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Report: Science On Gun Laws Is Lacking


As we continue the conversation about guns in this country, we thought it would be useful to look at what, if anything, the research shows over the last two years. The nonprofit RAND Corporation has analyzed thousands of studies to try to evaluate the results of specific gun policies - whether, for example, certain policies led to a decrease in homicide or suicide.

NPR science reporter Rebecca Hersher has looked into this, and she is with us now. Rebecca, thanks for joining us.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Of course. Thanks so much.

MARTIN: So what specifically was RAND looking for? Were there specific outcomes they were testing for?

HERSHER: Yeah. They were looking for two kinds of outcomes. So one is safety-based. So do these policies actually lead to fewer homicides, suicides, things like accidental injuries or deaths? And the other type is rights. So these are things like, do policies lead to less hunting? Did they lead to less recreational gun use, less defensive gun use by civilians, for example?

MARTIN: So is there a big takeaway from all this research that RAND analyzed?

HERSHER: Yeah. So the big takeaway is there is not a lot of data. They looked at some very popular gun policies - so things like permitting laws that require people to take gun safety classes to own a gun, age restrictions, mental health restrictions, gun-free zones around schools and public buildings. And they found basically very little rigorous research about whether these policies do or don't work. So this is how the study leader, Andrew Morral, put it.

ANDREW MORRAL: Most of the effects that we were looking for evidence on we didn't find any evidence on.

HERSHER: So that's evidence that policies did anything good or bad. It's not that these policies don't work. It's that science can't tell us much about whether they work.

MARTIN: Now, there's been a lack of federal funding for research on gun violence because of interest group lobbying, frankly. I mean, this is something that was brought to light again after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. So even as RAND analyzes these studies that do exist, is it really presenting a full picture of anything?

HERSHER: You're right. And it tells us more about what we don't know than what we do know. I think one interesting thing that they found is - they did this big survey in addition to analyzing studies. They asked people who consider themselves experts from all across the political spectrum what they think about the goals of gun policies, what those are. And this is what Andrew Morral found.

MORRAL: I think people on either side of gun policy debates often suspect that the other side has misplaced values or that it's a values problem in any case and that they prioritize things that should be of secondary importance. And that's not what we find. We find that the two sides appear to prioritize the same things in the same order.

HERSHER: So for example, whether you work for a gun rights group or a gun control group, left or right of center politically, the vast majority of experts say their primary objective or the primary objective of gun policies in general should be reducing suicides and homicides. So protecting privacy, making sure people can use guns to hunt or for recreation, even preventing mass shootings - most people agree those are not primary priorities.

MARTIN: So they found that there was actually a broad agreement on the goals of gun policies. That's interesting.

HERSHER: Yeah, and very few facts to figure out how to proceed to achieve those goals.

MARTIN: That's NPR science reporter Rebecca Hersher. Becky, thank you.

HERSHER: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.