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Most US states get a failing grade on gun laws, according to a new scorecard published by the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
The group, which advocates for stricter gun laws as a way to save lives, gave What Matters a first look at the new analysis.
The key point is that more permissive gun laws equal more gun deaths in US states:
- Of the 10 states with the highest proportion of gun deaths per 100,000 people in 2021, all got failing grades – an F – from Giffords, except New Mexico, which got a C+.
- Of the 10 states with the lowest proportion of gun deaths per 100,000 people in 2021, all got passing grades except New Hampshire.
The recent shooting at an elementary school in Nashville, Tennessee, has only intensified discussion of how society can cut down on gun deaths.
Multiple states are moving in the direction of making laws even more lax:
- That includes Tennessee, where hundreds of protesters entered the state capitol Thursday. Lawmakers there want to roll back age restrictions put in place a few years ago and make it easier to openly carry a firearm in public.
- In Florida, lawmakers advanced a permitless-carry proposal and are on track to roll back age restrictions enacted just a few years ago from 21 back to 18.
- In North Carolina, the Republican-led legislature overrode the state’s Democratic governor to make it legal to buy a handgun without a permit.
But that’s not the whole story, as I learned from Kelly Drane, research director at Giffords. She explained more about the group’s scorecard to me by email and over the phone, and argued the country is diverging on guns, with about half of states picking at gun laws and the other half sewing them up.
I should note here that this is not an entirely political divide. There are a few discrepancies between the Giffords scorecard map and the political map:
- New Hampshire, Maine, Arizona and Georgia all get failing grades from Giffords, but went for President Joe Biden in 2020.
- Wisconsin gets a D+ from Giffords and went narrowly for Biden, but then sent a Republican, Sen. Ron Johnson, back to the US Senate in 2022.
- Florida, which is all but a red state in terms of politics, still gets a C- from Giffords. North Carolina, which went for former President Donald Trump in 2020, gets a C from Giffords, although both states could see lower grades next year.
- Nebraska, with a solid C, is another red state that gets a passing grade from Giffords and is the only red state with one of the 10 lowest gun death rates.
Here’s more from my conversation with Drane about how Giffords went about its analysis, which states flunked and which states got an A.
What’s new this year?
DRANE: Twenty-six states got a failing grade (F) on our 2023 scorecard. Nine states had grade changes – which I counted as a state moving either a full letter grade (D to F) or a partial letter grade (B- to B+). Three of those states saw grade decreases, and six saw their grade increase.
Two states moved to a failing grade on the 2023 scorecard – Ohio and Indiana. Both of these states passed permitless carry.
What are the key points?
DRANE: We have been doing this same scorecard project for over a decade now, and we find the same thing over and over again: States that get the highest grades on our scorecard have the lowest rates of gun death. States that have the lowest grades generally have the highest rates of gun death.
This is a really consistent trend that we’ve noticed for years.
We have seen over the last few scorecards that many states have passed permitless carry and fallen.
We also saw some really important progress. Oregon passed a suite of new gun safety laws with ballot measure. They saw their grade increase from last year (from a B- to a B+).
There’s this sort of diverging story – we see progress in many states, and we see a weakening of laws in other states.
What is permitless carry and why is it important?
DRANE: Historically, to carry a gun in public, people have had to pass a background check, get through a firearm safety training, maybe demonstrate their ability to fire a gun, in some cases meet heightened eligibility standards.
The standards to own a gun might be slightly lower than the standards that we would require someone to meet to carry a gun in public. That’s been the practice of many states for decades.
In recent years, states are passing these permitless carry laws, which allow people to carry a gun in public without any of those safety measures that I mentioned. Without a background check, without firearm safety training, without ever having held a gun.
In many of these states, you could go pick up a gun today and, as you leave the gun store, you could carry it around your city, around in your public parks and on the streets and in restaurants and bars. So it’s incredibly concerning.
How broadly are these laws in effect?
DRANE: Half of the states currently, as of where we stand today, have permitless carry. But 21 states have enacted that law in the last seven years.
That is incredibly fast movement on a policy that every study that we have suggests poses enormous risks to public safety. So it’s certainly an incredibly concerning, alarming trend.
