How Many Gun Laws Are There? Study Disputes 20,000 Number

Susan Jones | July 7, 2008 | 8:20pm EDT
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(Editor's note: This story lacks reaction from gun owners and Second Amendment supporters. Comment from those groups was not immediately available, given the early-morning hour at which the report was written. The story is offered as is -- for informational purposes -- to people who may find the topic interesting.)

( - Why pass more gun laws, when there are 20,000 of them on the books that should be enforced? Many gun owners use that argument in the effort to stop gun-control groups from infringing on their Second Amendment rights.

But gun control advocates are trying to undermine that "20,000 gun laws" argument with a new study that casts doubt on the meaning of the "20,000" number.

A study from the Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy counts only 300 "relevant federal and state laws regarding the manufacture, design, sale, purchase, or possession of guns." The key word is "relevant."

The study does not include a tally of local gun laws. In fact, the authors note that since more than 40 states preempt all or most local gun control laws, there's no reason to include local laws in a gun-law tally. It is "irrelevant" to count local laws that are superceded by state laws, the authors said in a press release heralding their study.

In that same press release, the Brookings Institution said the study disputes the 20,000-gun-laws claim, based on a "thorough examination of the number and type" of state and federal gun laws.

"The number of laws per state range from one to 13," the press release said, adding that the most common laws concern mandatory minimum sentencing; dealer background checks; "shall issue" laws for carrying a concealed weapon; dealer licensing; and child protection.

The study's authors are Jon S. Vernick, associate professor and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health; and Lisa M. Hepburn of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center at the Harvard School of Public Health.

'Meaningful laws, not numbers of laws'

"In the future, rather than trying to count the number of gun control laws, we should try to better evaluate the effect of those laws," said Vernick in the press release.

"Since the notion of the United States having more than 20,000 significant gun laws has become such an important point of reference in the ongoing debate over guns in America, we thought that it would be worthwhile to document the meaningful state and federal laws," Vernick added.

According to the Brookings Institution, the reference to 20,000 gun laws first appeared in Congressional testimony in 1965, but no source was given. The number has taken hold in the public consciousness, however. In 1981, the authors note, President Reagan rejected a call for additional gun legislation, saying, "There are today more than 20,000 gun control laws in effect -- federal, state and local -- in the United States."

The Brookings Institution says the study will be released as a chapter in a book called "Evaluating Gun Policy," which it describes as "a collection of articles on the consequences of gun possession and policies." It's due to be released the first week in February.

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