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April 29, 2020

Revisiting RAND’s Gun Law Research Review

By Elizabeth McGuigan

In 2018, the RAND Corporation released a review of available research on various gun-related laws and their impacts on a range of eight outcomes. RAND has recently released an update of the report, adding five new categories of gun policies, and examining an expanded research period of 1995-2018.

Weighing in at over 400 pages and accompanied by additional extensive information on the RAND website, we have read through the report and want to share a few thoughts and comments, without undertaking a line-by-line critique. Yes, there are some issues with bias as the authors recommend certain policies that they do not find evidence to support. But overall, the update shows a well-intentioned, herculean effort on the part of the RAND researchers.

As with the initial report, the key takeaway is that there is no solid body of empirical evidence to support the common gun control wish list items such as bans on modern sporting rifles, magazine size limits, minimum age requirements for purchasing a firearm, universal background checks, licensing and permitting requirements or mandatory sales reporting and registration. Also, the methodological quality of the existing body of research is low at best. As the report concludes, “the scientific literature we reviewed shows that many of the best recent studies suffer from important methodological limitations that should be addressed in future research,” and, “with a few exceptions, there is a surprisingly limited base of rigorous scientific evidence concerning the effects of many commonly discussed gun policies.” We know this already, of course.

Changes in 2020 Report

There are a couple of notable changes from the first edition of the report. For example, the authors concluded in 2018 that there was “limited evidence” that background checks decreased total suicides and “moderate evidence” they decreased firearm suicides. Upon re-evaluating the earlier reports and considering additional studies, the new, downgraded conclusion is that there is “inconclusive evidence” for either. The same downgrade was found for the impact of background checks on violent crime.

Unfortunately, the report still excluded policies such as mandatory minimum sentences for crimes with firearms, enhanced prosecution of crimes and the types law enforcement/community partnerships that the Department of Justice’s Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice point to as effective.

One type of gun law that the authors believe may have an impact on firearm suicides and unintentional injuries among young people, are child-access prevention laws. Part of the problem here is that the report does not study the effectiveness of other approaches, such as public education campaigns and training programs that cover safe use and storage practices. For example, NSSF’s long-standing Project ChildSafe® initiative has received federal grant funding and is widely acknowledged to be an effective voluntary program nationwide. In 2019, RAND (conducting research for the National Institute of Justice), noted that Project ChildSafe is the only program that offers freely available gun locks at a national level and concluded that Project ChildSafe is a “noteworthy component of national efforts to improve safe storage.” Yet these types of voluntary programs are merely referenced in passing, and not studied here, so there is no evidence that laws are more effective than such programs.

This is a concerning limitation to the report. It means that the report doesn’t tell us the most effective answer to the problem of unauthorized access, rather just that some variations of the laws may or may not have an impact. We do know that unauthorized child-access is a fortunately rare event and unintentional firearm injuries and fatalities continue to decline. This suggests that additional laws may not further this trend and perhaps could have unintended consequences such as creating a false sense of security for gun owners that as long as they follow the letter of the law, they do not have to abide by the best practices for safe storage that fit their unique household needs.

The authors also note that even the limited research examined in this area does not show the whole picture of the safe use and storage of firearms. They write, “The lack of research on a wide range of outcomes makes it difficult or impossible to conduct a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of the gun policies. For instance, some of the strongest evidence we found suggests that child-access prevention laws could reduce firearm injuries or deaths among children. But restricting access to guns could also prevent gun owners from accessing their weapons in an emergency. The lack of research on defensive gun use means that we do not have a way of directly estimating how the benefits of these laws (in terms of the number of child lives saved) compares with the possible costs (in terms of forgone opportunities for self-defense).” 

Research Quality Should Trump Quantity

The RAND report does reach the natural conclusion that more research is warranted. Unfortunately, they do call for that to be conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), an inappropriate venue for criminal justice research, and by private entities. The very fact that RAND was unable to find any research on defensive gun use (DGU) demonstrates that the vast majority of research conducted on gun-related issues is driven by a pre-determined conclusion. DGU does not fit the narrative that all guns are bad, rather illustrates that the problem is criminal activities, regardless of tool illegally used as a weapon. (Fortunately, the Heritage Foundation is stepping in with a database of DGU incidents.)

Further, another conclusion RAND reaches is that the existing body of research on firearm-related policies is riddled with terrible methodology, which we know. As the authors state, “In conclusion, with a few exceptions, there is a surprisingly limited base of rigorous scientific evidence concerning the effects of many commonly discussed gun policies…it reflects the absence of scientific study of these policies or methodological shortcomings in the existing literature that limit rigorous understanding of policy effects.”

If the federal government and private entities are going to continue to fund such shoddy research, it will not serve any purpose except generating headlines to support gun control efforts. Forgive the firearm industry from being suspicious of recommendations such as eliminating the restrictions on the use of gun trace data for research purposes and having the CDC collect data on gun ownership and use.

More data, used improperly, will not help address the very real problems in our communities. The industry cares about finding real solutionsSM for the problems driving criminal violence, suicides and unauthorized access and stands ready with evidence of the effectiveness that these solutions have across the country.

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