Skip to content
Q&A

'Getting This Right Has Life or Death Implications'

RAND Corporation's Andrew Morral discusses the newest report from Gun Policy in America Initiative. It includes information about what gun regulations work — and which ones don’t.

Arnold A decorative icon

What laws can reduce gun violence? It may seem like a simple question, but the answer is more difficult than you might think. The federal government spent more than two decades failing to fund gun research — a problem that it rectified last year — leaving lawmakers with a massive gap in evidence. That’s why RAND’s Gun Policy in America initiative started in 2016 to evaluate the causal effects that gun laws have on measurable outcomes. Now supported by Arnold Ventures, the initiative has released the updated second edition of the Science on Gun Policy report, offering new insights into how certain types of laws can reduce — or exacerbate — gun violence.

“This is a unique partnership between Arnold Ventures and RAND to put research at the center of the national discussion on gun violence policy,” said Arnold Ventures Director of Criminal Justice Asheley Van Ness. “This initiative is a great resource for gun policy researchers and also points out the importance of the federal government making a sustained commitment to fund gun research in order to develop a data infrastructure and to measure outcomes such as nonfatal gun injury.”

The report reviews 18 classes of gun policies grouped into three categories: policies that regulate who may legally own, purchase or possess firearms; policies regulating firearm sales and transfers; and policies regulating legal use, storage, or carrying of firearms.

Each of the 18 classes was examined for how they affected eight different outcomes, such as mass shootings, domestic violence, or suicides. And each finding was assigned one of four strengths ranging from inconclusive through limited and moderate and up to supportive.

Andrew R. Morral, a senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation, leads the Gun Policy in America initiative. Morral spoke with Arnold Ventures to elaborate on the report’s methodology, importance, and findings.

Headshot of Arnold Ventures
Arnold Ventures

This report follows one that was released in 2018. Could you elaborate on how this report differs from the first?

Headshot of Andrew Morral
Andrew Morral

We did a review of 13 gun laws in 2018, and since then there have been a lot of new studies, so we have incorporated those new studies, expanded the search to cover a longer time frame in the literature, and we've also expanded it to include five new policies that weren't in the original.

Many of the research syntheses we produced two years ago were updated, and our earlier conclusions about the research evidence for the effects of each law have been correspondingly revised. We have also added new essays on the research evidence for each of the five new laws we have added to the review.

Our literature review sifted through more than 20,000 articles. We were specifically looking for those studies that could say something about the causal effects of gun laws. We were throwing out studies that simply showed a correlation, like that states with weaker gun laws have more gun injuries. Correlational studies like these provide weak or ambiguous information about what the cause of those injuries is. Is it the laws, or are the injuries and the laws both caused by some other factor?

What we were interested in were studies that tried to estimate the causal effects of these laws, and so from the 20,000 we looked at there were 123 that we identified that could provide information on these causal effects. That's about twice as many as we were able to identify the first time around. That's partly because there's been this surge in research, and also because we've expanded the number of policies that we're looking at.

Headshot of Arnold Ventures
Arnold Ventures

I understand that gun policy debates often take on partisan tones. How can you avoid that and keep politics out of the picture?

Headshot of Andrew Morral
Andrew Morral

We have a commitment to evaluating the science neutrally and objectively. We have a number of quality assurance procedures in place to try to ensure that, including independent peer-review of the work we generate. We also share our results with people with diverse views on guns and gun policy to get their feedback. And that's often helpful to ensure that we don't unintentionally say things that are offensive to one or another group. For all of the Gun Policy in America projects, we have also preregistered our analysis plans before beginning the work. Preregistration is a way of formally announcing exactly how the data will be collected and analyzed, so if there is any deviation from the original plan, that will be obvious to anyone who reviews the public preregistration.

Headshot of Arnold Ventures
Arnold Ventures

It was surprising to find out how long it's been since the federal government has offered funding for these kinds of studies.

Headshot of Andrew Morral
Andrew Morral

Yeah. So last December was the first time in almost a quarter-century that Congress raised funds specifically for conducting research on gun violence prevention. Prior to that, it had been since 1996, when Congress removed from the budget of the CDC the amount they had been spending on gun violence research and passed the Dickey Amendment, which instructed the CDC that they were not allowed to fund research that advocated or promoted gun control. But the CDC did not think that it had been funding advocacy research, and so that had a kind of chilling effect, the fear being that any research on guns would be seen as gun advocacy research.

Headshot of Arnold Ventures
Arnold Ventures

With that gap in time, today, in terms of research, that leaves lots of low-hanging fruit in this area, correct?

Headshot of Andrew Morral
Andrew Morral

Because there's been 25 years of neglect by the federal government of this problem in terms of research and understanding, there really are a lot of different things that can be done right now to study this. That's part of the reason why Arnold Ventures helped create the National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research, the philanthropy that is funding research on a wide variety of topics related to gun violence prevention.

