There are an estimated 270,000,000 private citizens in the United States that own firearms (approximately 88.8 people per 100 own a firearm). According to an analysis of the number of background checks conducted by each state for prospective gun owners, the states with the most firearms are Kentucky, Utah, Montana, Wyoming, and Alaska. Although there is no clear consensus as to what correlation, if any, the number of guns in a state has on the number of gun deaths, the top five states for gun deaths are:
- Mississippi (18.3 gun deaths per 100,000 persons)
- Arizona (15 gun deaths per 100,000 persons)
- Alabama (17.6 gun deaths per 100,000 persons)
- Arkansas (15.1 gun deaths per 100,000 persons)
- Louisiana (14.9 gun deaths per 100,000 persons).
Not surprisingly, state gun laws vary greatly from state to state. Most gun laws focus on three categories: (1) laws prohibiting the possession of firearms by certain people; (2) laws regulating the sale and transfer of firearms; and (3) the possession of firearms in public places.
- State laws prohibiting the purchase or possession of firearms
Every state except Vermont has state laws that ban the transfer or sale of firearms to a convicted felon. In most states, the gun laws use the traditional definition of felony which include crimes that are punishable by more than one year of incarceration. Some states have additional specified crimes, including misdemeanors, that will also prevent people from possessing firearms. For example, in Indiana, persons with convictions for resisting arrest may not possess a firearm. Overall, twenty-three states have gun laws that include some misdemeanors as crimes that will prohibit the transfer, purchase or possession of a firearm.
Thirty-three states prohibit persons with mental illness to purchase or possess firearms. Five of those states prohibit only the purchase or possession of handguns. Other state laws prohibit persons who are subject to a restraining order from purchasing a handgun (20 states); persons who are drug abusers (28 states); persons who suffer from alcoholism (18 states); and all states except for Wyoming prohibit the transfer of firearms to juveniles.
- State laws regulating the sale and transfer of firearms
The Brady Act is a federal law that requires all federally licensed firearms dealers (FFLs) to conduct background checks on all potential buyers of firearms. However, it is estimated that 40 percent of all firearms purchases are from private sellers, and therefore not subject to background checks pursuant to federal law. Every state, however, except Vermont, has state laws that require some sort of background checks for potential gun purchasers or possessors.
Only three states, California, Maryland, and New Jersey, have state laws that limit the number of handgun sales or purchases to one per 30 day period. These laws are based on studies that show that multiple handguns purchased by the same person are often used for criminal activity. New York gun laws, however, are even stricter, and limit the sale of all firearms to one purchase every 90 days.
Eleven states require some sort of waiting period between the purchase of a firearm and the delivery of the firearm. These laws apply to the sale of all firearms, handguns only, long guns only, or handguns and assault weapons; and vary in length from 48 hours to two weeks for delivery. There are three additional policy considerations that are triggered with current state laws requiring waiting periods:
- is the “cooling-off” period established of sufficient duration between the sale of a firearm and delivery
- valid permits to possess a firearm do not exempt a purchaser from the waiting period
- transfer of the firearm must not occur until after the required background checks have been completed regardless of any waiting period.
State laws regulating firearms in public places
Various state laws regulate what circumstances, if any, in which a person may carry a concealed weapon in public. Only two states, Illinois and Wisconsin, do not allow the carrying of concealed weapons. Two other states, Alaska and Vermont, do not require a permit to carry a concealed weapon, while the remaining states allow for concealed weapons, but only with a valid permit.
Only three states, Florida, Illinois, and Texas, prohibit the open carrying of handguns in public. Thirty-five states allow persons to carry handguns in public without a permit, but three of those states require the handgun be unloaded. The remaining twelve states allow for the open carry of handguns but require a valid permit. Most states, however, do have exceptions that prohibit the open carry of handguns in certain places such as schools and school zones, state-owned buildings, courthouses, places where alcohol is served or sold, and on public transportation.
As the debate regarding gun laws continue, state laws will become more complex and varied. Many commentators argue that stricter federal laws are required to assist existing state laws, which are often powerless to control the flow of weapons from a less restrictive gun law state to a more restrictive gun law state. There are no simple answers to the ongoing controversy over gun laws.