Bloomberg columnist explains why gun control research is worthless

AP Photo/Michael Conroy

It’s a wonderful stroke of irony that a guy whose byline appears on the eponymously-named news site of the gun control lobby’s biggest sugar daddy has delivered one of the most devastating blows against the idea that Science has proven the effectiveness and need for more gun control laws. In a new video from Reason’s Justin Monticello risk analyst, statistician, and Bloomberg columnist Aaron Brown lays to waste the tired tropes of politicians who claim that “evidence shows” the urgent adoption of gun or magazine bans, or that “studies show” gun homicides dropped by 20, 30, or 40% after the passage of a “common sense gun safety” measure. How? By taking a look at the studies themselves.

He’s not the first to do so. Brown begins by using a recent RAND analysis of gun research, which the corporation used to try to determine what the science actually says about the effectiveness of various gun control laws. What RAND found is that out of 27,900 pieces of research, just 123 of them displayed enough academic and scientific rigor to be taken seriously. Brown says that the problem is actually even worse, and that virtually none of the 123 projects that RAND deemed worthy of examining can be trusted to tell us anything of note.. and not just statistical noise.

We took a look at the significance of the 123 rigorous empirical studies and what they actually say about the efficacy of gun control laws.

The answer: nothing. The 123 studies that met RAND’s criteria may have been the best of the 27,900 that were analyzed, but they still had serious statistical defects, such as a lack of controls, too many parameters or hypotheses for the data, undisclosed data, erroneous data, misspecified models, and other problems.

And these glaring methodological flaws are not specific to gun control research; they are typical of how the academic publishing industry responds to demands from political partisans for scientific evidence that does not exist.

Not only is the social science literature on gun control broadly useless, but it provides endless fodder for advocates who say that “studies prove” that a particular favored policy would have beneficial outcomes. This matters because gun laws, even if they don’t accomplish their goals, have large costs. They can turn otherwise law-abiding citizens into criminals, they increase prosecutorial power and incarceration, and they exacerbate the racial and socioeconomic inequities in the criminal justice system.

One example that Brown raises is the oft-repeated claim that “gun homicides” dropped by 40% after the state of Connecticut adopted a permit-to-purchase law requiring handgun owners to first receive a gun permit from their local police department. This was breathlessly reported back in 2015 by outlets like the Washington Post and repeated on Democratic debate stages in 2020, but Brown revealed some interesting parts of the study that weren’t widely reported and utterly discount that 40% statistic.

First, the drop in homicides in Connecticut wasn’t based on a comparison between previous years, or the United States as a whole. Instead, researchers crafted a “synthetic Connecticut” comprised of portions of Rhode Island, California, and several other states and compared those homicide totals to Connecticut’s post-permit murder rate. That’s bad enough, but what makes it egregiously worse is that the researcher’s own data showed that the “drop” in Connecticut’s murder rate was short-lived, and that within a few years the gun homicide rate in the real Connecticut was actually more than 40% higher than it was in the synthetic state dreamt up by the academics.

As Brown says, there are simply too many variables at play to ever be able to say with certainty that any particular gun law has had a particular effect on the violent crime rate. Still, the gun control lobby and anti-gun politicians know the power of using the authority of academia to provide a veneer of scientific respectability to their attempts to infringe on our right to bear arms, and they’re not going to let a little thing like the worthlessness of their research stand in the way of their activism. In fact, I shouldn’t even call it worthless. It’s valuable propaganda, even if it’s useless in terms of actual social science. Why just this week Johns Hopkins University, on of the premier research universities in the country, announced that it’s partnering with the “educational” wing of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence on a brand new research center that will also be advocating for new laws based on their own, supposedly scientific findings.

The future of the gun control lobby depends on the promulgation of this kind of propaganda, and Aaron Brown, Justin Monticello, and Reason have provided a valuable service in helping gun owners and non-gun owners alike cut through the B.S. surrounding gun violence research… including the studies coming out of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins.