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 to purchase a firearm or a license to own the firearm before purchasing. States can issue a license or permit only after a potential purchaser completes background checks; some states also require safety training, or knowledge and performance testing before granting a permit or license1.

Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)

  • Reduced homicide

  • Reduced suicide

Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes

  • Reduced gun trafficking

Evidence of Effectiveness

There is strong evidence that firearm licensing laws decrease firearm homicides and suicides2, 3.

Overall, states with permit-to-purchase laws have lower firearm suicide rates than states without such laws, and lower suicide rates following implementation of these laws2, 3, 4. Repealing such laws may increase firearm suicide and homicide rates2, 5.

License to own and permit to purchase laws are both associated with reductions in firearm suicide rates6 and gun trafficking1, 7.

Impact on Disparities

No impact on disparities likely

Implementation Examples

Federal law does not regulate licensing of firearms and prohibits the establishment of a federal handgun registration system8. As of 2015, only seven states (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York) allow local governments to enact gun laws; local governments in other states generally cannot enact gun laws due to state preemption legislation9.

As of November 2015, New York requires a license to own handguns and Illinois and Massachusetts require a license to own any firearms. Ten states and Washington DC require a permit to purchase handguns or other firearms, and Nebraska requires a certificate for handgun purchase in some regions. Safety training or an exam is a prerequisite for a license or a permit in eight states1, 7.

Implementation Resources

Everytown-Gun law navigator - Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund (Everytown). Gun law navigator.

RAND-Firearm law database - Cherney S, Morral AR, Schell TL. RAND state firearm law database. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation; 2018.

GLC - Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence (GLC). Save lives from gun violence.

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

Firearms research - Firearms Research. Prevalence, patterns, and prevention of firearm violence.

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


* Journal subscription may be required for access.

1 GLC - Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence (GLC). Save lives from gun violence.

2 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.

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 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.

5 Santaella-Tenorio 2016* - Santaella-Tenorio J, Cerda M, Villaveces A, Galea S. What do we know about the association between firearm legislation and firearm-related injuries? Epidemiologic Reviews. 2016;38(1):140-157.

6 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.

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

8 VPC - Violence Policy Center (VPC). Research, investigation, analysis, and advocacy for a safer America.

9 Grassroots Change - Grassroots Change: Connecting for better health. Preemption Watch.

Date Last Updated