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Friday, March 1, 2024 | Back issues
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Two-Year Look at Gun-Policy Research Reveals Flaws, Hope

Previous research on various types of gun laws has produced limited evidence on their impact, according to a new RAND Corporation study that also found plenty of common ground on which to base meaningful gun reform.

(CN) – Previous research on various types of gun laws has produced limited evidence on their impact, according to a new RAND Corporation study that also found plenty of common ground on which to base meaningful gun reform.

The findings, which are from RAND’s Gun Policy in America initiative, are based on a review of thousands of studies. The report examines the effects of 13 common gun policies on a range of outcomes, such as mass shootings, deaths, injuries, defensive gun use and involvement in sport shooting and hunting.

Experts with opposing ideologies have similar stances on certain gun laws, the study shows.

The strongest available evidence supports the conclusion that statutes aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of children curtail unintended injuries to kids, self-injuries and suicides.

There is moderate evidence that background checks reduce firearm suicides and homicides, and that laws prohibiting the purchase or possession of guns by people with some forms of mental illness limit violent crime, according to the report. These is also some evidence that stand-your-ground laws – which allow individuals to use guns to defend themselves without requiring that they first attempt to flee, if possible – may increase homicide rates.

RAND’s Gun Policy in America initiative is designed to provide new, nonpartisan information about gun laws.

“The goal of this project is to help build consensus around a shared set of facts about gun policy by demonstrating where scientific evidence is accumulating,” said Andrew Morral, the project's leader and a behavioral scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research group.

Of the thousands of studies reviewed, the analysis identified 62 that investigated the causal effects of gun policy on one or more of the outcomes RAND explored. Most of the other reports show only an association between gun statutes and outcomes, which provides less convincing evidence that the laws caused changes in the outcomes. The team often found no research connecting gun policies to the many effects they examined.

“While science can teach us a lot about gun policy, research in this area is generally far behind where it is for most other causes of death that claim similar numbers of lives in the U.S. each year,” Morral said. “This does not mean that gun policies have no effects. Most laws probably have some effect, however small or intended.

“Instead, the limited evidence base reflects shortcomings in the contributions that scientific study has made to the policy debate.”

Many of the reports the team reviewed used weak methods of establishing the impacts of gun laws, typically because historical information on changes in state gun policies is unavailable or hard to collect.

To enable more high-quality research, the project created a large database of state-level gun statutes from 1979 to 2016. RAND is making the data available to researchers and the public, and is using the information to establish new estimates of the effects of gun laws that will be published later this year.

Due to limited existing scientific evidence, the team also surveyed 95 gun-policy experts with varying ideological perspectives to determine where there might be agreement or opportunities for compromise. They identified two groups with opposing views. One group had views that closely aligned with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, while the other was ideologically similar to the National Rifle Association.

Despite being sharply opposed on their ratings of the overall merits of various gun statutes, the groups were often not far apart in their estimates of the effects of certain laws.

There was relatively strong agreement between the experts on the positive impacts of required reporting of lost or stolen guns, expanded mental health-related prohibitions, media campaigns to prevent children from accessing firearms, and the mandatory surrender of guns by individuals prohibited from possessing them, such as felons.

The sharpest disagreements centered around laws that allow people to carry concealed weapons without permits and the elimination of gun-free zones. The project includes a website visualization tool that enables people to explore how different combinations of gun laws would impact outcomes nationally and at the state level, according to the experts.

“Both groups overwhelmingly favored policies they believed would reduce firearm homicides and suicides, but there is disagreement about which laws would have these effects,” Morral said. “Collecting more and stronger evidence about the true effects of laws is a necessary and promising step toward building greater consensus around effective gun policy.”

The team recommends that the federal government increase gun-research funding to levels comparable to federal research investments in other leading causes of death and injury, such as automobile accidents. The research focus should also expand to include the effects that laws have on jobs in the gun industry, defensive gun use, hunting and recreation activities, gun ownership, and officer-involved shootings.

“Issues beyond gun violence are often central considerations in gun policy debates, but we identified no qualifying research examining most of them,” said Morral. “If we had better information on the effects of gun laws on some of these issues, we would be in a better position to develop fair and effective gun laws.”

The United States has the highest level of gun ownership in the world. Estimates suggest that Americans own as many as 300 million firearms. Between 10 and 20 million Americans actively engage in hunting or sport shooting each year.

The gun industry generates $16 billion in revenue each year and employs hundreds of thousands in sales, manufacturing, distribution and recreation.

Simultaneously, more than 36,000 Americans died from gunshot wounds in 2015. Americans are also 25 times more likely to die by gun homicide than residents of other wealthy nations.

Roughly two-thirds of gun deaths in the U.S. are suicides, while mass shootings represent just 0.5 percent of all gun fatalities each year.

Despite growing acknowledgment that gun violence levels are too high, there is little consensus regarding which gun policies should be adopted.

RAND funded the study with its own money and through donations.

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