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Study: States with tougher gun laws report fewer gun deaths

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Here's a real paradox to consider. Gun-rights advocates often argue that more restrictions lead to more murders, not less. They'll cite anecdotal examples that, on the surface, seem to make sense -- such as Chicago being a crime-ridden city despite being in a state already heavy on firearm regulations.

But a recent study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, actually found that states which impose tighter controls, on average, suffer fewer gun-related deaths on average. In fact, an analysis of recent firearm-related fatalities revealed that the mortality rate was highest in the more gun-accessible states such as Alabama, Tennessee and Montana. Meanwhile, some of the strictest states like California and Illinois had the lowest rate of gun fatalities.

To investigate the impact of tougher gun laws, researchers from Harvard University and the Boston Children's Hospital drew from data provided by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, both gun-control advocacy groups. They focused specifically on the number of arms-related deaths between 2007 and 2010 , which totaled 121,084 -- 60 percent of which were suicides and 40 percent homicides. During that period, the overall fatality rate was 9.9 per 100,000 individuals per year. As of 1999, there have been 300 state firearm laws in effect.

Controlling for factors such as poverty, unemployment, population density and household firearm ownership, the investigators then assigned each state "legislative strength scores" based on a scale of 0 to 28, a number denoting the most prohibitive.  After analyzing the data, they reached their conclusions by comparing each state's rate of firearm fatalities per 100,000 people.

Based on the chart above, it's natural to surmise that there appears to be a strong correlation between looser regulations and higher incidents of deaths. However, the researchers stopped short of declaring that gun-control actually reduces violent crime since the study was "ecological and cross-sectional and could not determine cause-and-effect relationship." In short, the correlation, however strong, doesn't necessarily mean causation.

And in a critique of the study, Garen Wintemute, director of the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program, cited a number of flaws, such as the potential bias problem in using numbers gathered by pro gun-restriction groups.

Wintemute, the director of the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program, points out that this particular study has a few limitations. The legislative scores were based on information from two advocacy groups, The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, and did not measure how effectively states might enforce their gun laws or how guns flow between states. The score system hasn't been validated.

"It is as if the scientists have both hands tied behind their backs," Wintemute writes. "In fact, that is precisely what has happened—not just to these investigators, who did well with the data available to them, but to firearm violence researchers generally."

A study like this obviously won't settle the contentious debate over the limitations of gun ownership. But if anything, it shows the need for more scientific studies into the matter. And as the matter is currently on trial, policy decision makers need more than what's been mostly rhetoric.

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— By on March 20, 2013, 9:33 PM PST

Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure