It’s no surprise that states with the toughest gun ownership laws — at least three of them in New England — regularly record the lowest number of firearm deaths. States that have strict background checks, permitting requirements and penalties for gun law violations recorded the lowest rate of gun deaths per 100,000 residents in 2018, and low rates of gun ownership contributed to those low numbers.
An analysis by the Violence Policy Center of newly released data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed Rhode Island as the state with the lowest rate of gun deaths, with 3.5 per 100,000 people in 2018, followed by Massachusetts in 49th place (3.74 deaths per 100,000 residents) and Connecticut in 45th place (with 5.21 deaths per 100,000). New Hampshire, with 11.43 deaths per 100,000 residents, came in 36th out of 50 states. Maine was 33rd (11.88) and Vermont was 27th (13.09) in the 2018 data.
These statistics count gun deaths of all sorts, including homicides, suicides and accidental shootings.
At the other end of the scale, Mississippi was first with the most gun deaths (22.80 per 100,000), followed by second place Alabama (21.77 per 100,000).
Having tough gun laws and low ownership rates, like in Massachusetts, doesn’t mean a state is bent on seizing everyone’s firearms. Massachusetts sold almost 58,000 hunting licenses in 2019 and brought in $2.40 million in revenue from sales of licenses, deer tags and wildfowl stamps that year. New Hampshire sold 57,632 hunting licenses and grossed about $4.87 million in revenue from those sales, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Hunting license sales don’t translate directly to gun permits, of course, since many residents legally own firearms for protection or target shooting. But hunting remains popular in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, evidence of the importance of this traditional – and legal – use of firearms.
Hunting aside, the Violence Policy Center concludes that having fewer guns around, coupled with strong gun laws, means lower death rates from firearms.
The center says that data for 2018 showed 15% of Rhode Island households and 12.5% of Massachusetts households had a gun. At the other end of the scale, Mississippi – the state with the highest gun death rate per 100,000 residents – had 50.9% of its households with a gun. Second place Alabama reported 48.3% of households with a gun in the 2018 calendar year.
“Each year, the data consistently show that the states with the lowest rates of gun death have effective gun violence prevention laws and low rates of gun ownership,” said Kristen Rand, legislative director for the Washington, D.C.-based Violence Policy Center. “Conversely, those states with the highest gun death rates have weak gun violence prevention laws combined with higher rates of gun ownership.”
The center defines “weak” gun violence prevention laws as those that add little to federal gun laws and are permissive about the open or concealed carrying of guns in public.
States with “strong” gun laws are seen as those that add significant state regulations, apart from federal gun laws, such as restricting access to particularly hazardous and deadly types of firearms (such as assault weapons), setting minimum safety standards, or requiring a permit to buy a gun, according to the center. Strong laws also include restrictions on the open and concealed carrying of guns in public.
Groups that advocate for domestic violence victims point to the existence of a gun in a house adding to the likelihood of gun-related violence, something which helped fuel the drive for the “red flag” law passed in Massachusetts in 2019, which makes it easier to take guns away from a person considered dangerous.
The debate over gun rights will continue to be contentious ground in this country, often attracting more heat than light. But it’s important to look at these numbers in any discussion about gun laws. When there are fewer guns and the requirements to obtain a gun are strict, the facts show fewer people die through homicides, suicides and gun-related accidents. That’s information that should never be ignored.