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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 differences in experts' assumptions about the policies' true effects or differences in experts' policy objectives or values?

The effects of firearm policies, though frequently debated, have historically received less-rigorous scientific evaluation than have the effects of other policies affecting public safety, health, and recreation. Despite improvements in recent years, there is still limited evidence of how some gun policies that are frequently proposed or enacted in the United States are likely to affect important outcomes (such as firearm homicides, property crime, and the right to bear arms). In areas without strong scientific evidence, policymakers and the public rely heavily on what policy advocates or social scientists believe the effects are most likely to be.

In this report, part of the RAND Gun Policy in America initiative, RAND researchers describe the combined results from two fieldings (2016 and 2020) of a survey of gun policy experts. Respondents were asked to estimate the likely effects of 19 gun policies on ten outcomes. The researchers use these and other responses to establish the diversity of beliefs among gun policy experts, assess where experts are in more or less agreement on the effects of gun laws, and evaluate whether differences in the policies favored by experts result from differences in experts' assumptions about the policies' effects or differences in experts' policy objectives. The analysis suggests that experts on different sides of the gun policy debate share some objectives but disagree on which policies will achieve those objectives. Therefore, collecting stronger evidence about the true effects of policies is, the researchers believe, a necessary step toward building greater consensus on which policies to pursue.

Key Findings

Experts' views were divided, favoring either more-permissive or more-restrictive gun policies

  • Analysis of the survey results led to the researchers identifying two classes of experts who were sharply differentiated not just on their overall opinions of the policies (which the researchers call favorability ratings) but also on their ratings of which advocacy or membership organizations had gun policy positions closest to their own. The authors labeled the two groups the permissive class and the restrictive class.
  • The two groups were especially divergent on their opinions of required reporting and recording of firearm sales, requiring a license to purchase a firearm or ammunition, and a ban on sale of "assault weapons" and high capacity magazines.

Some policies generated less disagreement across the two classes of experts

  • The two groups' favorability ratings and expected effects were most in agreement for the following policies: state prosecution of prohibited possessors seeking firearms, expanded mental health prohibitions, a child access prevention law, surrender of firearms by prohibited possessors, and firearm prohibitions for individuals subject to domestic violence restraining orders.

What appears to divide the groups is a question of fact that may be knowable

  • The results suggest that experts in both groups preferred laws that they believed will reduce firearm homicides and firearm suicides — with secondary priority given to protecting individuals' privacy, reducing mass shootings, and reducing accidental firearm deaths. Even though minor differences may exist in the policy goals for these two classes of experts, those differences appeared to have negligible associations with the experts' favorability ratings.

Recommendations

  • The policies that are most politically feasible to enact might be those for which both the permissive and restrictive classes of experts generally reported neutral or positive favorability ratings. State prosecution of prohibited possessors seeking firearms and surrender of firearms by prohibited possessors both received neutral or positive ratings from 75 percent or more of experts in both groups.
  • Both the permissive and restrictive groups of experts preferred policies that they believed will reduce homicide or suicide, but they disagreed about which policies will best achieve those aims. Although there are certainly situations for which there is no common ground, it might be useful in gun policy negotiations to focus more clearly on the goals that the two sides share.
  • If most policy disagreements stem from factual questions about policies' true effects, new and significant investment in the scientific study of gun policies offers a promising path for building consensus on gun policy. Congress should broaden funding for gun violence research at levels comparable to the support it has provided to efforts to prevent other threats to public safety and health.
  • One question that appears to be of key importance concerns the magnitude of firearm policy spillover effects; that is, when a policy succeeds in preventing firearm suicides and homicides, how will this affect the rate of nonfirearm suicides and homicides? Funders and researchers should (1) prioritize investigating whether spillover effects undermine the intended effects of gun policies and, if they do, (2) develop strategies that minimize these spillover effects.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Sample of Policy Experts

  • Chapter Three

    Survey Design and Analysis Plan

  • Chapter Four

    Survey Findings

  • Chapter Five

    Do Experts in the Two Groups Value or Prioritize Different Outcomes?

  • Chapter Six

    Updating the Gun Policy Expert-Opinion Tool

  • Chapter Seven

    Discussion and Conclusions

  • Appendix A

    RAND Survey of Firearms Experts

  • Appendix B

    Descriptive Statistics by Expert Class, Outcome, and Policy

  • Appendix C

    Statistical Modeling of Experts' Favorability Ratings

  • Appendix D

    Data Sources, Calculations, and Additional Assumptions for the Online Gun Policy Expert-Opinion Tool

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was sponsored by Arnold Ventures and conducted by the Justice Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation 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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