Firearm licensing laws

Evidence Rating  
Scientifically Supported
Evidence rating: Scientifically Supported

Strategies with this rating are most likely to make a difference. These strategies have been tested in many robust studies with consistently positive results.

Health Factors  
Decision Makers

Firearm licensing laws require individuals to obtain a permit or a license before purchasing a firearm. Prospective gun purchasers request a permit or license from a state or local law enforcement agency, often with their fingerprints or thorough background checks1. States can issue a license or permit only after a potential purchaser passes background checks; some states also require safety training, or knowledge and performance testing before granting a permit or license, or require periodic license renewal. Federal law does not regulate licensing of firearms2.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Reduced homicide

  • Reduced suicide

Potential Benefits

Our evidence rating is not based on these outcomes, but these benefits may also be possible:

  • Reduced gun trafficking

  • Reduced crime

What does the research say about effectiveness? This strategy is rated scientifically supported.

There is strong evidence that firearm licensing laws decrease firearm-related homicides3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and suicides7, 8, 9.

States with permit-to-purchase laws have lower firearm-related homicide and suicide rates than states without such laws, and can reduce both rates following implementation of these laws3, 7, 8, 10, 11. Permit-to-purchase laws may decrease firearm-related suicide rates among males9 and firearm-related homicides in large urban counties with a high prevalence of firearm-related homicides6. Repealing such laws may increase firearm suicide and homicide rates4, 5, 7, 8.

Permit-to-purchase handgun laws that require either fingerprinting or in-person applications may decrease fatal mass shootings1. License to own and permit to purchase laws are associated with reductions in gun trafficking2, 12. A Massachusetts-based study shows that expanding the eligibility disqualification criteria in the existing licensing laws has no short-term impact on violent crimes13.

How could this strategy advance health equity? This strategy is rated inconclusive impact on disparities.

It is unclear what impact firearm licensing laws may have on disparities in firearm-related homicides and suicides. Compared to purchaser licensing, licensing of firearm possession is more likely to be at a risk of discriminatory licensing policies and enforcement16.

Firearm deaths disproportionally affect populations by race and ethnicity, age, gender, poverty level, and urbanization level. In 2020, the firearm homicide rate was highest among Black people (27 per 100,000 individuals), about 13 times higher than white people. Both American Indian and Alaska Native people and white people had higher suicide rates, more than twice that of Black and Hispanic people. Individuals ages 25-44 and males had the highest firearm homicide rates compared to other age groups and females. Counties with higher poverty rates had higher firearm homicide and suicide rates than counties with lower poverty rates17. In 2020, firearm suicide rates for rural counties were 2.1 times higher than large metropolitan counties18. Regarding firearm ownership, males, white people, and residents of rural areas are more likely to own firearms than females, other racial and ethnic groups, and residents of urban or suburban areas19.

What is the relevant historical background?

The first gun control policy was passed by a European colony in 1619, which banned the sale or gift of firearms to Native Americans. This was a controversial policy because firearm trading was profitable and Native Americans were sometimes allies against colonial adversaries20. The addition of the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution in 1791 included the Second Amendment, which states that, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed”21. The varied interpretations of the Second Amendment have shaped firearm regulations ever since it was ratified.

Through the early 1930s, there was wide variation in state gun laws: major forms of state gun policies addressed hunting, militia, and gun carrying restrictions, with less attention given to firearm sale bans20. The National Firearms Act was passed in 1934 to control firearm transactions and possession of unregistered firearms, in recognition of increased crime rates and public safety concerns22. Since then, federal firearm legislation has moved forward in regulating firearm owners and dealers, but there have still been gaps in gun laws. For example, the Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA) created a federal firearm licensing system for dealers and prohibited firearm sales and possession for felons and other unlawful individuals; yet some restrictions were removed by the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act of 198622, 23. The Brady Bill in 1993 established a background check system for gun purchases24; however, loopholes remained that allowed prohibited purchasers to access firearms, such as through private sales without background checks25, 26. Gun rights advocacy groups, such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), have been successful at lobbying against firearm regulations and encouraging states to pass preemption laws that prevent local governments from implementing local gun control policies24, 27.

Although the health impacts of firearms are well documented, Congress prohibited federal research dollars from being used for gun violence and injury prevention research from 1996-202028. In 2021, approximately 48,900 people died from firearm-related injuries in the U.S., including firearm homicides (43%) and suicides (54%). Firearm homicide and suicide rates have increased over time; 80% of total homicides and 55% of total suicides in 2021 involved a firearm29.

Equity Considerations
  • Who experiences a greater risk of death by firearms in your community? How can firearm licensing laws help increase their safety?
  • What are objective, nondiscriminatory ways to enforce firearm licensing laws? What resources and trainings are needed?
  • How do preemption laws impact your ability to implement licensing laws?
Implementation Examples

As of 2021, ten states (Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island) require a permit to purchase handguns or other firearms, and three states (Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York) require a license to own a firearm. California and Washington require prospective purchasers to obtain a firearm safety training certificate first, and Washington, D.C. has a registration law that works as a license requirement. Among these states, eight states have stronger licensing laws that require a permit to purchase, a license to own, or a firearm safety certificate for all classes of firearms2.

Most states prevent local governments from enacting gun laws via state preemption legislation14; as of January 2022, only eight states (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Nebraska, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York) allow local governments to enact gun laws, with exceptions for local laws relevant to minors in some states, for example, Maryland and Texas15.

Implementation Resources

Resources with a focus on equity.

