To identify where reliable data would be most useful in resolving gun policy debates, we surveyed nearly 100 social scientists and policy analysts who are well versed on this topic. Because there is no master list of gun policy experts, we made no attempt to construct a sample from which we could estimate what the typical or average viewpoint is among experts. Instead, our sampling strategy was designed to allow us to characterize some of the diversity of perspectives on gun policies among recognized experts, evaluate the range of disagreements among clusters of experts with similar viewpoints, and evaluate the nature of those disagreements (for instance, whether they reflect differences in how experts value personal rights versus public health or differences about the likely effects of different gun laws).
With the objective of identifying experts with diverse views, our sampling strategy focused on three populations: (1) academic researchers with at least five research publications on gun policy topics, (2) researchers or policy analysts associated with advocacy and professional organizations that have taken public stances on gun policy (e.g., the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the National Sheriffs' Association, and the National Rifle Association), and (3) staff serving on one of four congressional committees that routinely consider gun policy legislation. More-complete sampling information is available in Chapter Two of the research report on the magnitude and sources of disagreement among gun policy experts.
Experts in our sample received letters or email messages inviting them to take the online survey, which asked them to estimate the effects of 15 different gun policies on 12 outcomes. The policies and outcomes were selected to be broadly representative of many of the concerns raised in gun policy debates (including how the policies would affect suicide rates, homicide rates, mass shootings, other violent crime, defensive gun use, participation in hunting and sport shooting, the right to bear arms, individuals' privacy, and other outcomes). In addition, the survey asked respondents to provide their overall opinions of each policy and to indicate which of ten advocacy organizations had taken gun policy positions closest to the respondent's own views. The complete survey is found in Appendix A of the research report.
Of approximately 250 gun policy experts contacted to take the survey, 95 provided usable responses. Using latent class analysis, we identified clusters of experts with similar opinions on the overall merits of the gun policies. This resulted in two distinct groups of experts, which we labeled as those who favor more-restrictive approaches toward gun access and use (79 individuals) and those who favor more-permissive approaches (16 individuals). The imbalance in numbers of experts in each group does not mean that more gun policy experts in the United States favor more-restrictive policies than favor more-permissive ones, because our survey sampling plan was not designed to produce a representative sample of all experts. The imbalance also does not cause our findings to be biased toward the opinions of the larger restrictive group, because we analyze the results of each group separately. That is, in the survey results, we separately highlight the median and interquartile-range estimates provided by experts in each group. We present no analyses where averages of any kind are taken across these groups.
For additional details on the survey methodology, survey item development, analysis approach, survey results, and development of the interactive maps and survey on this website, see the research report.