, , , , , , , ,

One of my favorite quotes about public policy is from Henry Kissinger. As the former Secretary of State, national security adviser, once lamented about what he viewed as the over-optimism of his compatriots, “Americans hold that every problem has a solution….”

Kissinger’s pessimism flowed from his membership in the realpolitik school of diplomacy and foreign policymaking. He wasn’t arguing for a do-nothing foreign policy. Instead he was underscoring the limits of human knowledge and capabilities, and emphasizing that many challenges are so intractable that the best hope of coping was managing them with the aim of avoiding worst cases.

I couldn’t help but remembering Kissinger’s observation when reading through a recent report from the RAND Corporation. The private, California-based think tank examined “18 broad classes of gun policies that have been implemented in some states and the effects of those policies on eight outcomes.” Sixteen of the policies typically appear on the agendas of those favoring tighter gun control, but two (concealed carry and stand-your-ground laws) tend to be backed by their opponents.

The RAND study is a “meta-study” – that is, a study of the available research. And the overall conclusion? The evidence so far demonstrates that only a handful of the 18 types of policies generated notable, positive impacts on any desired objectives, like curbing violent crime,and preventing mass shootings and suicides and unintentional gun injuries and deaths. And many of the proposals advanced most energetically by gun control advocates have had almost no beneficial effects.

According to RAND, only three gun control measures resulted in meaningful progress toward any of the 144 total goals the the 18 policies sought in total. And two of them – concealed,carry and stand-your-ground – are anathema to most supporters of tighter gun control. Each of these was found to play important roles in reducing violent crime.

The other category, which gun control advocate generally favor, focuses on preventing children from accessing guns. Such measures have meaningfully helped shrink the numbers of suicides, unintentional injuries and fatalities, and violent crimes.

In only six cases, moreover, did gun-related laws “moderately” influence their target problems. Minimum age and waiting period requirements for gun ownership earned this conclusion for suicides. And Waiting periods, background checks, and bans on gun ownership for domestic violence perpetrators and other “prohibited possessors” displayed some effectiveness against violent crime.

But bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines? According to RAND, their impact on effects were “limited” on mass shootings and on the size and profitability of the gun manufacturing industry, inconclusive in addressing suicides and violent crimes – and that’s it.

Background checks? As stated above,moderately effective against violent crime, but no evidence or inconclusive evidence on all other outcomes – including mass shootings. Bans on “low-quality handguns”?: Only limited effectiveness was found against mass shootings and cutting the gun industry down to size..Minimum age requirements for gun ownership? As reported above, moderately effective for suicide prevention and not much else.

Viewed from the opposite perspective, only the assault weapons and high capacity magazines bans apparently had even limited effects on mass shootings. Evidence for all other countermeasures was inconclusive at best. Only the child access prevention laws demonstrated meaningful effects on unintentional deaths and injuries, while only two other measures revealed even inconclusive results (minimum age requirements and – interestingly – concealed carry laws.

The two categories of gun-related problems on which policies seem to work best are suicide (especially, as noted, child-access prevention laws, mandatory ownership waiting periods, minimum age requirements, and licensing and permitting requirements); and violent crime (where the evidence looks encouraging for mandatory background checks and waiting periods along with, as noted, concealed carry and stand-your-ground laws).

As the RAND authors acknowledge, their work suffers from some important limitations. Specifically, the chosen classes of gun policies

do not comprehensively account for all—or necessarily the most effective—laws or programs that have been implemented in the United States with the aim of reducing gun violence. For example, our set of policies does not include mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for crimes with firearms. Furthermore, by restricting our evaluation to state policies, we exclude local interventions (e.g., problem-oriented policing, focused deterrence strategies) that have been evaluated in prior meta-analyses….”

But as the reseachers also point out because “states are a predominant source of variability in firearm-related legislation…we believe that laws applied statewide may generalize to new jurisdictions better than local gun policies or programs that may be more tailored to the unique circumstances giving rise to them.”

Gun control advocates can also observe that in many instances, the RAND study finds that either the evidence is inconclusive, or that it doesn’t exist at all. And the authors certainly support further inquiry on gun issues.

But in a crucial way, that’s one of the two main takeaways from their work. America’s public air has been filled with all manner of gun control proposals in recent decaes. In most cases, however, they’ve been developed – and debated – in a factual vacuum. The other big takeaway? With a few exceptions, gun violence per se (as opposed to underlying causes) may be a problem without a ready solution.