Gun Control: Does it Work?

Peter

Gun control. It’s a complex issue, one that’s easy to get lost in. Should we have it? There are those who say “no,” citing the immutability of the Second Amendment, and ardently declaring that the answer to gun violence is to arm more people: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun,” the saying goes. On the other hand, proponents of gun control would like to see the number of guns in society decrease, and heavily favor restrictive measures on their purchase and ownership.

Importantly, the debate, for the most part, isn’t one that centers around whether or not gun violence is or is not a problem. While some people may accurately point out that gun violence does not cause as many deaths in America as other things (automobile accidents come to mind as a frequently cited example), I have yet to encounter a person who doesn’t think it’s an issue that’s worthy of attention. The debate, as previously indicated, is over what methods, if implemented, would be most effective in reducing gun violence generally, while still respecting the right to bear arms.

Examining Gun Control Objectively


In discussing the possible outcomes associated with various hypothetical changes in gun policy, most people’s first instinct is to look for evidence congruent with their personal views. For better or (more likely) worse, that’s to be expected, and is to some extent unavoidable. This instinct, however, must be suppressed if any objective analysis of the available evidence is to be conducted. I do not claim to personally be free of personal bias when it comes to the issue of gun control. As someone who enjoys shooting guns, and who was raised by conservative, gun-owning parents, I approached my personal study of gun control’s effectiveness with no small degree of skepticism. What I’ve found is that, while many facets of the debate do not yet have enough evidence to say so conclusively, the general conclusion derived from examining the available evidence is this: gun control works.

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Now, if you’re not a proponent of gun control, please don’t stop reading. Allow me to explain what I mean by “evidence,” and connect you with the resources I’ve used to draw my conclusions.

The evidence I speak of here does not address arguments based in rhetoric, philosophy, or faith. For instance, if you fervently believe that any form of gun regulation is an infringement on a “God-given” right, the evidence I will reference here leaves that aspect of the debate untouched. If you believe that it’s important for citizens to be able to arm themselves so as to be able to throw off an oppressive government, the evidence I will reference here holds that constant as well. Arguments like these are not unimportant, but they aren’t objective; they do not offer any insight into *how* guns *actually* affect outcomes like murder and suicide rates. A better tool for any attempt at an objective analysis of these effects is statistical analysis.

Statistical analysis, of course, isn’t always a perfectly objective measure either. Most people know enough about statistics to know that “correlation doesn’t mean causation,” that how variables are measured matters, and that data can be manipulated to show statistically significant results where none exist. Unfortunately, this knowledge, when combined with people’s desire to find evidence supportive of their beliefs, is a recipe for people simply waving off evidence that runs counter to whatever they want to hear without examining how that evidence was established. For those curious about my own methodology, the data I’ve used, its sources, and its measurement can be found HERE, alongside readouts of the tests I’ve run.

My Findings


Based on the data I’ve collected and individual tests, four years of state-level data indicate statistically significant, positive relationships between household gun ownership and rates of (1) homicide, (2) suicide, (3) gun homicide, (4) gun suicide, and (5) domestic violence deaths. In each test, an OLS regression was used, and control variables included each of the following:

  • State alcohol consumption per capita
  • An indexed ranking of mental health disorder prevalence and resource availability by state
  • The rate of police officers per 100,000 state population
  • State population density (persons per square mile)
  • The percentage of state population in poverty
  • The percentage of state population with at least a bachelor’s degree
  • The percentage of state population that is Black
  • The percentage of state population that is Hispanic or Latino
  • The percentage of state population that are of military veterans
  • A bivariate measure of whether or not a state’s culture is defined as an “honor culture”

These results don’t actually speak to the efficacy of gun control measures. They do, however, lend credence to the argument that increased access to guns *does* increase the rate at which various measures of violent crime occur.

Regressions on gun ownership where state gun-control rankings were used as the primary explanatory variable showed that more permissive gun laws correlated positively with gun ownership, which, as just mentioned, correlates in turn with increased rates of several violent crimes. Three different rankings of state gun control laws were used in these tests: one from the Brady Campaign, one from the CATO Institute, and one developed by FiveThirtyEight using data on gun control laws maintained by Everytown for Gun Safety. Regardless of the measure used, the relationship was the same: more restrictive gun laws result in reduced gun ownership, and, by extension, with reduced crime rates.

The Efficacy of Individual Gun Policies

Importantly, each of the gun law rankings used in these tests are based off of indexed measures, meaning that while each attempts to explain states’ overall gun law strength, each also obscures the effects of individual gun laws by lumping all gun laws together.

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To disentangle the effects of individual gun laws, a review of an analysis by the RAND Corporation is helpful. While there are literally thousands of published articles on the subject of gun control, RAND used a highly exclusive methodology to review only the publications of the highest quality. Based on this methodology, RAND concluded that only seven of the gun-related policies it reviewed had anything more than “inconclusive evidence” to substantiate them. In every instance where the evidence was better than inconclusive, the evidence vindicated more restrictive gun-control measures and those who call for them.

As per RAND, the available evidence indicates the following:

  1. Background checks decrease suicides and violent crime;
  2. Bans on particular types of firearms make obtaining those firearms more costly;
  3. Child-access prevention laws decrease suicides and unintentional deaths/injuries;
  4. Concealed-carry laws increase violent crime and unintentional deaths/injuries;
  5. Minimum age requirements for firearm purchases decrease suicide;
  6. Prohibitions on ownership associated with mental illness decrease violent crime and suicide;
  7. Stand-your-ground laws increase violent crime.  

Guncontrolgraph

Now, I’ve referenced two sources so far that indicate the efficacy of at least some restrictive gun laws: (1) data I’ve personally collected and (2) the most recent, professional, and rigorously conducted analysis of available research on gun policy of which I am aware. What I’ve presented here isn’t what I’d call a “deep dive” into the specifics of various aspects of the gun control debate. It’s a starting place.

Going forward, I’d like to tackle specific issues, gun-related myths, and gun-related arguments head on. But for now, what I want you take away from this is that “gun control” doesn’t mean “gun confiscation,” and that, objectively, the evidence suggests that our society would be a safer one if we implemented at least some gun control measures more widely.

Peter Gregory is a PhD candidate studying Public Administration and Affairs at Virginia Tech. He’s worked on Capitol Hill, and done consulting work for state, county, and city governments. He enjoys research, camping, board games, and binge watching TV shows with his wife. His writings and opinions are his own; they do not represent the views or official positions of any organization.

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