What about Tennessee?
DRANE: Tennessee passed permitless carry in 2021. What they’re considering now would further expand the carrying of guns in public.
Already in Tennessee, you can carry a gun in public without a background check, without getting training. My understanding is that these bills would allow for open carry of guns so you don’t just have to keep a gun concealed, but you could sort of openly display your weapon.
They would also lower the age that people could carry guns in public right now that you have to be 21 or you’re supposed to be 21. But it would lower the age to 18.
How do you account for a state like Illinois, that has strong gun laws, but also a high rate of gun deaths in its major city, Chicago?
DRANE: We don’t take into account cities and that, in part, has to do with the availability of city-level data. It’s actually quite difficult to compare gun homicide rates in cities because of the way that data is submitted to our national crime systems.
What I would say also – that our scorecard doesn’t take into account but we’re very cognizant of – is that gun trafficking is playing a huge part here. We know from ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) data, we know that the guns recovered in Illinois, many of them are coming from Indiana. So Illinois has an A- but Indiana has an F.
What we know people are doing is that they are buying guns in Indiana, where it’s much easier to do that, and they’re bringing them into Illinois, where they’re feeding crime in cities like Chicago and across the state. Researchers have taken products like our scorecard, or other kinds of gun safety law rankings, and they’ve actually said that an A state that’s surrounded by other A states, it’s a boost because of what their neighbors did.
An A state that’s surrounded by states that have F’s and D’s, they actually suffer because of the gun laws of their neighboring state. The reverse is also true. If you’re an F state around a bunch of other F states, you’re not doing as well as if you’re an F state that’s right next to an A state.
What role is suicide playing in these rankings?
DRANE: The gun death rate numbers include gun homicides, deaths, suicides and unintentional shootings. It’s 2021 CDC data, but 2022 gun laws which, understandably, we’re comparing slightly different years.
But I will say, as someone that looks at CDC data consistently, we just don’t have any gun death data by state for 2022. And also we know that the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) data is relatively stable. A state’s gun death rate rank generally doesn’t change that much, and year to year we see that those are very consistent.
Did the Supreme Court’s Bruen decision affect the ratings?
DRANE: The Bruen decision (which struck down a New York gun law that placed restrictions on carrying a concealed handgun outside the home) changed the ways in which permits can be issued, it changed permitting laws and states that were affected – I believe it was seven states that were affected by the Bruen decision directly – many of those states moved very quickly to pass other kinds of laws.
Even though they had to change their current permitting state scheme, they moved to pass a bunch of other laws, specifically around location restrictions. Passing laws to ban guns in houses of worship and guns at athletic events, banning guns in hospitals and in public parks, at protests and demonstrations. So we reflected those new laws that states were passing in response to Bruen.
Florida has a C. How would lowering age restrictions back to 18 from 21 change its rating?
DRANE: They definitely earned points for those laws and would lose those points if they were to repeal the law.
The difficult thing about Florida and speculating about what Florida’s grade might be is that they’re also … the Senate is voting on permitless carrying legislation, which would allow people to carry guns in public, as we talked about with Tennessee. Florida would lose a significant number of points if that law does indeed get passed and signed by the governor. They’re considering repealing a bunch of things that are currently giving them points.
What am I missing?
DRANE: Looking forward to what we might expect in the years to come, we’re looking at these victims’ access to justice laws. These are laws that broaden the ability for victims of gun violence to make claims against the gun industry. There are still federal limitations on that, but this is something that we’ve been working on in states like Colorado.
There were a couple of states that got new points for that category in this new scorecard – states like California.
While we’re seeing that many states are moving in a less than desirable direction and passing really dangerous laws, we’re also seeing, in other parts of the country, that states are passing really innovative and unique policies, trying to address gun violence – which continues to be such an urgent public health problem across our country. It’s the leading cause of death for children. We’re seeing record numbers of gun deaths.
One thing we’re trying to do with our scorecard is not just sort of shame the states that aren’t doing enough but also really praise the states that are trying their hardest to protect their residents and protect people from this epidemic.