Most gun laws are not backed up by evidence. Here’s why.

In the first month of 2023, 25 people lost their lives in four mass shootings in just eight days in California. That’s a grim statistic, when you consider the fact that California has the lowest gun death rate in the entire country. What is this? safe Looks like the state.

California also has some of the strictest gun control laws in the country. And after those four mass shootings, new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy — who represents a Southern California district — took the opportunity to poke at the state’s firearms restrictions, saying at a news conference that federal gun control laws would not be an automatic. The response to this tragedy is because such laws “apparently … don’t work in these circumstances.”

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So, have California’s gun laws succeeded in making it the safest state … or have they failed to stop a string of mass shootings? Questions about the effectiveness of gun laws have become easier to answer in recent years as changes in federal policy have helped bring money and people back into the field of gun violence research. But decades of neglect mean there are still plenty of gaps — policies that aren’t yet backed up by good quality data. A recent report by the Rand Corporation that reviewed the evidence behind various gun policies found that only three were supported by evidence that met the report’s quality standards.

This reality, however, doesn’t mean that other gun laws don’t work—just that research proves that they don’t yet exist. The scientists I spoke with saw this as an “absence of evidence” problem, stemming from long-standing, deliberate obstacles in the way of gun violence research. Even the authors of the RAND report say that lawmakers should still put policies aimed at preventing gun violence into practice now — regardless of what the science says or doesn’t say.

“I think the goal of lawmakers is to pick legislation that they have a reasonable expectation will be better than the status quo,” said Andrew Moral, a senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation. “And there are many ways to convince yourself that this might be true, it has nothing to do with appealing to hard scientific evidence.”

Not only does California have some of the strictest gun laws and the lowest gun death rate in the country, it may also be the best state to study gun laws, said Dr. Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, medical center. This is due to both the way the state makes data available to researchers and its willingness to work with researchers to advance science. Wintemute is currently part of a team working on a randomized controlled trial of a special California gun law — an initiative that tracks legal gun owners over time and sends authorities to remove their weapons if those people later break the law or create a condition. would make them ineligible to own guns in the state.

It’s hard to oversell what a big deal. Often referred to as the “gold standard” of evidence-based medicine, randomized controlled trials randomly divide participants (natch) into groups of people who receive treatment and groups who don’t. Because of this, it’s easier for researchers to find out if a drug is actually working — or if it’s just displayed The study shared people working for other reasons. Such studies are extremely important, but almost impossible to do with public policy because, after all, how often can you randomly apply a law?

But California is willing to try. It took cooperation from different levels of state leadership, Wintmute said. The government was always going to gradually expand this particular program statewide, but in this case lawmakers were willing to work with scientists and shuffle that expansion across more than 1,000 communities, so that some randomly become part of the program and some later. When the study is eventually completed, researchers will be able to compare the two groups and see how participation in the program affects gun violence in those areas with a high level of confidence.

However, most of the time, scientists who study gun laws are not working with the kind of research methods that yield robust results. Moral, along with her RAND colleague, economist Rosanna Smart, reviewed the bulk of research on gun control policy done between 1995 and 2020. Their research synthesis found that what is out there consists of many interdisciplinary studies — observational studies that essentially only compare gun violence statistics at one point in time in states that have a specific law with states that do not. Such studies are prone to confounding correlation and causation, Smart said. There could be many reasons why California has lower gun violence rates than Alabama, but studies like this one don’t try to isolate what’s going on. They are ultimately being interpreted by the public as evidence that a law works when what they really do is marked by differences between states.

The RAND analysis throws out such studies and looks only at studies that are, at the very least, quasi-experimental — studies that track changes in outcomes over time between comparison groups. However, some studies are ranked as lower quality than others based on factors such as how broadly the results can be applied in the analysis. For example, a study that looked at the effects of a minimum age requirement for gun ownership in only one state would be ranked lower than a study that looked at the effects in every state where such a law existed.

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Following these rules, the RAND team found only three policies with strong evidence supporting outcomes — and two of those about the negative outcomes of policies that increase access to guns. Stand-your-ground laws, which allow gun owners to use deadly force without trying to escape or defuse a situation, appear to increase firearm homicides. Meanwhile, concealed-carry laws, which allow gun owners to carry guns in public, appear to increase all homicides. And The increase in the number of firearm murders, esp. The only laws restricting gun ownership that have this level of evidence behind them are child-access prevention laws, which have been shown to reduce firearm suicides, unintentional self-injury and death, and homicides among youth.

That makes gun control laws seem weak, but they shouldn’t be, Moral said. Instead, the lack of evidence should be understood as a product of political decisions that have taken the already challenging task of social science and made it more difficult. The Dickey Amendment, first attached to the 1996 omnibus spending bill, for example, famously prevented the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from funding gun violence studies for decades. A new interpretation of that amendment in 2018 changed that, but Dickey wasn’t the only thing that made studying gun violence difficult.

Instead, the researchers told me, the biggest obstacle to showing whether gun control policies work is that politicians have deliberately blocked access to the data needed to do that research.

“So for example, the federal government has this huge, great survey of behavioral risk indicators that they do every year in every state,” Moral said. “And you can get fantastic data on Americans’ fruit juice consumption as a risk factor for diabetes. But you don’t know if they own a gun.” Not knowing gun ownership rates at the state level makes it difficult to assess the causality of some gun control policies, he explained. “And it’s not because anyone thinks [gun ownership] Not a risk factor for different outcomes. Because it’s a gun.”

Cassandra Crifaci, co-director of Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Gun Violence Solutions, said the missing data problem also includes the 2003 TIRAT amendment that prevents researchers from sharing data identifying the source of guns used in crimes. “So what we’re seeing now is these kind of aggregate-level state statistics,” he said. “We can no longer look at things like, when a gun is recovered in a crime, is the purchaser the same person who had the gun at the time of the crime?”

Recently, researchers have lost even basic crime data that used to be reported by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program. Law enforcement agencies and states were supposed to migrate to a relatively new, much more detailed national incident-based reporting system, but the transition has been a disaster, with some of the nation’s largest law enforcement agencies still not making the switch because of financial and logistical complications, Smart said. “The FBI has not been able to report over the past eight quarters whether the homicide rate is up or down,” Morale added.

But much of the data that isn’t available at the national level is available in California, Wintmute said. “Unlike researchers in any other state, we have access to individual firearms purchaser records,” he told me — data blocking the Teahart Amendment at the national level. “We study 100,000 gun buyers, known to us individually, and we follow them over time to look for evidence of criminal activity or death or whatever outcome we’re studying,” Wintemute said.

Unfortunately, because the data is only available in California, the results of that study apply only to California — making it data that would not be considered high-quality in the RAND report. Wintmute can demonstrate if a policy works in its own realm, but not whether it works in a larger, broader, existential sense. It won’t count toward increasing the number of policies Rand found evidence to support. This is something that researchers like Crifasi see as a flaw in Rand’s analysis, but it’s also one of the reasons that Morale and Smart don’t think that evidence-based policy is a good standard to apply to gun control to begin with.

It’s important to know what the evidence is to support it, Moral said. But we don’t all Believe that legislation should be based on strong scientific evidence,” he said. Instead, RAND researchers describe scientific evidence as a luxury that legislators still do not have.

“There will always be someone who is the first person to enforce the law,” Smart said. “And they have to make decisions based on theories and other considerations that are not empirical scientific evidence.”

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