Evidence for the effect of licensing and permitting requirements on mass shootings is inconclusive.
The Effects of Licensing and Permitting Requirements
Federal law does not require individuals to obtain a license or permit to purchase a firearm. Several states, however, have permit-to-purchase laws that function similarly to universal background check laws. Both seek to ensure that individuals who acquire firearms through private transfers meet the same requirements as those who purchase firearms from federally licensed dealers. State policies that require permits or licenses to be renewed create a mechanism whereby law enforcement routinely confirms that a firearm owner remains eligible to possess or purchase a firearm, and the policies could facilitate firearm removal from owners who become ineligible. Requiring permits to purchase ammunition makes it more difficult for prohibited possessors to use their illicit firearms. Where no such checks occur, prohibited possessors may represent a considerable share of the market for ammunition. For instance, in a two-month period in the City of Los Angeles, prohibited possessors purchased at least 10,500 rounds of ammunition, accounting for about 2.6 percent of all such sales (Tita et al., 2006). The effects of these policies on violent crime and suicide will depend on whether they better identify disqualified firearm purchasers or possessors compared with the status quo, and whether these disqualifications correctly target individuals who are at greater risk of inflicting harm to themselves or others.
States with This Type of Law
Requiring a license to own or a permit to purchase a handgun
Requiring a license to own or a permit to purchase a handgun or long gun
Map data are valid as of January 1, 2017.
Nine states have implemented permit-to-purchase regimes for firearms. All such laws require these licenses for most private transactions. Of the nine states, four require permits for all firearms, and five require them for the purchase of handguns only. New York requires a license to own a firearm. Michigan, Massachusetts, and Illinois require both a permit to purchase and a license to own a firearm. Michigan’s law, however, applies only to handguns, and it has a broad exemption for individuals who purchase handguns from licensed dealers following a background check. The District of Columbia also requires that individuals obtain a registration certificate to purchase and possess a firearm.
In terms of the requirements that must be met to receive a license to own or permit to purchase a firearm, some states require that applicants pass a safety course or exam, while others do not. Another distinction between states’ laws is the duration of the licenses or permits. A handful of states issue permits to purchase that are valid for a few days or months only. Other states issue permits or licenses that may last years. In New Jersey, firearm identification cards are required for rifles and shotguns and remain valid indefinitely, unless the issuing or other law enforcement agency identifies specific behavior and character disqualifiers—such as being convicted of a crime, being subject to a restraining order, or having a drug dependency; for handguns, purchasers must obtain a permit to purchase, which lasts 90 days. Rhode Island’s law does not specify the duration of the permit to purchase.
Another feature that differs among the state permit-to-purchase regimes is whether the permit covers multiple purchases. The laws in Hawaii, New Jersey, and North Carolina require separate permits for each purchase, though with some differences. For example, Hawaii requires a permit for each handgun purchase but allows multiple long-gun purchases under a single permit.
Some of the aforementioned states have also extended their permitting systems to the purchase or ownership of ammunition.
As with more-comprehensive background check laws, by restricting access to firearms for individuals presumed to present greater risk of misusing those firearms, licensing and permitting requirements are intended to reduce gun violence. Different designations for the types of conditions that disqualify an individual may generate differential impacts on such outcomes as homicide or mass shootings compared with suicides. Although compliance is likely to be imperfect, licensing and permitting laws may still reduce gun-related homicides or suicides by deterring prohibited possessors from attempting to acquire firearms. The magnitude of these effects will be influenced, in part, by the level of enforcement, the availability of firearms or ammunition through unregulated markets, and the likelihood that an individual who would be disqualified through the permitting process will seek to obtain a firearm through alternative markets.
Unlike background check laws, licensing and permitting regulations often require individuals seeking to purchase or possess a firearm to submit their applications in person at a law enforcement agency and to submit to fingerprinting. There is some evidence that even licensed dealers sometimes fail to require valid identification cards (U.S. General Accounting Office, 2001); thus, these additional procedural requirements may be more effective in limiting prohibited possessors from accessing firearms by preventing fraud or identification inaccuracies. However, licensing systems requiring substantial coordination between local, state, and federal databases and institutions may pose technical and regulatory challenges, and it is unknown how much the additional administrative requirements of licensing and permitting laws will reduce firearm access by prohibited individuals.
State laws that additionally require an individual to pass a safety course or exam to qualify for a license or permit could reduce unintended injuries and deaths, although these effects will depend on whether passing a safety course or exam affects the storage or handling behavior of firearm owners. One 1995 survey found that gun owners who received formal firearm training (where 80 percent of training courses covered proper gun storage) were significantly more likely to store their firearms loaded and unlocked compared with gun owners who had not received formal training; however, the most common source of training for this sample was through the military, which may not produce the same effects as the training available to civilians (Hemenway, Solnick, and Azrael, 1995).
These laws could also plausibly affect defensive or recreational gun use by increasing the costs of obtaining or continuing to possess a firearm. While the monetary costs of acquiring a license or permit typically range between $10 and $100, the total time and energy costs, in addition to concerns about privacy, may dissuade some legal firearm purchasers, in which case the laws could affect sales of new firearms.
To evaluate whether the effects of licensing or permitting requirements on violent crime or suicides operate through more-effective identification of prohibited possessors (as applied to purchase, possession, or both), the ideal analyses would estimate effects on outcomes specifically for those populations that would be prevented from legally acquiring or owning a firearm under the licensing law. For outcome data in which the type of weapon used can be identified, analyses also could exploit state-level variation in the types of guns that require licenses or permits and could estimate effects stratified by the type of weapon used in a violent crime, mass shooting, or suicide.
To assess whether licensing or permitting laws reduce violent crime through disrupting illegal firearm trafficking, causal inference could be strengthened by examining crime gun trace data and changes in homicide rates. Specifically, if permit-to-purchase laws restrict trafficking operations from in-state retailers, one should observe a larger share of crime guns originating from out-of-state sources after law passage and/or a reduction in guns with a short time-to-crime (Webster and Wintemute, 2015; Braga et al., 2012). However, a series of provisions attached to Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives appropriations (commonly known as the Tiahrt Amendments) has denied most researchers access to firearm trace data since 2003; therefore, while law enforcement agencies may analyze such data, the information generally has not been available for research purposes (Krouse, 2009).