US shooting
A makeshift memorial for victims of a mass shooting in front of the Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park, California, on January 26, 2023. In the back-to-back mass shootings in northern and southern California in a week, 18 people were killed. A research found that many US gun owners take little or no precautions to prevent children from having access to a gun. Image Credit: AFP

Rand Corporation, the think tank with origins in Cold War military planning, recently issued its latest update on gun policy research. Rand has been sifting through gun research, offering generally conservative assessments of its utility and findings, since 2018. As strictures on gun violence research have fallen, and more such research has been conducted, Rand has had more to sift. As a result, it has been venturing more definitive conclusions in a few areas where data, by its measure, have achieved critical mass.

As the United States goes through another ritual response to another mass shooting, it’s worth taking a look at the state of gun violence research, and asking why even conclusive research seems to have so little influence in so many crucial places, such as the US Supreme Court and many state legislatures.

Rand grades the quality of research as well as analysing the findings. Of the 18 gun policies that it evaluates, it characterises 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 the orders contribute to harm reduction.

What research on US gun culture says

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. The research organisation found 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 a measure 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 had 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?

US mass shooting
A candlelight vigil for the victims of the mass shootings in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay on January 26, 2023, in San Francisco, California. Hundreds of people attended a candlelight vigil to honour the victims of back-to-back mass shootings in northern and southern California in a week, when 18 people were killed. Rand found sufficient evidence that “shall-issue concealed carry laws increase total and firearm homicides.” Image Credit: AFP

Yet many US gun owners take little or no precautions to prevent children from having access to a gun. Others actively encourage children to use firearms. One gun manufacturer is currently 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 researchers have 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 difficult for authorities to prevent concealed carry by, for example, requiring gun owners to articulate a specific self-defence need to carry in public.) Lots of research exists on concealed carry — so much so that Rand eliminated many flawed early studies, including some by the notoriously dubious gun proponent John Lott, and still found 22 studies “that did not raise serious methodological concerns.”

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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 the entirety 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 conclusions on the etiquette of concealed carry. It 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, published a decade ago, on how stand-your-ground actually plays out in Florida. The Times found the law was repeatedly invoked by “killers and violent attackers whose self-defence 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.

Cause and effect of specific gun laws

It’s important for credible researchers to address complex social problems such as gun violence. It’s important for serious policymakers to understand, as best they can, the cause and effect of specific laws. But for the foreseeable future, the application of research to the problem of gun violence will continue to be a blue-state phenomenon. Millions of conservatives have convinced themselves, with the help of propagandists and politicians, 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 states have been enacting more gun regulations — 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.

— Bloomberg

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