Virginia residents enjoy significantly more freedom than their neighbors across the Potomac River in Maryland, according to a new study by George Mason University's Mercatus Center.
The "Freedom in the 50 States" study ranked the Old Dominion well above the self-styled Free State based on its fiscal, regulatory and personal freedoms, which researchers determined through a combination of factors such as tax burden, tort abuse and gun control laws.
The findings left Virginia ranked No. 8 on the list and Maryland No. 44.
"In Maryland, you have a big tobacco tax, tight gun control laws and burdensome private and home schooling laws," said William P. Ruger, a co-author of the study and professor at Texas State University. "Virginia knocks the ball out of the park with its fiscal and regulatory polices."
The commonwealth scored well because it is a right-to-work state, the study says, and because its "tort system is one of the best in the country." It allows residents to openly carry firearms and its 30-cents-per-pack cigarette tax is the lowest in the nation.
Weapons laws hurt Maryland, however, which has the seventh-strictest gun control laws in the county. The state rarely issues carry permits and bans large-capacity magazines, which greatly infringes on personal freedoms, the study says.
Calls to two spokeswomen for Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley to discuss the findings were not returned Thursday evening.
The regional trend is magnified nationally, the study found, with conservative states ranking high in freedom and liberal states typically ranking lower with more restrictions on personal liberty. People generally prefer less intrusive governments, data show.
North Dakota was ranked freest state in the country, followed by South Dakota, Tennessee, New Hampshire and Oklahoma. New York was "by far" the least free state, Ruger said, followed by California, New Jersey, Hawaii and Rhode Island.
The study also found that residents of more restrictive, traditionally blue states were moving to conservative regions.
"People probably aren't flooding to Arizona simply because of the warm weather," Ruger said of the 11th-ranked state in his study. "People are voting with their feet."
Mark Perry, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said he thought four heavily weighted categories -- tax burden, tort abuse, property rights protection and labor market freedom? -- were to blame for the states' great separation in the study.
"When you add those categories up, you have about half of the study," he said. "You've got Maryland, which is pretty blue, matched up with Virginia, which is a little more red, especially in the House of Delegates and [Gov. Bob McDonnell]. You're just comparing a red state to a blue state."