What science says about gun control and violent crime

Does gun control mean fewer guns on the street and less violence? Does encouraging gun ownership mean better protected people and less violence?

I don't think it's too early to be asking questions like this. When you're faced with a tragedy like what happened today at Sandy Hook Elementary School, it's reasonable to start asking questions about violence prevention. It's part of the bargaining stage of grief — wondering if there's something we could have done that would have prevented all those needless deaths. And let's get one thing straight: Everybody wants to prevent what happened today.

So what can be done about it? And what does the science say?

I've been trying to get a handle on that for the last hour or so and here are three things it seems we can definitively say:

• It would be completely accurate for someone to tell you that studies in places like Australia and Austria found that implementing more stringent gun control laws reduced deaths from gun-related suicides and violent crime.

• It would also be accurate to say that a study of the effects of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in the United States showed no big reductions in gun-related deaths, except for suicides among people older than 55.

• And it's also true that a 2003 study of conceal-carry laws in Florida found that they seemed to make no difference one way or the other — neither increasing nor reducing rates of violent crime.

Yes, this looks like it's going to be one of those moments where science cannot provide you a clear-cut, absolute answer.

The issue is that studying the impact of gun laws on violent crime isn't really the single, simple question that it appears to be. Instead, we're talking about many different individual laws, written in different ways and enforced in different manners. One law might fail while another succeeds. How do you compare them?

Where those laws are implemented is also a factor, because a new, stringent gun law in a place surrounded by similar laws is likely to have a different outcome than the same law in a place where you can quickly cross a border and find completely different legislation. It's also not unreasonable to suspect that culture and other local factors play a part. There appear to be big differences in the number of violent gun deaths between geographic regions of the United States.

Some studies are funded by biased institutions. Some studies aren't peer reviewed. Some studies feature poorly thought-out methodology.

All of that leads to a mess of frequently contradictory conclusions that can, frankly, be used to support just about any position you'd like to put forward. So, basically, just because you can support your position, don't think that makes you absolutely correct.

And that leads me to another key theme that kept coming up on Google Scholar — if we really want to prevent deaths from violent crime we need to come to terms with the fact that most people reach their conclusions about the best way to do that with almost no help from science. In fact, I found multiple researchers who argued that solving our national debate about guns and about how to prevent violent crime had very little to do with the science anyway. It would be nice to know what's actually going on. But it really may not matter much in at a practical level.

Regardless of who you are and what you believe, when you start looking at the sociology of this, you'll find that statistics probably don't matter to you. Tribal affiliation does. Here's how Donald Braman — associate professor at George Washington University Law School — and Dan Kahan — professor at Yale Law School — put it in 2006:

For one segment of American society, guns symbolize honor, human mastery over nature, and individual self-sufficiency. By opposing gun control, individuals affirm the value of these meanings and the vision of the good society that they construct. For another segment of American society, however, guns connote something else: the perpetuation of illicit social hierarchies, the elevation of force over reason, and the expression of collective indifference to the well-being of strangers. These individuals instinctively support gun control as a means of repudiating these significations and of promoting an alternative vision of the good society that features equality, social solidarity, and civilized nonagression.

These competing cultural visions, we will argue, are what drive the gun control debate. They are what dispose individuals to accept certain empirically grounded public-safety arguments and to reject others. Indeed, the meanings that guns and gun control express are sufficient to justify most individuals’ positions on gun control independently of their beliefs about guns and safety. It follows that the only meaningful gun control debate is one that explicitly addresses whether and how the underlying cultural visions at stake should be embodied in American law.

Statistics don't convince people. People convince people.

And this fits pretty well with what we know about how people make up their minds on a whole host of divisive issues. We tend to find people we identify with and believe what they believe. When we change our minds, it's usually because our group's values changed. Or because someone (someone we felt we could identify with, even if they weren't a part of our group) convinced us that a new idea fit better into our group's values than we'd previously thought. Or that our values fit better in a different group than the one we currently belonged to.

If all of this sounds familiar, that's because I wrote a piece on this very subject for The New York Times magazine back in August. Same concept. Different application.

But even in Washington, understanding the power of stories could go a long ways toward bridging gaps that only get bigger when we expect those who disagree to rationally accept data and evidence. “We fight it out by throwing arguments at each other and are upset when they have no effect,” Haidt says. “It makes us accuse our opponents of bad faith and ulterior motives. But the truth is that our minds just aren’t set up to be changed by mere evidence and argument presented by a ‘stranger.’”

And now here's the part where I editorialize. Want to prevent gun violence and reduce the number of horrific events like what happened today? Great. Go stop being strangers to each other. Everybody wants the same thing here. Nobody has tapped into any ineffable truths about how to get there. If we want to hash this out in the political and socio/cultural sphere, we're going to have to stop vilifying the people who disagree with us and start trying to talk about how we can all solve the problems we want to solve while remaining true to our own values.

Image: IMG_0362, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from neontommy's photostream