Neal Milner: Gun-Free Zones May Work. Just Don't Ask For Proof - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

With very few exceptions, research on the effectiveness of gun laws either doesn’t exist or is very weak. Does it matter?

Hawaii is establishing gun-free zones. Do these laws work?

You may think you know the answer. Think again. The best answer is “maybe but maybe not.”

“The Science of Gun Policy,” Rand Corp.’s recent comprehensive study of gun laws, looked at the effectiveness of gun-free zones as well as other gun policies. “We conclude,” the study says, “that there is inconclusive evidence for the effect of gun-free zones on violent crime.“ 

In fact, as the Rand research, which looked at more than 200 gun law studies over about 25 years, shows, when it comes to the overwhelming percentage of gun policies, it’s impossible to say with confidence what works and what doesn’t.

With very few exceptions, gun law effectiveness research either doesn’t exist or is very weak.  

Only three kinds of gun laws have a definitive impact, according to the report.

The effects of two of these three will make gun rights advocates very unhappy and their opponents say, “I told you so.”

  • Stand-your-ground laws allow gun owners to use deadly force without trying to leave or deescalate a situation. These laws increase firearm homicides. 
  • Conceal-carry laws, which allow gun owners to carry a gun in public places, appear to increase the number of all homicides and increase the number of firearms.

There is equally good evidence that the third, child-access prevention laws, reduce self-inflicted injuries and deaths.

That’s it. Everything else is, in Rand’s view, “inconclusive.” But it’s inconclusive according to scientific standards. That’s the rub.

HRA Gun Koko Head Range  Shooting Sports Fair shotgun. 19 june 2016
Guns can be used at shooting ranges, but the question of where else they should be allowed draws heated debate. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016)

This scientific approach is valuable but also limited. In fact, when it comes to an issue like gun control, that approach’s limits come from the same place as its strengths.

“The Science of Gun Policy” is right. We don’t know all that much about how gun laws work.

The everyday policy world is very different from a gun research world guided by the norms of science. For a scientist, “inconclusive” means don’t go forward but keep digging.

Lack Of Conclusive Evidence

It’s unrealistic to say that Hawaii legislators should make their gun law policies based only on conclusive evidence. Legislators may not have the luxury of waiting around for conclusive research to lead them more confidently in one direction or the other. 

Also, a policy might be so novel that there is no information about its effects one way or another.

What’s more, “inconclusive” does not necessarily mean a law is ineffective. Inconclusive means there is either mixed evidence or the absence of evidence. The absence of evidence doesn’t mean a policy is bad.

That’s the space that legislators must operate in, especially with gun laws and mass shootings: “We have to do something!” Will that something work? “Of course, because it makes so much sense!”

Rand’s gun science uses the same criteria for gold standard research as medical science—random selection of participations and controls that make it possible to clear the underbrush to say what effect the intervention, like a drug or a gun law, by itself has.

You don’t have to be an Einstein, or even the actor playing Einstein in the AT&T ad, to understand how hard that is. When Hawaii puts into effect rules that keep guns out of public spaces, it is not going to randomly select some folks who must follow the law and others who are allowed to bring a weapon to church.

California is beginning a randomized-based study of its version of its new red flag laws. It’s an enormously hard project. Admirable but simply not feasible as a regular way of doing things.

Oh yeah, another small problem. There is a lot of valuable data on guns that researchers can’t get their hands on. For years the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has some of this information, has been prohibited by law from allowing researchers to access it.

With its scientific perspective, Rand used very high standards to evaluate very sketchy data.  That’s like a teacher filling out a report card who uses rigorous standards to decide Joselyn’s grades, but that’s not a complete picture of Joselyn.

Rand’s biggest challenges aren’t about data, though. They’re about politics. And here I hope you can bring your own opinions about guns into the picture.

This is Rand’s mission: “By highlighting where scientific evidence is accumulating, we hope to build consensus around a shared set of facts that have been established through a transparent, nonpartisan, and impartial review process.”

Rand’s goal is important but extraordinarily hard to achieve. Given the world we live in, this approach seems quaint — kind of pleasantly old-fashioned, at best aspirational. 

A Polarizing Issue

That mission is also valuable and brave.

