In a finding that casts doubt on one of the pillars of the gun control movement, a new study by anti-gun researchers published in the anti-gun Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) concludes that the Brady Act had no effect on firearm homicide and suicide rates in states that had no background checks or waiting periods before 1994.
Gun control advocates immediately criticized the study, but then said it reaffirmed the Brady laws effectiveness in reducing gun crimes nationwide and emphasized the need for further regulation of handgun sales. Attorney General Janet Reno defended the Brady Act and suggested that it was too early to measure its real impact.
Stung by headlines such as Brady Law leaves homicide, suicide rates unaffected, which appeared in the anti-gun Washington Post, Reno cited questionable research from Handgun Controls tax-exempt sister, the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, which claimed that because guns were less available, 9,368 lives were saved between 1994 and 1998.
Someone who is not authorized goes to purchase a gun and cant because they have a prior record must have some effect [on the declining rate of gun crimes], Reno said. It may just take longer to measure that affect.
No one should jump to conclusions, she said. It shows we need more study and that each community is different. There is no one particular answer for all communities.
Few scholarly papers on guns, however, have received such widespread coverage in the general press and the broadcast media. And few have been occasioned by the criticism coming from both sides of the firearms debate.
The study by Philip J. Cook of Duke University and Jens Ludwig of Georgetown University, both of whom having written extensively in support of new gun laws, analyzed national homicide and suicide data between 1985 and 1997. Cook and Ludwig divided the states into two groups: 32 that installed the Brady Act handgun purchase controls in 1994, and 19 (18 states plus the District) that already had Brady-style restrictions. The latter group was treated as the control group for the study.
While the study (available on the AMA website: www.jama.com) confirmed a well-documented reduction in firearms deaths across the United States beginning in 1993-94, the data show no difference in the overall rate of decline between the two sets of states.
There was, however, a sharp drop in gun suicides among adults 55 and older in the Brady states group.
Still, theres no real convincing way to show how much of the reduction can be attributed to Brady, said Ludwig, a Georgetown public policy specialist.
The study provided a volatile new addition to the national gun control debate, and the National Rifle Association hastened to take note.
We dont always agree with the American Medical Association, but in this case common sense has prevailed, said James Jay Baker, executive director of the NRAs Institute for Legislative Action. Schemes like the Brady waiting period have nothing to do with reducing criminal behavior.
The 1994 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act required that federally licensed firearms dealers impose a waiting period on the purchase of handguns while a background check was conducted for each prospective buyer.
Previous to the new study, entitled Homicide and Suicide Rates Associated With Implementation of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, the effects of the act had not been analyzed.
The objective for Cook and Ludwig was to determine whether implementation of the Brady Act was associated with reductions in homicide and suicide rates. They analyzed vital statistics data in the United States for 1985 through 1997 from the National Center for Health Statistics.
Total and firearm homicide and suicide rates per 100,000 adults (21 years and 55 years) and proportion of homicides and suicides resulting from firearms were calculated by state and year. Controlling for population age, race, poverty and income levels, urban residence, and alcohol consumption, the 32 treatment states directly affected by the Brady Act requirements were compared with the 18 control states and the District of Columbia, which had equivalent legislation already in place.
Based on the assumption that the greatest reductions in fatal violence would be within states that were required to institute waiting periods and background checks, implementation of the Brady Act appears to have been associated with reductions in the firearm suicide rate for persons aged 55 years or older but not with reductions in homicide rates or overall suicide rates, Cook and Ludwig reported.
They added, however, that the pattern of implementation of the Brady Act does not permit a reliable analysis of a potential effect of reductions in the flow of guns from treatment-state gun dealers into secondary markets.
Their findings provoked strong words on both sides of the gun control debate, and were even questioned in an editorial that appeared in the same issue of JAMA as the study. The AMA supported the Brady Act.
The National Rifle Association claimed the research supports the notion that gun regulations like the Brady Act have no effect on crime. While advocates of stricter gun laws said the study is not an appropriate measure of the success or failure of the Brady Act.
The Cook and Ludwig findings follow research presented in late July by the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, which estimates that 9,368 lives were saved between 1994 and 1998 because guns were less available to criminals.
In their study, Cook and Ludwig note that homicide and suicide rates had already begun to decline nationwide before 1994, but they assumed those rates would fall faster in treatment states. Instead, they found no overall difference, except that gun suicides dropped 6% among people aged 55 and older in the treatment states, Ludwig said.
Reductions in suicides also were seen in other age groups but the numbers were not statistically significant, Ludwig said. Suicides are comparatively common in older adults, so its not surprising that the biggest impact would be found in that age group, he said.
Ludwig acknowledged that the research was not designed to analyze the Brady Acts indirect impact on what is known as the secondary gun marketgun sales by unlicensed dealers, which some claim are the source of a significant number of weapons used in crimes.
The findings show the importance of extending regulations like the Brady Act to secondary market sales, Ludwig said.
That extension has already been proposed in legislation that would require background checks on all private firearms sales and trades at gun shows. Some anti-gunners have already suggested that the background check, conducted through licenses dealers, was required for all private sales.
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