Everytown-State gun law strength - Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund (Everytown). 2022 Everytown gun law rankings.

RAND-Firearm law database - Cherney S, Morral AR, Schell TL, Smucker S, Hoch E. RAND state firearm law database. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation; 2022.

GLC-Licensing - Giffords Law Center (GLC). Owner responsibilities: Licensing.

EFSGV-REIA - The Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence (EFSGV). Racial equity impact assessment tool for gun violence prevention (REIA).

JHCGPR - Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research (JHCGPR). Reducing gun-related injuries and deaths.

US DOJ-ATF - U.S. Department of Justice (U.S. DOJ). Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

Footnotes

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

1 Webster 2020 - Webster DW, McCourt AD, Crifasi CK, Booty MD, Stuart EA. Evidence concerning the regulation of firearms design, sale, and carrying on fatal mass shootings in the United States. Criminology & Public Policy. 2020;19:171-212.

2 GLC-Licensing - Giffords Law Center (GLC). Owner responsibilities: Licensing.

3 Rudolph 2015 - Rudolph KE, Stuart EA, Vernick JS, Webster DW. Association between Connecticut's permit-to-purchase handgun law and homicides. American Journal of Public Health. 2015;105(8):e49-e54.

4 Hasegawa 2019 - Hasegawa RB, Webster DW, Small DS. Evaluating Missouri’s handgun purchaser law: A bracketing method for addressing concerns about history interacting with group. Epidemiology. 2019;30(3):371-379.

5 Webster 2014 - Webster D, Crifasi CK, Vernick JS. Effects of the repeal of Missouri's handgun purchaser licensing law on homicides. Journal of Urban Health. 2014;91(2):293-302.

6 Crifasi 2018 - Crifasi CK, Merrill-Francis M, McCourt A, et al. Association between firearm laws and homicide in urban counties. Journal of Urban Health. 2018;95:383-390.

7 McCourt 2020 - McCourt AD, Crifasi CK, Stuart EA, et al. Purchaser licensing, point-of-sale background check laws, and firearm homicide and suicide in 4 US states, 1985–2017. American Journal of Public Health. 2020;110(10):1546-1552.

8 Crifasi 2015 - Crifasi CK, Meyers JS, Vernick JS, Webster DW. Effects of changes in permit-to-purchase handgun laws in Connecticut and Missouri on suicide rates. Preventive Medicine. 2015;79:43-49.

9 Andres 2011 - Andrés RA, Hempstead K. Gun control and suicide: The impact of state firearm regulations in the United States, 1995–2004. Health Policy. 2011;101(1):95-103.

10 Kalesan 2016 - Kalesan B, Mobily ME, Keiser O, Fagan JA, Galea S. Firearm legislation and firearm mortality in the USA: A cross-sectional, state-level study. Lancet. 2016;387(10030):1847-1855.

11 Anestis 2015 - Anestis MD, Khazem LR, Law KC, et al. The association between state laws regulating handgun ownership and statewide suicide rates. American Journal of Public Health. 2015;105(10):2059-2067.

12 JHCGPR - Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research (JHCGPR). Reducing gun-related injuries and deaths.

13 Iwama 2021 - Iwama J. Reducing violence?: Examining the impact of gun control legislation in Massachusetts. Justice Quarterly. 2021;38(7):1385-1404.

14 LawAtlas-State preemption - LawAtlas. State preemption laws in 12 domains.

15 GLC-Preemption - Giffords Law Center (GLC). Preemption of local laws.

16 Abelow 2020 - Abelow H, Crifasi C, Webster D. The legal and empirical case for firearm purchaser licensing. Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics. 2020;48(S4):17-24.

17 Kegler 2022 - Kegler SR, Simon TR, Zwald ML, et al. Vital Signs: Changes in firearm homicide and suicide rates - United States, 2019–2020. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). 2022;71:656-663.

18 JHCGVS 2022 - Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions (JHCGVS). A Year in Review: 2020 Gun Deaths in the U.S. 2022.

19 Pew-Schaeffer 2021 - Schaeffer K. Key facts about Americans and guns. Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center; 2021.

20 Spitzer 2017 - Spitzer R. Gun law history in the United States and Second Amendment rights. Law and Contemporary Problems. 2017;80(2):55-83.

21 CONAN-Second Amendment - The Constitution Annotated (CONAN). Second Amendment: Right to bear arms.

22 ATF-NFA - Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). National Firearms Act (NFA).

23 US DOJ-Gun violence 2001 - U.S. Department of Justice (U.S. DOJ). Gun violence reduction: National integrated firearms violence reduction strategy. Appendix C. History of federal firearms laws in the United States. 2001.

24 GLC-Gun lobby - Giffords Law Center (GLC). The gun lobby.

25 Everytown-Loopholes - Everytown. Undeniable: How long-standing loopholes in the background check system have been exacerbated by COVID-19. 2021.

26 CAP-Parsons 2020 - Parsons C, Bhatia R. Dangerous gaps in gun laws exposed by the coronavirus gun sale surge. Washington, D.C.: Center for American Progress (CAP); 2020.

27 Montez 2020 - Montez JK. US state polarization, policymaking power, and population health. Milbank Quarterly. 2020;98(4):1033-1052.

28 APA-Weir 2021 - Weir K. A thaw in the freeze on federal funding for gun violence and injury prevention research. American Psychological Association (APA). 2021.

29 Pew-Gramlich 2023 - Gramlich J. What the data says about gun deaths in the U.S. Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center; 2023.

Date Last Updated