The Crucial Missing Factor in the Gun Policy Debate

There is a serious shortage of scientific research into the effects of gun policy, and that seriously hinders almost any gun policy debate for all participants.

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More than 1,000,000 people around the world, myself included, participated in the March for Science on April 22, 2017, demonstrating for evidence-based policy. Despite largely being directed at the Trump Administration and in particular Scott Pruitt’s Environmental Protection Agency, the march had a more general pro-science tone. One of the more amusing chants to come out of it was “What do we want? / Evidence-based policy! / When do we want it? / After peer review!” and many signs read “Evidence-Based Policy―Not Policy-Based Evidence.”

This pro-science based policy position is an easy (and correct) one to take on issues like climate policy that are obviously and intuitively based in science, so it has become widespread (albeit not widespread enough, but that’s a conversation for a different column). Unfortunately, it has experienced much less widespread support in areas of policy not obviously linked to science, where debates often consist entirely of two sides disputing the theoretical merits of policies without discussing actual empirical data―in other words, policy debates in areas outside of science-linked policy tends to be based entirely on hypotheses and not on theories.

One of the most egregious of such areas is gun policy. Some gun policy debates center around what the goal of gun policy ought to be; for instance, should gun policy be limited so as to promote gun rights, or extensive so as to promote general safety? These debates are based in value judgments and disagreements thereon and can be had entirely through reasoning and argumentation. However, they are not most gun policy debates. A 2018 RAND Corporation survey of gun policy experts found that most disagreement is not based on what the goal of gun policy should be, but on what the results of various gun policies would be. These debates are not based on subjective disagreements over values but disagreement over the objective, measurable results of gun policy.

As a result, they ought to be easy to resolve; conduct a study with a large sample size about gun policy, and you’ve got answers to one of the biggest controversies in the country. Analyze and run regressions on available data and keep track of data that is currently going uncollected; gun policy is one of those areas where research is frustrating because of how mind-bogglingly little available information there is. And yet the gun policy debate is still raging wildly, usually going something like this:

LIBERALS: This is really super obvious. If you have fewer guns, you’ll have less gun violence. Every other developed country has extensive gun policy and much less gun violence.

CONSERVATIVES: No amount of laws will keep weapons out of the hands of criminals, who don’t follow the law anyway. All gun control will do is prevent law-abiding citizens from being able to defend themselves. And those countries are different because they don’t have factors x, y, and z that America does have.

That’s not a debate going anywhere. It’s two people shouting at each other about the merits of testable but untested hypotheses.

It doesn’t have to be that way, and it shouldn’t. This research is doable. But it’s not free; the labor required to collect and analyze data with certainty costs money, and it currently gets outrageously little funding from the government, which ought to be funding research that could lead to extremely valuable findings for public health.

There’s a sordid backstory to this; unsurprisingly, it involves the NRA. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) funded a study that concluded that the presence of guns in a home increases the risk of homicide in the home in 1993. Outraged, the NRA lobbied for an amendment called the Dickey Amendment, to be made to the omnibus spending bill declaring that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” While it is factually true that the amendment does not stop the CDC from funding gun policy research, the amendment was accompanied by a $2.6 million dollar cut from the CDC’s budget―the exact amount the CDC had spent on research into gun-related deaths that year. It sent its message loud and clear to the CDC, and since then, the field of gun policy research has been severely underfunded.

This helps nobody. As a pretty down-the-line liberal, I think it is probably the case that stricter policies about implementing background checks, limiting who has access to guns, and putting strong limits on what kinds of guns can be sold would be effective and helpful. I even walked out on both March 15 and April 20 in support of those kinds of policies. But I don’t actually know, and no one else does, either, and no one will, until we lobby for the repeal of the Dickey Amendment and the expansion of evidence that can follow.

The Dickey Amendment, to be sure, does not stifle all gun policy research. Privately funded research exists. But federal funding is an extremely important part of any sort of research―so much so that when, in 2017, the U.S. federal government’s share of research funding fell below 50 percent, it was pretty big news. A research sector being deprived of federal funding is a research sector seriously impaired. Furthermore, it is the CDC’s responsibility to fund this research. The CDC’s job is to fund public health research, and this is a seriously public health issue; 38,148 people died from firearms in 2016. Not only is it a public health issue, but it’s also a public health issue for which research would be a massive boon to government policymaking, so it’s all the more the case that the federal government has a responsibility to fund it.

To be clear, this is not the Second Amendment debate, which is about what gun policy ought to be or what it even is constitutionally allowed to be. That’s a separate debate, and it’s fundamentally about whether the pros of gun policy outweigh the cons. But before that debate can be meaningfully had, we must first know what exactly the pros and cons of gun policy are; does gun control actually decrease gun violence? The Second Amendment debate is also an important one, and it needs to be had. But it cannot be the first priority.

If we are to achieve that evidence-based utopia for which we marched last April, we’re going to need evidence. And that means tearing down statutes that do nothing but stand in the way of evidence.