States with the most restrictive combination of three gun laws saw an 11% reduction in firearm deaths over three decades, according to estimates from a new study by the RAND Corporation. The three laws identified by researchers were child access prevention laws, right-to-carry laws and stand-your-ground laws.
Previous research has studied the effect of various gun laws on firearm deaths but this new study, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provides a more comprehensive picture and uses new statistical methods.
Researchers from the RAND Corporation found the estimated reduction in firearm deaths in states with the "most restrictive" combination of these three types of laws. As the RAND study defined it, the "most restrictive" states had child access prevention laws that impose penalties on gun owners for children gaining access to guns, and do not have right-to-carry or stand-your-ground or laws.
They chose these laws because they are commonly found in a majority of U.S. states, making them good candidates for scientific analysis, according to Terry Schell, a RAND senior behavioral scientist and lead author of the study.
“We found that if only a couple of states have a law, you’re just never going to reliably detect — there’s too much imprecision in your estimate — to find what you’re looking for,” Schell said. “And so these laws are in a good position to evaluate because so many states have tried them and that was a big part of it.”
The study built on previous research by RAND and others that had examined hundreds of gun policies and evaluated their effects on gun violence outcomes. Schell says these earlier studies had often produced conflicting results, depending on which statistical methods were used.
CAP laws found most effective in reducing gun deaths
A notable finding from the RAND study is that of the three types of laws studied, child access prevention laws, a subset of regulations known as safe storage laws, were found to be the most effective in reducing firearm deaths — 97% likely to be associated with reductions in gun deaths, according to the study. And this was found to be equally true for reducing both firearm suicides and homicides. Schell says it’s unclear why this particular law appears to be so effective, but there could be many causes.
“It may induce gun dealerships to try to sell you a gun lock when they sell you a gun and so more people have gun locks or gun safes or other safe storage equipment,” Schell said. “It may change the norms of the conversation about how you store your gun, even if you’re not aware of the gun, you’re aware that your friends for instance don’t keep a loaded gun in their glove box anymore. So there’s a number of different mechanisms that might be present.”
Deborah Azrael, director of research at the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, agrees that CAP laws can contribute to changing social norms around gun storage. But she cautions that her own research has shown it's difficult to measure whether these laws are having a significant effect on reducing suicides and homicides in states that have them, because the public is often unaware the laws exist.
“Largely people have no idea. And if they do have an idea, mostly they say they don’t know,” Azrael said. “Believing that you live in a CAP law state has more of an effect on how you store your guns than actually living in a CAP law state. So tell me how they’re working if people don’t know about them?”
But Azrael, who was not involved in the RAND study, does believe that the new research adds much-needed rigor to statistical methodology that has been lacking in previous gun studies.
“They take a sophisticated approach to thinking about the impact of laws on firearm mortality,” Azrael said, “and part of that sophisticated and careful approach is to really try to address a number of the glaring problems that have undercut the credibility of some evaluations of firearms laws in the past.”
The right gun law combination
Gaining clarity on the effectiveness of different gun policies in reducing firearm-related deaths is challenging, thanks to both the dearth of gun research and varying conclusions from existing research. And Azrael says that widespread U.S. gun ownership also presents problems for researchers.
“Statistically, it’s hard to think about the effect of laws in a place where there’s so many guns, where the gun stock is so huge and many laws affect the marginal gun, like background checks or the like,” she said. “It’s not that those laws aren’t likely to have an effect, we're just unlikely to see it in the noise of all of the guns that are out there.”
But Schell is hopeful this new study could provide a path forward with its focus on accurate methodology and on three laws that don’t involve restrictions on weapons themselves, which is often controversial on the federal level and in some states.
And while the study’s results might seem small — just over a 10% reduction in gun deaths — Schell believes it is significant when it’s translated into lives saved, which would amount to more than 4,400 per year.
“This is a broader problem with gun violence research, is that the stakes are so high that you actually really care about things that from a statistical standpoint are small,” Schell said. “Because even small effects are thousands of dead people every year.”
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.