Americans are often divided on how to improve gun policies. Our research suggests that, among gun policy experts, these divisions are not primarily due to disagreements about what policies should achieve. Instead, the experts disagree on what the real effects of gun policies will be. This essay summarizes what is known and where new information could help build consensus about how to improve U.S. gun policies.
Gun Policy in America
A RAND Research Initiative
Gun Policy in America
RAND's Gun Policy in America initiative provides information on what scientific research can tell us about the effects of gun laws. Our goal is to establish a shared set of facts that will improve public discussions and support the development of fair and effective gun policies.
We analyzed thousands of studies to examine the effects of gun policies on defensive gun use, hunting participation, suicide rates, and other outcomes. We also evaluated the views of gun policy experts who have opposing perspectives on the likely effects of gun laws to understand where disagreements exist and where compromise might be possible.
By exploring this project, you can view summaries of our key findings, delve into our analysis of the existing evidence base, learn how the experts think policies would affect outcomes, download our historical database of state gun laws, and access the supporting research reports.
Research Review: How Gun Policies Affect Outcomes: What the Evidence Shows Us
To know whether a gun policy is fair and effective, we need to determine how it affects outcomes, such as suicide rates and hunting participation. Scientific research could provide the most-reliable proof of these effects.
We reviewed thousands of studies to identify all available evidence for the effects of 13 gun policies on eight outcomes. After excluding studies that did not meet our criteria for establishing a law's effects, we found little persuasive evidence for the effects of most policies on most outcomes.
For six of the 13 policies, either we found no studies examining the effects on any of the outcomes we considered or the evidence was inconclusive. However, we found some evidence that seven policies affect one or more of four of the outcomes, as shown below. For example, evidence shows that background checks may decrease (brown lines) suicide rates and that concealed-carry laws may increase (teal lines) violent crime. The thicker the line, the stronger the evidence.
Click on a policy, outcome, or relationship to learn more.
- Child-access prevention laws may decrease suicide.
- Child-access prevention laws may decrease unintentional injuries and deaths.
- Background checks may decrease suicide.
- Background checks may decrease violent crime.
- Prohibitions associated with mental illness may decrease violent crime.
- Stand-your-ground laws may increase violent crime.
- Bans on the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines may increase the price of banned firearms.
- Concealed-carry laws may increase unintentional injuries and deaths.
- Concealed-carry laws may increase violent crime.
- Minimum age requirements may decrease suicide.
- Prohibitions associated with mental illness may decrease suicide.
For four of the outcomes we studied— defensive gun use, hunting and recreation, mass shootings, and officer-involved shootings—we found inconclusive evidence, at best, on the effects of any of the policies. However, these understudied outcomes are often central concerns in gun policy debates. For instance, even though we found that child-access prevention laws have measureable benefits in reducing accidental and intentional self-injuries and deaths, the effects of these laws on defensive gun use—one of the principal objections raised against child-access prevention laws—have not been evaluated rigorously.
Law Navigator: Which States Have Enacted Four Key Firearm Laws?
Research on the effects of gun laws requires good data on when and where different types of laws have been implemented. The State Firearm Law Navigator shows where and when four types of laws have been enacted: background checks, child-access prevention, concealed-carry, and stand-your-ground laws.
The visualization is developed from RAND's longitudinal database of state firearm laws, which includes state implementation data for 17 classes of gun laws.
Outcome Explorer: Do Experts Agree on Any Gun Policy Effects?
With limited scientific evidence on the effects of gun laws, policymakers and the public frequently rely on the views of experts, including researchers and policy analysts associated with advocacy organizations. However, these experts are also divided, with some favoring policies that others find intolerable. To better understand where policy experts disagree on the effects of gun laws, where there is a shared set of facts, and where better information could help build a consensus on gun policies, RAND surveyed experts from academia, advocacy organizations on all sides of the gun debate, and professional associations that have taken stands on gun policy questions. The 95 experts we surveyed fell into two easily distinguishable groups: those who favor more-permissive regulatory approaches to gun access and use and those who favor more-restrictive approaches. The survey results bracket the range of effects expected by diverse experts and can be used to explore how combinations of gun policies will affect different outcomes in each state and nationwide according to the two groups of experts.
How Do Your Views Compare with the Experts'?
Answer the four questions that most sharply distinguished experts who favor more-restrictive policies from those who favor more-permissive ones.Take the Survey
Key Findings: Highlights from the Gun Policy in America Initiative
In Depth: Reports, Research Tools, and Data
The full findings from RAND's literature review of studies examining the effects of gun policies and from a survey of gun policy experts are published in two peer-reviewed reports. To help advance research on the effects of state gun policies, the RAND team also developed a new data set of state laws and their variants from 1979 to 2016. In addition, the team published a short technical report analyzing the methods and findings from a study of U.S. gun legislation and firearm mortality.