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Evan Horowitz | Quick Study

How tight is gun control in Massachusetts?

A Smith & Wesson M&P handgun awaited a buyer at North East Trading Co. in North Attleboro in 2013.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

A Smith & Wesson M&P handgun awaited a buyer at North East Trading Co. in North Attleboro in 2013.

In the aftermath of this weekend’s horrific shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, President Obama once again deplored the ease with which determined killers can access powerful weapons in the United States, saying that Americans need to do some “soul searching” on the issue of gun control.

Step outside the capital, though, and that soul searching already seems well underway. States have their own ability to pass gun legislation. And while some redder states have used that power to loosen restriction — including Texas, which now allows people to openly carry weapons — more liberal states have been pushing ahead with new gun regulations.

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Massachusetts, long a leader on gun control, tightened its restrictions on gun ownership in 2014, giving police more discretion to deny certain gun permits to people deemed “unsuitable.” Add to that the Bay State’s restrictions on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, plus its participation in a nationwide effort to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, and Massachusetts has one of the tightest gun control regimes in the country. Fifth tightest, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence; third, by the less sympathetic eye of Guns & Ammo magazine.

While it can be hard to figure out how big a difference these kinds of laws really make — is gun ownership in Massachusetts low because the controls are strict, or are we able to pass strict controls because there are fewer committed gun owners? — there are some very suggestive numbers.

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For instance, states with tighter gun control laws tend to have many fewer firearm deaths. Massachusetts, with its strict laws, has about 70 percent fewer gun deaths than the national average. The chart below shows the striking 50-state pattern.

Just because states can pass their own restrictions, though, doesn’t mean federal gun laws are unimportant. They matter a great deal, because it’s easy for criminals to buy guns in one state and drive them to another.

This happens all too frequently in Massachusetts. Of all the guns used in crimes in Massachusetts in 2014, and traced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the majority came from other states, including a large number from Florida and Georgia.

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Federal rules cracking down on gun purchases could help prevent criminals from getting guns in other states and bringing them to Massachusetts. And that could mean even fewer violent deaths.

Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz.
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