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In-Depth: Do strict gun control laws reduce sales?

UC San Diego study looks at AR-15 bans
Posted at 5:57 AM, Feb 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-14 10:01:51-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - A new study of assault rifle sales in Massachusetts found that strict gun control laws can help curb the sale of banned weapons, but only if governments enforce the rules.

The study from UC San Diego looked at registered gun sales in Massachusetts from 2015 to 2017, centered around a new ruling that made it harder to buy assault rifles.

In July 2016, about a month after the mass shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, the Attorney General in Massachusetts published an "Enforcement Notice" that made it harder to sell new, modified copies of certain types of weapons.

The announcement came without the usual preceding debate or public comment, making it a prime candidate for this study.

"Usually, the governor signs a bill, and the legislature debates at different times, and then it goes into effect at a third time, later. In this case, it came out of the blue," explains Professor Kenneth Wilbur, the study's author. "Overnight, it took a large part of the rifle market and made all of those sales illegal."

Wilbur's team filed public records requests for all registered gun sales in Massachusetts around that time. They found that sales of illegal assault rifles went up by nearly 25 times on the day of the announcement, from around 100 per day to almost 2500.

He calls that spike "extraordinary."

Sales went back down to "normal" levels in the weeks following the Enforcement Notice. Then in 2017, sales of illegal weapons were 66% lower than in 2015.

"It shows that this policy action changed the market," says Professor Wilbur. "But, there were still 1/3 as many sales after they had become illegal as before."

Prof. Wilbur says he can think of three reasons the law didn't eliminate illegal sales:

  1. Rules and regulations like this are complicated, so many buyers and sellers can claim ignorance or a misunderstanding.
  2. Some people knowingly break the laws because they feel they're unconstitutional.
  3. People keep buying and selling illegal guns because they know the government does not properly plan to enforce the rules.

"Enforcement would be needed if we want to get full compliance with the law," says Wilbur.

That's the most likely scenario in Massachusetts, where the Attorney General wrote that the state "hopes and expects that non-compliant gun dealers will come into voluntary compliance with the law, to minimize the need for criminal or civil enforcement."

"I'm concerned about the disconnect between the policies on the books and what actually gets enforced," says Wilbur.

He tried to get similar data from the State of California for the study, but his requests for information were not approved. Wilbur says it's essential that states with laws like these on the books share as much data as possible so that other states can base their rules on data, not assumptions.

"Imagine if we hadn't had COVID infection, or hospitalization, or depth data. We wouldn't have been able to make the same choices. They only would have been worse if we were fumbling in the dark." he says.

"I would like to live in a state and a country where firearm policy is based partly on evidence, with knowledge of how the world works."