In terms of gun policy research and understanding laws, my view is that a very good, rich area to investigate are those laws for which there are sharp divides among the public and policymakers on what the true effects of those laws really are. So for instance, people who advocate for gun-free zones really believe that they will make people safer, that they will prevent impulsive or accidental shootings, for instance. But there are also people who firmly believe the opposite: that gun free zones make people less safe because criminals know they will be less likely to meet armed resistance in such places. One of those two beliefs is wrong, or at least it must be the case that the net benefits in terms of lives saved or lost due to laws like these must either be that they are harmful or helpful.

There are similarly sharp disagreements on many gun laws. We should be trying to understand their true effects. Getting this right has life-or-death implications.

Headshot of Arnold Ventures
Arnold Ventures

In terms of true effects, this report found some interesting information about “stand-your-ground” laws. Right?

Headshot of Andrew Morral
Andrew Morral

Stand-your-ground laws reduce the obligation to retreat from a dispute that is potentially life-threatening before using deadly force. We now conclude that there is supportive evidence — our highest evidence rating — that these laws cause increases in firearms homicides.

Headshot of Arnold Ventures
Arnold Ventures

What are some of the other takeaways from the updated review?

Headshot of Andrew Morral
Andrew Morral

Many of our conclusions have not changed despite the new research that has been conducted. For instance, in 2018 we found that there was supportive evidence that child access prevention laws reduced deaths and injuries among children.

In other cases, however, we have increased the evidence rating for some effects. We now find moderate evidence — our second highest evidence rating — that waiting period laws reduce total homicides and firearm suicides. We also now report limited evidence — the weakest rating short of “inconclusive evidence” — that permit-to-purchase laws reduce firearms suicides among adults, and limited evidence that child access prevention laws reduce assaults.

We have downgraded the evidence ratings for prohibitions associated with mental illness, now reporting they have an inconclusive effect on total and firearms related suicides. Similarly, there is inconclusive evidence for their effects on total homicides, but limited evidence that these laws may reduce violent crime generally. We also now conclude that there is inconclusive evidence for the effects of background checks on total and firearm-related suicide.

Headshot of Arnold Ventures
Arnold Ventures

Where do you believe that more research is most needed?

Headshot of Andrew Morral
Andrew Morral

There's a wide range of topics to study including what the risk factors are for firearms injuries of different types, how to design violence prevention programs, how to protect spouses who are being abused by their partner from becoming victims of gun violence. More research could also be done on safety technology, illicit gun markets, and how criminals get their guns. There is such a large number of topics that we need to investigate. It’s hard to pick which are most important. But with this study we focused mainly on the laws where there was a big difference of opinion on their effectiveness.

Headshot of Arnold Ventures
Arnold Ventures

What other research is Gun Policy in America releasing?

Headshot of Andrew Morral
Andrew Morral

We are releasing our own estimates of household firearm ownership rates among adults in each state over a 35-year period. There hasn't been much information published on how many Americans own firearms in each state over time. The government used to survey people and report those numbers, but they don't do that anymore. Estimates of household gun ownership is important for evaluating gun policies. We think this will be helpful to researchers to incorporate into their models, but also of interest to gun owners and policymakers and the public interested in understanding ownership trends.

Headshot of Arnold Ventures
Arnold Ventures

How best can policymakers and activists put this new information to best use?

Headshot of Andrew Morral
Andrew Morral

Policymakers make decisions about which laws to support based on a range of considerations, including their beliefs about what the policy’s effects are likely to be on different outcomes and constituencies. Often there isn’t any solid research to clarify those questions, so they may trust their own instincts or those of the experts and advocates with whom they consult. In the case of gun policy, however, experts and advocates are often sharply divided on what the true effects of various gun laws would be. Our hope is that our research will be recognized by policymakers and advocates on all sides of gun policy debates as a rigorous, careful, and comprehensive assessment of what is and is not yet known about the effects of gun laws. We hope legislatures across the country will consider the evidence we have marshaled for the effects of different gun laws when they consider how best to improve public safety in their jurisdictions.

Headshot of Arnold Ventures
Arnold Ventures

Does COVID-19 affect research into gun policy going forward?

Headshot of Andrew Morral
Andrew Morral

I think the pandemic response is likely to change patterns of firearm violence. Many people are out of work, stressed, and spending much more time at home alone or with family. There are news reports that firearm sales have spiked, as have domestic violence incidents. I don’t think the enormous societal changes occurring around us change research into gun policy, so much as they are likely to be used by researchers to investigate fundamental questions about firearms violence. That is, the abrupt changes in social activity, mobility, income, and other social factors may result in sharp changes in, for instance, intimate partner homicide, suicide, mass shootings, and armed robberies that researchers will try to use to help clarify which factors may prevent (or exacerbate) firearms violence.