Gillian Jones / The Berkshire Eagle / AP

Guns in schools: Why Massachusetts has the fewest guns deaths per capita

Experts say strong gun laws, low gun ownership led to comparatively few school shootings, low levels of gun violence

On Jan. 16, only about 20 minutes apart, shootings marred what would have been otherwise normal Friday evening basketball games at high schools in Mobile, Alabama, and Ocala, Florida. A student was shot and injured in each case; both survived. They were the 49th and 50th shootings at K–12 schools in the U.S. — calculated by Al Jazeera as incidents in which a gun discharges on school property and a student or teacher is involved but not police — since the December 2012 massacre of 26 children and staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. This is the fifth in a seven-part series examining the issues surrounding school shootings in the U.S. The other six parts took stock of where the gun control debate standshow defense measures could traumatize kidshow threat assessments are being used to prevent school violencewhy Georgia has seen the most school shootings since Sandy HookNewtown's grass-roots gun reform efforts, and where most gun violence against kids takes place.

BOSTON, Mass. — It comes as no surprise to gun control advocates that Massachusetts, a state with gun laws among the strongest in the nation and low gun ownership levels, is ranked as the state with the fewest gun deaths per capita by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“It’s just not a state that has ever had that culture of gun ownership,” said Kristin Rand, director of the Violence Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit. The group compared the CDC data with states’ household gun ownership rates and found a strong correlation between per capita gun deaths and ownership rates and the strength of states’ gun laws. 

“The key factors are a very comprehensive approach to regulating firearms and very low rates of gun ownership. Taken together, the obvious result, if you think about it, is low gun deaths,” she said.

According to the CDC, Massachusetts is the state with the fewest gun deaths per capita, with 233 deaths for the more than 6 million Bay State residents in 2012 — the most recent data available. Only 12.8 percent of households reported owning guns, according to a 2005 study by the medical journal Pediatrics. Nationally, 32.6 percent of homes reported owning a gun.

“I don’t know if there are any states with very strong laws and lots of guns. The evidence is very strong that lots of guns and strong laws don’t bring relatively low rates of gun violence, and there is no direct link between the two. But having the two together, they go together,” said David Hemenway, a professor of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.

Massachusetts’ “long history of taking regulating firearms very seriously,” has also likely contributed to the low gun death rate, said Ram. In 1998 the state passed a law that banned semiautomatic assault weapons, created additional licensing rules and sought severe penalties for those storing unlocked guns.

Allison Anderman of the California-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence said gun laws have a “cumulative effect” over time on gun violence.

The organization annually ranks states by the strength of their gun laws and in 2014 named Massachusetts sixth in the nation. California topped the list.

But “even in present-day Massachusetts, there is nothing more difficult than passage of a gun violence prevention bill in a legislature,” said John Rosenthal, the founder of Boston-based Stop Handgun Violence.

On May 27, 2014, Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo rolled out legislation aimed at preventing gun violence in schools but faced immediate and significant pushback. Despite Massachusetts’ reputation as a reliably left-leaning state, “a lot of people were mad I even brought it up,” he said.

There have been 101 school shootings since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, according to data from gun control advocacy group Everytown. None were in Massachusetts. The state's most recent school shooting was in 2009, and there have been 13 since 1992, according to StopTheShootings.org. Nationally there were 387 shootings in that period.

The legislation, proposed in the wake of the Newtown massacre, addresses school safety by, for the first time, requiring schools statewide to develop action plans in case of a school shooting and to track student attendance, graduation rates and other measures of school success to anticipate any warning signs, a strategy known as threat assessment.

In 2009, the most recent data available, Massachusetts’ schools had an average student-to-counselor ratio of 432 to 1, slightly under the national average of 457 to 1, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The American Counseling Association’s maximum recommended ratio is 250 to 1.

“We took a look at schools and set forth a procedure with police to try to prevent gun violence in our schools, which seems to be a whole lot more prevalent than ever before,” DeLeo said.

The bill, signed into law in August, instituted these individual school action plans and tightened existing restrictions, such as giving local police chiefs the power to deny gun licenses to applicants, requiring the state to provide mental health information about gun license applicants to a national database and requiring gun dealers to post information about suicide prevention and awareness.

While many cite the law as a continuation of the 1998 legislation that bolstered the state’s gun laws, Jim Wallace, head of the Massachusetts-based Gun Owners Action League and a vocal gun rights advocate, said “more laws don’t necessarily mean good laws.”

Gun rights advocates say a deeper look at the gun death numbers shows that the data are not clear. Advocates say the CDC’s numbers — which include deaths by suicide — are misleading and instead point to 2013 statistics from the FBI.

“Gun control schemes do not equate to public safety. When we look at federal crime statistics from the FBI, there’s just no correlation between these states with tight gun control laws and reduced firearms-related murder rates,” said National Rifle Association spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen, citing FBI numbers from 2013 giving Massachusetts a homicide rate of 2.0 per 100,000 people — still less than half the national average of 4.5 per 100,000 people.

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