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Research Changing the Researcher's Mind

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On many contentious social issues, including crime, there is often reason to suspect that researchers are partisans who decide what position they want first and then design a study to provide support for that result.  In the history of the "harder" sciences, there are many examples of researchers being dragged by their data to results they found distasteful, but that is not seen as often in the "softer" ones.

It is refreshing then, to see this article in the WaPo by Leah Libresco.  She studied gun control at FiveThirtyEight, and her research changed her mind.
Before I started researching gun deaths, gun-control policy used to frustrate me. I wished the National Rifle Association would stop blocking common-sense gun-control reforms such as banning assault weapons, restricting silencers, shrinking magazine sizes and all the other measures that could make guns less deadly.

Then, my colleagues and I at FiveThirtyEight spent three months analyzing all 33,000 lives ended by guns each year in the United States, and I wound up frustrated in a whole new way. We looked at what interventions might have saved those people, and the case for the policies I'd lobbied for crumbled when I examined the evidence. The best ideas left standing were narrowly tailored interventions to protect subtypes of potential victims, not broad attempts to limit the lethality of guns.
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I researched the strictly tightened gun laws in Britain and Australia and concluded that they didn't prove much about what America's policy should be. Neither nation experienced drops in mass shootings or other gun related-crime that could be attributed to their buybacks and bans. Mass shootings were too rare in Australia for their absence after the buyback program to be clear evidence of progress. And in both Australia and Britain, the gun restrictions had an ambiguous effect on other gun-related crimes or deaths.

When I looked at the other oft-praised policies, I found out that no gun owner walks into the store to buy an "assault weapon." It's an invented classification that includes any semi-automatic that has two or more features, such as a bayonet mount, a rocket-propelled grenade-launcher mount, a folding stock or a pistol grip. But guns are modular, and any hobbyist can easily add these features at home, just as if they were snapping together Legos.

As for silencers -- they deserve that name only in movies, where they reduce gunfire to a soft puick puick. In real life, silencers limit hearing damage for shooters but don't make gunfire dangerously quiet. An AR-15 with a silencer is about as loud as a jackhammer. Magazine limits were a little more promising, but a practiced shooter could still change magazines so fast as to make the limit meaningless.
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By the time we published our project, I didn't believe in many of the interventions I'd heard politicians tout. I was still anti-gun, at least from the point of view of most gun owners, and I don't want a gun in my home, as I think the risk outweighs the benefits. But I can't endorse policies whose only selling point is that gun owners hate them. Policies that often seem as if they were drafted by people who have encountered guns only as a figure in a briefing book or an image on the news.

Instead, I found the most hope in more narrowly tailored interventions. Potential suicide victims, women menaced by their abusive partners and kids swept up in street vendettas are all in danger from guns, but they each require different protections.

CJLF has not taken a position on any specific gun control issue.  I do think that whatever changes we make in gun law need to be informed by objective evidence regarding what will actually help.  We should not enact into law measures that merely sound good on the premise that "we have to do something."  Doing nothing may be better than doing something that does no actual good.  At least when we do nothing we know that the goal remains unmet and remains on the "to do" list, to be done when we figure out how.

Research by advocates for a viewpoint -- including myself -- needs to be taken with several grains of salt.  Research by people who find results contrary to their initial views is particularly valuable.  (Political converts are a different story, for another time.)

FiveThirtyEight's gun deaths project is here.

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