Home / Opinion / Columns /  Gun control is backed by both common sense and US studies

Rand Corporation, a think-tank with origins in Cold War military planning, recently issued its latest update on gun policy research. Rand has been offering generally conservative assessments since 2018. As strictures on gun violence research fell and more was conducted, Rand has had more to sift. As a result, it has been venturing more definitive conclusions in a few areas where data has achieved critical mass. As the US undergoes another ritual response to mass shootings, let’s look at the state of gun violence research and ask why even conclusive research seems to have so little influence in the country.

Rand grades research quality and also analyses findings. Of the 18 gun policies that it evaluates, it characterizes the research as “inconclusive" in most areas. For example, data on the effectiveness of extreme risk protection orders (‘red flag’ laws) is deemed “inconclusive" despite a growing body of research suggesting that they contribute to harm reduction. So it’s significant that Rand has reached decisive conclusions about the research in three key areas: child access prevention laws, concealed-carry laws and stand-your-ground laws. It found that child access prevention laws “reduce firearm self-injuries (including suicides), firearm homicides or assault injuries and unintentional firearm injuries and deaths among youth."

It’s speaks of the peculiar madness of US gun culture that research is even required on some of these issues. Earlier this month, a 6-year-old boy shot and wounded a Virginia teacher with a handgun he brought to school. Is it really necessary to ask whether it’s a good idea to prevent a 6-year-old from getting access to a firearm? Yet, many US gun owners take little or no precautions to keep guns away from children. Others actively encourage children to use firearms. One gun maker is marketing a ‘JR-15’ rifle for children. In 2013, a 5-year-old in Kentucky fatally shot his 2-year-old sister with his own Crickett rifle designed for children. So laws are necessary to discourage gun owners from leaving firearms lying around where kids can get them, or from leaving small children in charge of their own legally purchased arsenal. Rand has concluded that such laws are effective.

Likewise, Rand found sufficient evidence that “shall-issue concealed carry laws increase total and firearm homicides." Shall-issue laws make it hard for authorities to prevent concealed gun carriage by, for example, requiring gun owners to articulate a specific self-defence need to carry a gun in public. Lots of research exists on concealed carry—so much so that Rand dumped many flawed early studies, including some by the dubious gun proponent John Lott, and still found 22 studies “that did not raise serious methodological concerns."

The notion that people carrying a gun are more likely to fire a gun, leading to death or injury, does not seem especially revelatory. The collective experience of Europe, where firearms are strictly controlled, suggests this is very likely the case. But gun industry propagandists have long maintained the opposite, quoting a line from a Robert Heinlein novel that “an armed society is a polite society." It is one of their crueller jokes. Rand reached no conclusion on the etiquette of concealed carriage, but did find that it leads to more violence.

Finally, Rand found that stand-your-ground laws, which encourage people to shoot rather than back away from confrontation, or flee from situations that cause them to be afraid, “increase firearm homicides." This will not shock readers of the Tampa Bay Times series a decade ago on how stand-your-ground actually plays out in Florida. It found the law was repeatedly invoked by “killers and violent attackers whose self-defense claims seem questionable at best." If you are a drug dealer intent on killing a rival, claiming that the rival made you fearful before you gunned him down is apparently a good legal tactic.

It’s important for credible researchers to address complex social problems such as gun violence. Policymakers must understand, as best they can, the cause and effect of specific laws. But for the foreseeable future, the application of research to the problem will continue to be a blue-state phenomenon, of Democrats. Millions of Republican conservatives have convinced themselves that no evidence is necessary to confirm preposterous allegations of voter fraud. And just as the absence of evidence is no hindrance to fantasies about elections, an avalanche of evidence will not soon alter a different set of fantasies about guns.

Blue or Democratic party-run states have been enacting more gun regulations in recent year, many backed by research. But state borders, like gun culture, are porous. So red-state laws inevitably influence what happens in other states. Over time, however, the accumulation of research can still have an effect. If nothing else, it’s helpful to know what’s real. 

Francis Wilkinson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering U.S. politics and policy.

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