Last month our friends at the RAND Corp. unveiled a new initiative on gun violence, the National Collaboration on Gun Violence Research (NCGVR) which will soon begin allocating $20 million in research funds to promote gun-violence research. The purpose of this effort, according to the NCGVR, is to support “rigorous research designed to broaden agreement on the facts associated with gun policy, and support development of fair and effective policies.” RAND’s plan is to eventually grow their funding to $50 million. This ain’t chopped liver, even in my book.
This new project grows out of a 400-page study, The Science of Gun Policy, which RAND published last year and can be downloaded here. The study identified eight major gun-violence categories (referred to in the report as ‘outcomes’), linked these outcomes to thirteen public policies that were believed to reduce violence levels in each category, and then analyzed the degree to which research conducted since 2004 supported the mitigating effects of each policy or not. The outcomes were what you would expect: homicide, suicide, unintentional injury and so forth. The policies were the usual grab-bag of what has long served as the ‘wish list’ of gun-control advocates – comprehensive background checks, red flag laws, more intensive licensing, etc.
The researchers evaluated the ‘science’ of gun-violence research by scoring the research based on the degree to which it showed that each policy actually made a difference in the level of gun violence which the particular policy was designed to affect. The ratings ranged from inconclusive to limited to moderate to supportive, and not a single category of research received a supportive rating, not one. Two outcomes, gun suicide and gun homicide, were found to be moderately impacted by background checks and CAP laws; a spread sheet detailing the value of gun research for determining the value of every other public policy for all the other outcomes was basically blank. To put it bluntly, the RAND report found scant evidence that research conducted since 2004 has been of any real value at all. Wow.
This report no doubt reflects a decision of RAND to try and fill the gap. And while the lack of government funding for such research efforts has definitely played a significant role in restricting the degree to which the science of gun policy has remained far behind where it might otherwise be, I would like to suggest that perhaps there is another reason why the team that produced the RAND report found little, if any research that could be used to support gun-control policies from an objective, evidence-based point of view.
Every year somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million Americans attempt or succeed in inflicting serious injury on someone else. It’s called ‘aggravated assault,’ but for all kinds of reasons, we don’t have any hard data on how often it occurs. For that reason, gun-violence researchers rarely focus on gun assaults unless the victim winds up dead. Most of these deaths started as arguments, escalated to assaults, then out comes the gun. But in most cases, actually in at least 80% or more of these events, the shooter doesn’t know how to aim the gun and the person with the bullet inside them lives.
Let’s put this into context. The context is that less than 10% of the arguments that wind up as aggravated assaults involve the use of a gun. So how come 10% use a gun and 90% don’t? It can’t be explained by saying that there aren’t enough guns to go around. The guns are all over the place!
As long as gun-violence researchers rely on medically-based data about victims to understand gun violence, we won’t get very far. And if we don’t understand what’s going on in the head of the shooter, as opposed to the body of the victim, how can we develop public policies to reduce gun violence that will really work?
I just hope my friends at RAND will take this issues into account when deciding how to distribute their generous and much-needed research funds.