Gun Safety Policies Save Lives
Which states have the ideal laws to prevent gun violence?
We compared gun policy across the country, scoring every state on the strength of its gun laws and comparing it with its rate of gun violence. In states where elected officials have taken action to pass gun safety laws, fewer people die by gun violence. Choose a state to see how it stacks up on 50 key policies, or explore a policy to see how much of the country has adopted it.
Gun laws work
When we compare the states head-to-head on the top 50 gun safety policies, a clear pattern emerges. States with strong laws see less gun violence. Indeed, the 14 states that have failed to put basic protections into place—”national failures” on our scale—have nearly three times as many gun deaths as the eight national gun safety leaders.
Strong Gun Laws, Fewer Deaths
The correlation is especially clear when looking at average data by tier. The tiers range from an average of 8.2 gun deaths per 100,000 residents for the National Leaders to 21.0 gun deaths per 100,000 residents for the National Failures.
The top 50 laws we focus on represent a wide range of interventions. Some block gun access by people who pose a threat with a firearm while others focus on limiting gun violence in public. Some seek to increase police accountability and protect civil rights, while another set targets bad actors in the gun industry.
All states should start with a core group of five foundational laws—passing background checks and/or purchase permitting, along with Extreme Risk laws and secure gun storage requirements; and rejecting Shoot First (also known as Stand Your Ground) and permitless carry laws. While each of the top 14 states in the gun law rankings has all five of these policies in place, only one of the bottom 14 states has even one of these critical protections.
The national gun safety landscape has seen states move in opposite directions in recent years. While all nine states in our “making progress” tier have made significant additions to their firearm laws in recent years—with each adding several points to its gun law score—a whopping 24 states at the other end of the scale have made the dangerous decision to repeal their concealed carry permit requirements.
Our gun law rankings are a roadmap for how to build the ideal state system. They will walk you through the most important policies and help you compare these protections across the country.
Even the strongest system can’t protect a state from its neighbors’ weak laws
The rankings clearly show that gun laws save lives. But no state is an island (except Hawaii), and any state may be vulnerable if its neighbors fail to protect public safety. That’s how northeastern states with strong laws ended up victims of the infamous “iron pipeline,” the route traffickers use to bring guns up from southeastern states with weak laws. The evidence tells a simple story about porous borders: Out of all guns showing up at crime scenes after crossing state lines, four out of five come from states that lack good background check laws.
Notable strong law states like Illinois and Maryland remain plagued with high gun violence in their biggest cities—in large part because they’re targeted by traffickers. Indeed an outsized share of likely trafficked crime guns recovered in Illinois begin their journey in states with weak laws. And Virginia, which had weak gun purchase laws until 2020, has long been the top supplier of crime guns into Maryland. At the other end of the scale, states like New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island have unusually low gun death rates compared with their somewhat weaker policies, in part because they are buffered by robust laws among other states in the region.
High gun ownership rates also play a role in strong states where deaths are higher
Access to a firearm drastically increases the likelihood of suicide and a gun in the home is associated with more gun homicide. Again, a state like Rhode Island has low gun violence relative to the strength of its laws—likely due in part to its very low gun ownership rate (it’s fourth-lowest in the nation). On the other hand, states like Nevada and New Mexico have higher rates of gun violence than their laws might suggest—perhaps in part as a result of above-average gun ownership.
It takes time for new laws to have an impact
Several states have had recent success passing strong policy—for example, Nevada added half of its gun law score and New Mexico added over 40% of its score in the past several years. Both states enacted Extreme Risk, background check, and domestic violence laws, with New Mexico also limiting qualified immunity and Nevada tackling secure storage and ghost guns. Those states can hope to see newfound protection in the coming years—and more lives saved.
At the other end of the scale, Iowa repealed both its background check and carry permit laws in 2021, losing over 40% of its gun law score in one year. This new, radical change in its score provides a partial and likely temporary explanation for its relatively low gun death rate. Iowans should be concerned about a future spike in violence.
Federal laws help prevent gun violence nationwide
All 50 states can rely on a backbone of federal laws to help keep guns out of the wrong hands. Yet the federal system is far too weak overall—for example, failing to require background checks on all gun sales and giving special legal immunity to the gun industry. State policymakers should protect their residents by filling the many gaps in federal law, and must also take action where state power is at its strongest, such as requiring a process for domestic abusers to turn in guns when they become prohibited from having them.
There’s work to do beyond strong state laws
By comparing state gun laws with gun violence outcomes, we see how critical it is to enact strong policy. But a caveat is required: There is necessary non-legislative gun safety work this site doesn’t show—including community-based violence intervention programs; regulatory efforts, funding campaigns, and on-the-ground implementation; local executive action and city and town ordinances; and responsible cultural norms around gun safety.
Where do we go from here?
A safer future is possible. Our gun law rankings show which states are ahead and which are behind, and provide a checklist for how to get there.