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You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out: What A Christmas Story’ Can Teach Us About Gun Laws

The National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research has found strong evidence-based outcomes for child-access prevention regulations.

Ralphie, played by Peter Billingsley, sits on Santa's lap in a scene from the film 'A Christmas Story.' (Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images)

With the holiday season approaching, no doubt that the jolly sounds of jingle bells will be interspersed with clips from the 1983 classic A Christmas Story.” The movie, aired on repeat on cable TV over the Christmas holiday, follows 9‑year-old Ralphie Parker as he spends the weeks before Christmas obsessed with asking Santa for a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle — and hearing from the adults in his life that you’ll shoot your eye out.”

Little Ralphie may not have known it at the time, but his parents, teacher, and Santa at the mall were all onto something. Air rifles aside, keeping kids away from firearms has proven to be one of the most effective ways to reduce gun violence and injuries. 

As part of the National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research (NCGVR), which is managed by the RAND Corporation, Arnold Ventures is funding a rigorous analysis of gun safety policies in the United States. While there is still much work to be done, so far Child Access Prevention (CAP) laws stand out as meeting the highest evidence-based based standard as to their effectiveness. 

CAP laws regulate the liability of adults who leave unsecured weapons within the reach of children. This allows prosecutors to bring criminal charges against adults who intentionally or carelessly allow kids to have access to guns. 

Gun-related injuries are the second-leading cause of death for children and young adults.

A systemic review of gun policy research has found supportive evidence that these laws reduce suicide and unintentional injuries and deaths. This means at least three studies found significant effects from at least two independent data sets, and there was no significant contradictory evidence. 

Specifically, RAND found supportive evidence that child-access prevention laws reduce all firearm self-injuries (including suicide attempts) among young people,” said Asheley Van Ness, Director of Criminal Justice at Arnold Ventures. 

A causal relationship between CAP laws and fewer suicides and accidental injuries and deaths may seem obvious, but there are plenty of reasons to doubt that a well-intentioned law will result in the desired outcome. 

On the one hand, too many children die or are being injured because of guns,” said Andrew Morrel, the Senior Behavioral Scientist at the RAND Corporation and Director of the NCGVR. On the other, if guns are locked away, people may not be able to access them quickly in an emergency. This is the big tension, and there is controversy as to the effects these laws might have — will they make people safer or not?”

While RAND found CAP laws may prevent suicides and accidental harm, outcomes were less clear when looking at two other types of harm: mass shootings and violent crime. Studies focusing on those areas are inconclusive, largely because there has been little study of these outcomes.

While there is no federal version of a CAP law, several states have implemented their own regulations. The specifics of these laws vary widely across jurisdictions. 

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have laws that focus on negligent storage. These laws differ in the standard that gun owners are held to. Some impose criminal liability only if a child carries or uses the firearm, while others impose liability merely if a minor’s access to a firearm is likely. 

Thirteen states have laws that only impose liability if an adult recklessly provides firearms to children. The specifics for these laws vary across jurisdictions as well. Some states only apply reckless provision laws if a gun is loaded while others apply them for all firearms. 

For example, under modern-day CAP laws, Ralphie’s parents would probably not get in trouble for gifting him a gun on Christmas even if it were something more powerful than a Red Ryder. Indiana — their home state — only charges parents for providing a gun to their child if there was a substantial risk the child would use the gun to commit a felony.

States also vary in their definition of minor under CAP laws, ranging from 18 to 14. And while a CAP violation is a misdemeanor in some states, others treat it as a felony. 

This work is critical to helping policymakers understand the effectiveness of laws targeting gun violence because the field has been vastly underfunded for decades, said Van Ness. In fact, recent research by University of Michigan found that gun injuries receive significantly less federal funding compared with other top causes of pediatric and adolescent mortality in the United States. From 2008 to 2017, gun injuries were the focus of 32 grants totaling $12 million dollars. That’s only 3.3% of what researchers predicted given the number of young people killed by guns every year. 

That’s why Arnold Ventures launched the NCGVR in 2018 to begin addressing this underinvestment in gun violence research. In July 2019, the NCGVR awarded $9.8 million to fund 17 projects studying gun violence policies. 

Research priorities are selected by an independent 12-member Research Advisory Committee composed of national leaders in public health, government, law enforcement, criminal justice, and economics who have served in Republican and Democratic administrations. The committee bases its decisions on a scientific merit review process like that used by the National Science Foundation.

The next request for proposals will be released in January 2020

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