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Research Questions

  1. What do gun policy experts believe are the likely effects of gun policies, and where are the experts in more or less agreement on those effects?
  2. Do differences in the policies favored by experts result from disagreements about the policies' true effects or disagreements in experts' policy objectives or values?

This report was superseded by a revised, updated edition in late 2021.

The effects of firearm policies have rarely been the subject of rigorous scientific evaluation in comparison with most other policies with similarly consequential effects on public safety, health, and the economy. Without strong scientific evidence of the effects of laws, policymakers and the public rely heavily on the expert judgments of advocates or social scientists. This makes gun policy experts' estimates of the true effects of policies an important influence on gun policy debates and decisions.

In this report, RAND researchers describe the results of a survey in which gun policy experts estimated the likely effects of 15 gun-related policies on 12 societal outcomes. The researchers use these and other responses to establish the diversity of beliefs among gun policy experts about the true effects of gun laws, establish where experts are in more or less agreement on those effects, and evaluate whether differences in the policies favored by experts result from disagreements about the policies' true effects or disagreements in experts' policy objectives or values. The analysis suggests that experts on both sides of the gun policy debate share some objectives but disagree on which policies will achieve those objectives. Therefore, collecting more and stronger evidence about the true effects of policies is, the researchers believe, a necessary step toward building greater consensus.

Key Findings

Experts Favor Either More-Permissive or More-Restrictive Gun Policies but Appear to Agree on What the Objectives of Gun Policies Should Be

  • The researchers identified clusters of experts with similar views on the 15 policies we examined. This resulted in two classes of experts who were sharply differentiated not just on their assessments of the policies but also on their ratings of which advocacy or membership organizations had gun policy positions closest to their own. The authors label the two groups the permissive class and the restrictive class, for their preferred approaches to policies governing the ownership and use of firearms.
  • Across 134 judgments about the effects of the policies, only 12 times did the median judgment for each class of experts disagree on the direction of the effect. More than half of these instances concerned two policies — permitless carry and elimination of gun-free zones. Four policies generated less disagreement: expanded mental health prohibitions, required reporting of lost or stolen firearms, a media campaign to prevent child access, and surrender of firearms by prohibited possessors.
  • The results suggest that the differing favorability ratings are strongly associated with differing beliefs about the true effects of the policies, not differences in what the experts thought should be the objective of gun policies. Indeed, there was an overwhelming consensus between the groups that their preferred policies were those they saw as reducing firearm suicides and homicides.

Recommendations

  • There is evidence that those on either side of the gun policy debate share many of the same policy objectives. Recognizing that key sources of disagreement may lie in the means of achieving the shared goals rather than in what the goals should be could be useful in gun policy negotiations.
  • The analysis suggests that the vast majority of policy disagreements are associated with factual questions about policies' true effects that are, in principle, knowable. New and significant federal and private investment in the scientific study of gun policies would offer a promising and available path for building consensus on gun policy.
  • One factual matter that appears to be of key importance concerns the magnitude of firearm substitution effects; that is, when firearm suicides or homicides are prevented, how many will still result in deaths by other means? The authors believe that better information about this question could have implications for how people on all sides of gun policy debates evaluate the merits of individual policies. Therefore, they recommend that funders and researchers prioritize investigating the magnitude of such substitution effects and the conditions under which they are most likely to occur.
  • With the data collected from firearm experts, RAND researchers created an online policy comparison tool where users can explore how experts in the permissive and restrictive classes might evaluate different combinations of laws. The project team invites gun policy analysts, those engaged in negotiations over policies, and the public to explore how combinations of laws might affect each U.S. state. Users of the tool can also explore the trade-offs created when, in the view of one or both sets of experts, a group of policies improves one set of outcomes but undermines others.

This project is a RAND Venture. Funding was provided by gifts from RAND supporters and income from operations.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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