weaknesses in gun laws lead to firearms-related deaths.

“There is strong evidence to support the idea that the repeal of Missouri’s handgun purchaser licensing law contributed to dozens of additional murders in Missouri each year since the law was changed,” Mr. Webster said.

The increase in murders began in the first full year after the so-called “permit-to-purchase” (PTP) law was repealed. Crime gun traces revealed a large increase in the number of guns diverted to criminals and in guns bought in Missouri that were recovered by police in bordering states that retained their PTP laws, the study showed.

The study found that the spike in murders following the repeal only occurred for murders committed with a firearm in the state; none of the boarding states experienced a similar increase and the U.S. murder rate actually declined by more than five percent over the time period.

Its release comes a little more than 14 months after the shooting deaths of 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012.

The incident prompted a feverish but ultimately fruitless push by President Obama and some lawmakers on Capitol Hill to tighten the federal background check system. A measure to require increased checks failed in the U.S. Senate last April.

Mr. Obama recently turned to issuing executive actions in an attempt to bolster the existing National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) by encouraging states to turn over more of their own records to the system.

Proponents of increased background checks say it’s the easiest way to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them, such as criminals and the mentally ill. But opponents argue that increasing the checks would only impose additional burdens on law-abiding citizens and that criminals will just go around the system to get their guns anyway.

Study author Jon Vernick, deputy director for the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, agreed that many criminals do not go through federally-licensed dealers to get their guns — but used that point as an argument to increase the number of checks.

“Because many perpetrators of homicide have backgrounds that would prohibit them from possessing firearms under federal law, they seek out private sellers to acquire their weapons,” Mr. Vernick said. “Requiring a background check on all gun sales is a commonsense approach to reducing gun violence that does not infringe upon the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding gun owners.”

Federally-licensed dealers are currently required to perform background checks on all gun sales, while private sellers are not. However, some states — particularly after Newtown — have passed their own laws to require the checks.

Fifteen states require people purchasing guns from unlicensed sellers to pass background checks and ten require buyers to obtain a permit-to-purchase license, the study said.

Researchers used state-level murder data from the FBI for 1999-2012 and controlled for changes in policing, incarceration, burglaries, unemployment, poverty, and other state laws in Missouri adopted during the study period that could affect violent crime.

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