The NRA's violence-themed videos, like tweets from the gutter of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, divert attention from worthier subjects. In this case, that includes a powerful — and, for the gun movement, devastating — new study published last week.
Researchers led by Stanford Law professor John Donohue evaluated crime data from 1977 to 2014, comparing the majority of states that let residents carry firearms without demonstrating a particular need (so-called "shall issue" right-to-carry states) against those with stricter gun regulations.
A panel of the National Research Council had previously investigated the effects of right-to-carry laws, but its 2004 report was inconclusive. The Stanford study used 14 more years of data and employed multiple statistical models — including one used by the gun movement's favorite-data cruncher, "More Guns, Less Crime" author John Lott. Yet the researchers found that even Lott's model showed a link between right-to-carry laws and increased violence.
"Ten years after the adoption of RTC laws," Donohue's report states, "violent crime is estimated to be 13-15 percent higher than it would have been without the RTC law." The increase in crime was so pronounced, in fact, that right-to-carry states would need to double their prison populations to counteract it.
Interestingly, researchers found the effect of right-to-carry laws on murder rates to be a wash. But the finding about increased violent crime is nonetheless a frontal assault on longstanding declarations from the gun movement that more guns lead to less crime.
The new study is "probably the most rigorous and relevant piece of gun policy research to come along in decades," Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, told me via email.
"The ripple effects of a rapidly growing number of people carrying guns with them and in their vehicles are profound — more assaults, more gun theft, and I suspect, though this hasn't been formally tested, more unintentional shootings and suicides," Webster wrote. "The RTC movement has greatly increased our population's exposure to firearms — not simply by influencing gun ownership, but by making it commonplace to bring guns with you wherever you go."
A recent Pew Research Center survey revealed that about one-third of Americans believe the NRA argument that more guns make society safer. It also showed a majority of gun owners are concerned about their personal safety. Given the intense polarization that shapes gun politics, and the reach of gun-movement propaganda, the new study is unlikely to change minds anytime soon.
But the study lays the groundwork for more research — something the NRA vigorously resists. And it poses a challenge to conservative lawmakers not unlike the scientific consensus on climate change. "What is important about Donohue's work methodologically is that he demonstrated that the violence-facilitating effects of RTC laws were robust to a range of statistical models and analytic methods," said Webster.
In other words, if the gun movement hopes to refute the study's conclusions, it's going to need more than another helping of video bile.
- Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.