Research and Gun Laws

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Research and Gun Laws   

 Jim Windell

            If you are shocked and appalled whenever a school shooting takes place, you are not alone. There are plenty of people who are both deeply saddened and outraged every time another a massacre of students takes place. It’s those of us who react with horror and sadness who often call for something effective to be done to curb these terrible events.

            But there are also people who though initially sickened and angry that another person has taken a gun into a school to randomly shoot innocent students and teachers, who after their immediate emotions have quite another reaction. They fear that another school shooting will inevitably result in calls for gun control measures. Reflecting the political and ideological divide in this country, these people reject gun control laws as efforts to restrict their freedoms and take away their guns.

            So, we have basically two groups of partisans. Those who want to control guns and those who are adamantly opposed to any restrictions on obtaining and owning guns. This debate can be intense at times, but the arguments and debate over the killing of people versus Second Amendment rights doesn’t seem to convince either side. They are always too far apart to reach any meaningful consensus.

            However, underlying this ongoing discussion is one important – and largely unanswered – question: Would stricter gun laws and greater efforts to keep guns out of the wrong hands actually make any difference? In other words, the real question facing our country is whether gun control laws would prevent school shootings and other kinds of gun violence.

            For more than a half dozen years, the Rand Corporation, through its Gun Policy in America initiative, has been evaluating the available scientific evidence on the effects of gun laws on our society. The Rand Corp. was looked at a wide range of outcomes, including homicides, suicides and mass shootings. In this initiative, it has reviewed thousands of scientific articles to identify those that credibly estimate the effects of 18 different gun laws that are commonly debated in state legislatures. In particular, the Rand Corp. has attempted to find evidence that these laws actually led to changes – not just correlations – and that things changed.         

            In a recent article, Andrew R. Morral, who is a senior behavioral scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and leader of its Gun Policy in America initiative, has looked for research that show which laws work – and which laws are simply window dressing. What he has found is that several policies do have substantial support in the scholarly literature. Specifically, Morral has discovered that child access prevention legislation, also known as CAP laws, or safe storage laws, boast some of the most potent evidence about effectiveness. The studies Morral has looked at make it clear that CAP laws decrease self-injuries and suicides among youths in states that adopt these polices and make them into laws. In addition, CAP laws decrease unintentional injuries and deaths. Yet, Morral points out, only 19 states have such laws.

            CAP laws, which require firearms owners to keep guns in safes or other places where children can’t access them, may not have changed events in Oxford, Michigan, where the parents reportedly gave a handgun to their teenage son, nor would they have prevented the 19 student deaths and the killing of two teachers in Uvalde, Texas where an 18-year-old legally bought an AR-style rifle. Nonetheless, Morral believes CAP laws deserve strong consideration by any legislators concerned about gun deaths.

           He also says that relatively speaking school shootings and other mass shootings are sufficiently rare that it is hard to establish with scientific rigor whether policies affect them.

           Most of the gun policies that advocates for stricter gun control laws may like to see implemented have not been evaluated or have not been evaluated well enough to draw strong conclusions from. These two problems — weak studies or no studies — for Morral are related. That is, he writes, for decades we have underfunded research and data collection efforts that could help us establish the effects of gun laws and other firearm violence prevention interventions. For political reasons, for all of the 21st century so far, literally no federal funding has been available for research in this area.

           On the other side of the debate, a popular law in recent years has been “Stand your ground” laws. Research suggests that “Stand your ground” laws, which remove the traditional obligation to avoid using deadly force in a conflict if retreat is a safe option, are associated with an increase in firearm homicides, and there is moderate evidence suggesting they also drive up total homicides after their passage. These kinds of laws have been so popular in the last several years that more than half of all states have passed such laws.

           Other laws have been passed, although the evidence is somewhat weaker regarding their effectiveness. For example, all states have required background checks for firearms purchased from a licensed dealer. There is some evidence that these background checks do decrease homicides. Overall, though, it can be said that while at least half of all states have some form of “universal” background check laws, the effects of these laws are not yet well established. There is also moderately strong evidence that waiting period laws, laws that have been passed in fewer than half of all states, decrease firearm suicides and murders. Also, there is some evidence to support that passing laws prohibiting firearms possession by people with domestic-violence restraining orders tend to decrease intimate partner homicides.

           There are additional laws, such as assault weapons bans of the sort the U. S. had in place for the 10 years after 1994, have not yet provided enough scientific evidence to indicate what their effects might be. Assault weapons bans might be effective, but we just don’t have the scientific evidence of this.

           Although the most partisan of the anti-gun control faction may not be swayed by any scientific evidence, there are many of us – both citizens and lawmakers – who are willing to take into consideration sound evidence. At this point, while we still need more research and more evidence of the effects of certain laws, there are few that show that certain policies should be passed in every state.

           To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Morral, Andrew R. (May 22, 2022). What the research says about gun laws. The Washington Post.



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