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RAND Corporation Gun Violence report
Sean Scully

With thousands and thousands of their fellow Americans suffering violent, premature deaths from gun violence each year, many of our elected lawmakers - mostly but not exclusively Republicans - like to say that they would gladly support further regulations on guns if only they would work.

So those lawmakers will surely be pleased to learn that a major new report from the RAND Corporation confirms that there is indeed credible evidence that some of the policy tools already known to us actually do prevent firearm murders and suicides. Even better, the report also illustrates other big steps we could be taking - right now - to directly address those lawmakers' own stated concerns about the efficacy of further actions.

President Donald Trump and some Republicans have actually endorsed one of those policy tools - background checks. After the Florida massacre, Trump came out for comprehensively expanding the federal background check system. There's been talk of reviving legislation to close the holes in the system, which failed in 2013 after the Sandy Hook shooting, and that bill had a bit of GOP support. Others have endorsed a bipartisan bill to improve the background check system by facilitating the sharing of data with it, a modest but not-meaningless step.

But Friday morning, we learn that Trump may already be caving to the National Rifle Association and backing off even entertaining these steps. The NRA's chief lobbyist tweeted that Trump privately indicated he doesn't "want gun control." Trump tweeted that their meeting was "great," and the White House isn't elaborating. GOP Senate leaders now say the upper chamber may not act at all anytime soon.

The new report from RAND reveals what a depraved dereliction of responsibility doing nothing yet again will really amount to. The report represents a serious effort to fill huge holes in our empirical knowledge about gun policy - holes that are there by choice, in part because Congress has badly underfunded research and data collection on the topic. The RAND report undertook a comprehensive review of an enormous amount of recent studies on over a dozen gun policies - then whittled that down to around five dozen that passed its methodological standards, and summarized the conclusions.

The key findings, for purposes of the current debate, are as follows:

- There is credible evidence that policies implementing background checks do reduce firearm homicides and suicides, and there is reason to believe expanding these checks would have a similar effect.

- There is credible evidence that gun prohibitions associated with mental illness reduce firearm violence (though there's more limited evidence that they reduce firearm suicides).

- There is more solid evidence that child-safety measures reduce unintentional injuries and deaths.

- RAND did find that the evidence on the efficacy of other policies - such as bans on assault-style weapons and raising the minimum age for purchases - is inconclusive.

- But, while that last point will draw a lot of attention and spin, the report actually confirms that this conclusion reflects the lack of quality research on gun violence, which itself bolsters the case for more action, in the form of greater investments in more research and data collection.

- Indeed, the report importantly concludes that there has been a shocking dearth in funding on those fronts, compared to other leading causes of deaths in America.

"If you look at how much the federal government spends on research related to different causes of mortality that kill about the same number of people," Andrew Morral, the Project Director of RAND's gun research effort, told me, "you find the government spends less than two percent as much on gun violence and gun policy."

The important point that RAND makes about this conclusion is that it is directly related to the finding that much of the evidence on other policies is inconclusive. RAND notes that the amount of congressional spending on such research previously was much higher, but that in 1996, Congress passed NRA-backed limitations on such funding, on the grounds that it might "advocate" for "gun control," which has led to dramatically less research ever since. In part because of this, RAND concludes:

"With a few exceptions, there is a surprisingly limited base of rigorous scientific evidence concerning the effects of many commonly discussed gun policies. This does not mean that these policies are ineffective; they might well be quite effective."

RAND notes that the evidence is "inadequate" on the efficacy of many policies, due to the "relatively scarce attention that has been focused on better understanding these effects." The RAND study concludes that right now, Congress should lift limitations on such funding and spend more on gun research.

"The fact that we didn't find a lot of evidence either for or against many of these policies and their effects doesn't say anything about whether the policies are effective," Morral told me. "It's a comment about how well developed the science is."

We're carrying out a searing national debate over a severe problem afflicting thousands of Americans each year - but we're largely flying blind. One can envision treating the broader gun violence problem the way we've treated other public health epidemics, such as smoking and automobile safety - while respecting the uniqueness of the gun debate created by the Constitution's individual right to gun ownership - but we need good data to make effective and enlightened public policy. That we aren't funding it adequately is just indefensible, especially given the outsize importance this issue is taking on, and the degree to which it tears deeply at the civic and cultural fabric each time there is a massacre.

That is something people who question the efficacy of gun regulations should want, especially since some of them regularly claim those who want action are driven by pure emotion. If not, their position is not just that they don't support additional regulations because they don't think they'll work, but also that they don't want to know if they'll work. If they think gaining this knowledge - which, again, could help mitigate a national problem they say they want to solve - isn't advisable or worth the spending, they should defend that.

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After examining multiple studies of state- and federal-level background check policies, RAND concluded that the existing research provides "modest evidence" that background check laws reduce firearm suicides and homicides.

"Modest evidence" means more than it first appears. In this report's methodology, "modest evidence" actually means that "two or more studies" found "significant" such effects, even as "contradictory evidence was not found in other studies with equivalent or stronger methods." In other words, the evidence is credible - the second strongest category of evidence RAND employs, after "supportive evidence."

"The evidence is stronger for those effects than for most other gun policy effects," Morral told me, adding that the influence of background checks "on homicides and suicides appears to be a significant effect."

This has direct bearing on the current debate. One oft-discussed reform would close the holes in the current federal background check system by subjecting private sales to checks, a hole that prohibited buyers exploit via the internet and other means. The RAND study concludes that the evidence is "limited" on the impact of applying background checks to private sellers in particular. But RAND notes that, again, this may reflect our lack of good research on the question.

This represents a statement "about how much evidence there is," Morral told me. "It could well be that with the right data, you could find that homicides are largely conducted by people who manage to evade a background check. We can't answer that question right now."

Indeed, the RAND report flatly states that the evidence that background checks generally work suggests that "it seems likely that extending those same background checks to private sales of firearms could further reduce firearm suicides and homicides."

Morral told me this conclusion can also reasonably be applied to more modest proposals to facilitate data sharing with the federal background check system, such as the "Fix NICS Act," which some Republicans (and even the NRA) support. And by the way, the RAND findings suggest good grounds for pushing for improved background check policies on the level of the states as well, where needed.

The study did find that the evidence is "limited" on the impact of assault-style weapons bans. Liberals, too, should acknowledge that this debate is riddled with big unknowns about the efficacy of such policies, or they risk lending support to the conservative argument that they merely want to "do something" with little regard for what will work. Indeed, there's an argument for focusing mainly on improving and expanding background checks - rather than on assault-style restrictions, which suffer from definitional problems and are inherently more controversial - and on boosting funding for research.

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But, ultimately, all of this leads back to the problem that in this national debate, we're crippling ourselves with a lack of good science. At a minimum, we should be undertaking a much more determined effort to study the problem and the range of solutions to it. As German Lopez puts it, RAND's project has basically confirmed that generally speaking, gun regulations can and do save lives - while also demonstrating how little we have put into understanding the potential, and limitations, of these policies.

"We don't think you need super-sophisticated science to develop good policies," Morral told me. "But if for decades you have been at an impasse over factual questions over the effects these policies might have, then it's time to do some research."

If we are going to keep having these knock-down-drag-out cultural and political wars every time there is a massacre - and make no mistake, there will be many more of them - then maybe we should get on that.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left. He wrote this for The Washington Post.