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Lack of data means effects of gun laws aren’t well known

As the debate around gun laws continues in the aftermath of the Parkland school shooting last month, a new report by the nonprofit RAND Corporation looks at some of the factors that could affect gun policies like background checks, age limits and banning assault weapons. Andrew Morral, a senior behavioral scientist who helped lead the study, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    In Washington and in states across the nation, policymakers are debating responses to last month's school shooting in Parkland Florida. But how much do we really know about the effects of gun laws? It turns out not much. The RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think-tank spent two years studying which facts that could affect gun policy are available and which facts are not. I'm joined now from Washington D.C. by Andrew Morral, senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation who helped lead the study. Thanks so much for joining us. How much do we know?

  • ANDREW MORRAL:

    Well, we spent two years trying to figure out what the science says about this, trying to identify the most reliable scientific evidence for the effects of about 13 different common gun laws on a whole range of outcomes of concern to different stakeholders in gun policy debates. And I think the bottom line, the biggest finding we have is that there has not been a great deal of research done yet that looks at the effects of these laws.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    You know there's going to be several folks on the left that point to the Dickey Amendment. This was something that happened back in 1996 essentially in the part of the omnibus bill, there was a clause entered in there it says none of the funds made available for Injury Prevention and Control, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maybe used to advocate or promote gun control. How big of an effect is that had that the government can't particularly study this?

  • ANDREW MORRAL:

    Well, It looks like it has had an effect. There was a study last year by David Stark and Nigam Shah that estimated that the government spends only about 2% as much on gun violence research as it does on research for other causes of mortality that kill about the same number of people like liver disease or traffic accidents or sepsis. And as a result of course, the the number of publications that come out in this area are very low. They said they estimated it was only 4% as much research reports coming out compared to those other types of mortality.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    With the studies that do exist that you were able to take a look at, you set out to see what evidence there was about the effects of certain gun policies. For instance, taking a look at background checks, something being debated right now. You found there is inconclusive evidence about their effects on mass shootings and only moderate evidence that they decrease suicide and violent crime. And you found no evidence that they affect a variety of other things like officer involved shootings or unintentional deaths. What else did you find and what does this tell you about the lack of data around guns?

  • ANDREW MORRAL:

    Yeah and actually the the moderate evidence that we rated the effects of background checks on suicide and violent crime was actually among the few more more significant or more credible ratings evidence that we were able to give across all of these outcomes. So the strongest evidence we found was for child access prevention laws. But even there, it's a relatively small number of studies. And so we don't think that there is enough evidence right now to make very strong claims.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    You know, you point out that there is, as you say that there's not that much research being done, there's not so many direct lines you can draw. The report also underscores how different sides of the gun control debate come to different the kind of interpret these conclusions about the same effects on these gun laws. For instance, when you asked experts on the pro gun control side of the debate about the effects of instituting universal background checks, they estimated that this could decrease firearm homicides by 8%. But when you asked experts who oppose gun control, they think background checks would have no effect at all. What explains this difference?

  • ANDREW MORRAL:

    Well actually I think a lot of the differences between the two sides in this debate come down to different ideas about the true effects of gun policies. And that's why we focused on that in this study and why we think more research that could answer these questions more definitively would be useful to resolving some of these longstanding debates.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right Andrew Morall of the Rand Corporation. Thanks so much for joining us.

  • ANDREW MORRAL:

    Thank you Hari.

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