What Both Sides of the Gun Control Debate Get Wrong

It isn’t hard today to find folks hand wringing about whether or not waiting periods and “red flag laws” do anything to stop gun violence.

They were sparked, understandably, by the fact that the recent mass shooter in Indianapolis (that I have to tell you WHICH mass shooter is problem enough) had a shotgun removed from his possession last year due to his instability at the time… but was able to purchase the two weapons he used in the attack legally later that year.

Except the hand wringing is useless. Focusing on this one incident – or any single incident – does NOT tell you whether or not red flag laws or any other gun control measure works.

No law or measure is 100% perfect. There will – whether through lack of enforcement, as happened in Indiana, or just bad luck – be times that a law does not have the intended effect.

But looking at a failure like this is the wrong way to evaluate laws of this type.

To actually see if such a law is effective, you’ve got to evaluate :

  1. If violent firearm deaths go down over time after the law is passed
  2. compared to other locations with similar demographics but without the law AND/OR
  3. compared to other locations with similar demographics with the law but where it is not enforced as well.
  4. Over a long enough time for an effect to be seen.

Which is, in a word, boring. It doesn’t fit in a meme.

Yes, there are researchers who try to control for all that. The lack of standardized information and reporting makes it difficult for them (it is almost like some groups don’t want that info available…). But it’s difficult.

Even looking at a chart – like the one at this CDC link doesn’t tell you the whole story. While gun violence went up, was the lack of enforcement of the red flag law the norm across the state, or was this a deadly exception? Is that gun violence primarily urban, rural, or both? Did the rate of gun violence change in other states in the same way over that period of time? Is gun violence being counted the same way in all places? Are suicides by firearm counted separately?

Yes. It’s boring. It’s totally not a meme. Doesn’t lend itself to a cute graphic for social media.

But it’s the sort of thing those memes – from both sides of the debate – hide.

It’s the sort of thing that keeps us from trying to find an actual solution.

Regardless of what side of the gun control debate you’re on, though, you want to do this right.

Think about it. If you want more of this sort of law, you need as strong of a case as possible. If you want fewer of this sort of law, you want as strong of a case as possible.

Because no matter what side of the debate you’re on, you want there to be fewer mass shootings.

Measure twice, cut once.

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One Comment

  1. April 21, 2021

    Your’e right. Perhaps the best place to start is to enable the collection and proper analysis of needed data. But the gun problem in the US is, in a large part, cultural. Why are assault weapons collected? How did a 13-YO have access to a gun? Why are some people so intent on demonstrating that they can legally carry and display weapons? Guns are fetishized. Laws that may not demonstrably show direct effects on shootings, might in some cases just make guns slightly less accessible or accepted over time. The passing of even weak laws might strengthen and broaden social interest in deeper examination of gun laws and gun culture. Perhaps it could even embolden some lawmakers. Current regulations seem disjunct from public sentiment. I recognize your point, though, that ineffective or misaligned laws can be counter-productive.

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