Amid calls nationwide for stricter gun control laws, Virginia is experiencing a unique trend: the state's gun-related crime is declining but firearms sales are increasing.
Firearms sales rose 16 percent to a record 490,119 guns purchased from licensed gun dealers in 2012, according to sales estimates obtained by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
During the same period, major crimes committed with firearms dropped 5 percent to 4,378.
"This appears to be additional evidence that more guns don't necessarily lead to more crime," said Thomas R. Baker, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University's L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs who specializes in research methods and criminology theory.
"It's a quite interesting trend given the current rhetoric about strengthening gun laws and the presumed effect it would have on violent crimes," Baker told the newspaper. "While you can't conclude from this that tougher laws wouldn't reduce crime even more, it really makes you question if making it harder for law-abiding people to buy a gun would have any effect on crime."
". . . all those extra guns can actually work to lower crime . . ."
- Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League
But he cautioned against drawing any conclusions that more guns in the hands of Virginians are causing a corresponding drop in gun crime.
Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said that the real question is how many guns are sold without a background check.
"In other words, if people who buy those guns and have a background check, and keep those guns and don't sell them, then you would not expect that those guns would affect the crime rate," Horwitz told the newspaper. "The important analysis is not the total number of guns sold with a background check, but rather the number of guns sold without a background check."
Virginia State Police conduct instant background checks on everyone seeking to purchase a gun through a federally licensed firearms dealer in Virginia.
The newspaper said it had asked Baker in 2012 to examine six years' worth of gun transaction data compiled by Virginia State Police through the Virginia Firearms Transaction Center. He then compared the data with state crime figures for the same period. Baker recently reviewed updated transaction figures obtained by the newspaper and compared them with the years he originally examined.
Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said that the data show that most of the guns being sold are "going to decent people".
"That's not going to affect crime and, in fact, all those extra guns can actually work to lower crime because those are going into the hands of (concealed) permit holders or people using them to defend their homes," Van Cleave told the newspaper.
The Associated Press contributed to this report