There are fragments of consensus about gun policies, but for the most part guns remain a polarizing issue. A key feature of polarization is that there is no such thing as objectivity or impartiality. People want information that reinforces their opinions, advocacy rather objectivity.

Do you think those in favor of concealed carry will change their minds because of Rand’s findings that these laws increase violence? 

If you are against concealed carry, would you have changed your mind about it if the gold standard study showed that it reduced violence?

The prevailing view is more like this: Who can be objective with close to 80 mass killings in the U.S. already this year?

All the talk about the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms adds to this polarized mix because talk about rights encourages people to take more extreme, uncompromising positions. 

You are with us, against us, or irrelevant. Toxic soil for gun policy science to flourish in.

But all this makes Rand’s objective more important, not less. Its mission keeps the spirit of skepticism and doubt alive in a world that sorely needs this as a counter to the way we do politics.

I want to live in a world where both proponents and opponents of a gun law seriously consider the possibility that the law won’t work the way they expect it to, that in fact we know less than we think.

After the two recent California mass killings Gavin Newsom, the state’s Democratic governor, castigated judges who have overruled gun laws and promised to get more laws passed.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who represents a California congressional district, responded by saying that the killings indicated that gun laws don’t work.

My heart is with Newsom, but both are making claims based on weak evidence. Putting it another way, they are both talking through their hats.

The process Rand advocates is not the way the gun law battles play out right now, but at least Rand keeps the flame of good inquiry alive. It’s a reminder that however intense we feel about a way to solve a gun problem, that solution may be wrong.

Call that naive if you want. I call it aspirational in good way.

Bravery under fire.

Read this next:

Danny De Gracia: What Hawaii Legislators Can Learn From Jimmy Carter

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

No individual right to bear arms existed until a conservative Supreme Court decided in 2008, 219 years after the Second Amendment was approved, that all citizens are in a "well-regulated militia" and can thus bear arms. Reasonable attempts to keep guns out of certain locations will fail because gun lovers will sue until they win. The only hope the U.S. has to stop its ever-increasing gun violence would be for a future Supreme Court to rule that the Heller decision was in error, just as the current Supreme Court decided that the Roe decision was in error.The fever dream of gun lovers that everyone carrying a weapon would deter gun violence is incredibly naive. Few people would be competent with a gun. If I were planning an attack with a gun, I would know that I could avoid being shot quite easily, and I would have the advantage of shooting first. Unfortunately, many innocent bystanders would be shot. Hotheads would threaten and shoot others because accessing their guns would be so easy. Road rage would escalate to a new, deadly level.Guns can never be kept away from those who shouldn't have them because they are so easy to buy.No other country has such gun violence.

alohart · 7 months ago

The right to keep and bear arms is not to be infringed. So let's debate the infringements!....Milner doesn't cite his sources, so we're back to common sense here. I believe it true that, on the whole, concealed-carry licensees are less often criminally conficted than most citizens, even police officers. And common sense, and a look at the obvious mass-casualty events (not just gangs and random adolescent party shooters), tells you intended shooters deliberately avoid venues where someone might be armed. The uncertainty of the presence of an armed citizen is an important deterrent to the worst of mass shootings. So don't ban 'em everywhere, or perhaps place higher requirements of character and training for those excepted from the bans - like concealed-armed marshals on commercial aircraft. If we're going to 'infringe' our rights, do it such that we don't create 'fish in a barrel' locations for the few crazies out there.

Haleiwa_Dad · 7 months ago

The editorial misses a very important point. Mr Milner is discussing laws not rights. The Constitution guarantees the right to arm ones self as affirmed by the Supreme Court. Any government is prohibited from passing laws that take away the rights of the people. Would the writer be accepting of press free zones where he would be arrested for reporting the truth. Would bans on religious worship within city limits be acceptable? You can't pick and choose which rights are okay and which are not. If there are rights that have been guaranteed to the people that the people no longer find acceptable then the people can remedy the situation by amending the Constitution and deleting whatever rights they deem unacceptable. Elected officials work for the people and all have sworn an oath to uphold the rights of the people when they were sworn in. Until the people change the Constitution I don't think it's too much to ask that elected officials are faithful to their sworn oath.

gwn · 7 months ago

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