What gun control studies tell us about how to stop violence, according to experts

Experts spoke to Salon about what research has and has not proven about effective gun control policies

Published January 24, 2023 5:00AM (EST)

Handguns that were swapped for gift cards during a Los Angeles Police Department sponsored gun buyback event in Los Angeles, California on December 13, 2014. (MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)
Handguns that were swapped for gift cards during a Los Angeles Police Department sponsored gun buyback event in Los Angeles, California on December 13, 2014. (MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)

Yesterday's mass shooting in Half Moon Bay and Saturday's mass shooting in Monterey Park, both California cities, are a sad attestation that the depressing American trend of gun-related violence is far from over. Previously last week, Solomon Peña, a former Republican state legislature candidate in New Mexico, was arrested for allegedly firing shots at the homes of various other lawmakers — and conspiring with would-be hitmen to do much worse — having been motivated by his conviction that the 2020 presidential election had been rigged

Studies prove a correlation between lowered violent crime rates and laws like mandatory waiting periods. 

As with all mass shootings in the United States, all of this news was predictably followed by public calls —  from activists and politicians alike — for gun control legislation that could curb future gun violence. To many, that seems like a sensible response: American mass shootings have not only become more frequent in the past 40 years, they are also becoming deadlier, according to an analysis from the LA Times. Shouldn't something be done?

Obviously, Second Amendment absolutists and the gun lobby will fight gun control laws tooth and nail. But isn't there hard evidence from research studies that show that gun control regulations work to stop mass shootings? 

Salon spoke to researchers who study gun violence and regulation to stop such violence. In turn, the researchers explained what kinds of laws seem more or less effective at stopping gun violence, according to research papers. 

The fact that many research studies do suggest that certain laws stop gun violence might seem like a regulatory slam dunk. But experts also warned that there's an enormous caveat: First, that there are many different ways in which firearms can be used to commit crimes; and second, as fervent gun rights absolutists might point out, the studies which analyze firearm control legislation by their nature study correlation rather than causation.

"Studying these laws are difficult compared to say studying the impact of a single law related to child booster seats, or bicycle helmets, or seat belt laws," Dr. Eric Fleegler, who has extensively written about firearms legislation and teaches pediatrics and emergency medicine at Harvard Medical School, told Salon. The reason is simple: these kinds of studies are "ecological studies," not in the sense that they pertain to environmental science but rather that they examine how variables will appear linked to outcomes within large groups of people.

"They're using, 'Hey, we had a change in something, a law, and we look to see if there's a change in something, some outcome fatalities, and we say, 'Yes, these things correlate with each other,'" Fleegler observed. "The causation is a much more challenging thing."

Similarly, it is difficult to say definitively whether "firearm control works" in all scenarios because there are so many different types of firearms and so many different types of situations where they can be involved with crime and/or violence.


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"First, there is not just one firearm law," Fleegler explained. In fact, when it comes to firearm legislation, there are hundreds of different types of laws.

"These laws can roughly be categorized into 20 or more different types of legislation based around how firearms are sold, based around background checks, based specifically around automatic weapons, based around child access prevention laws, based around domestic violence, etc.," Fleegler added. "Beyond the laws there are other elements at play that affect firearm fatalities including differences in firearm ownership rates across our country, concentrated areas of poverty and other factors."

According to the RAND Corporation, an American nonprofit global policy think tank, the voluminous studies done on firearm legislation have yielded a hefty number of conclusions. In terms of decreasing violent crime, studies prove a correlation between lowered violent crime rates and laws like mandatory waiting periods, prohibiting firearms to those associated with domestic violence, imposing child-access prevention laws, and forcing those banned from owning firearms to surrender them. Child-access prevention laws and waiting periods also were linked to drops in suicide rates, as were minimum age requirements. By contrast, concealed-carry laws and stand-your-ground laws were both linked to increased rates of violent crime.

"New York and California were restrictive on guns and benefited; Texas went the other way and has paid a price."

Again, all of this is correlation, meaning that none of the studies directly prove that the policies in question actually caused the outcomes in question. Yet according to Dr. John J. Donohue, a professor of law at Stanford Law School and the National Bureau of Economic Research, it is possible to look at various studies and arrive at certain definite conclusions.

"I think these papers all show that permissive laws around carrying of guns promote more gun violence than they stop and restrictions on assault weapons and high capacity magazines dampen mass shootings," Donohue told Salon writing, citing his own extensive research into the subject. As one example of this, Donohue pointed out how Texas banned gun carrying from 1870 to 1995 before taking "a very sharp pro gun turn" in 1996. The results?

"In 1995 Texas had about the same level of homicide as New York, and California had a 25 percent higher murder rate than Texas," Donohue told Salon by email. "Today Texas has a 57.4 percent higher murder rate than New York and about an 18% higher murder rate than California. That is an astonishing turn around in 25 years compared to the two other large states. New York and California were restrictive on guns and benefited; Texas went the other way and has paid a price."

"Studying these laws are difficult compared to say studying the impact of a single law related to child booster seats, or bicycle helmets, or seat belt laws."

Donohue added, "Unfortunately, the Supreme Court will probably equalize things now since they want all states to be more like Texas (via aggrandized [Second Amendment] rulings)."

That is not the only way in which legislation can be used to remediate gun violence.

"I think a better question to ask is, how do you prevent people who should not be able to fire a given gun (such as children, a non-authorized individual, a burglar who steals a gun) – and that is through regulations about the manufacture of guns that require them to have safety built into the gun," Fleegler suggested. "These guns, frequently called 'smart guns,' have been available outside of the US for 20 years. These are guns that have biometrics that recognize fingerprints, or RFIDs that recognize a bracelet or ring of an authorized user. Guns are the only commercially available good sold in the US that is not regulated for safety and that is a travesty."


By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a professional writer whose work has appeared in multiple national media outlets since 2012 and exclusively at Salon since 2016. His diverse interests are reflected in his interview, including: President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981), Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak (1999-2001), animal scientist and autism activist Temple Grandin, inventor Ernő Rubik, comedian Bill Burr ("F Is for Family"), novelist James Patterson ("The President's Daughter"), epidemiologist Monica Gandhi, theoretical cosmologist Janna Levin, voice actor Rob Paulsen ("Animaniacs"), mRNA vaccine pioneer Katalin Karikó, philosopher of science Vinciane Despret, actor George Takei ("Star Trek"), climatologist Michael E. Mann, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (2013-present), dog cognition researcher Alexandra Horowitz, Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson (2012, 2016), comedian and writer Larry Charles ("Seinfeld"), Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman (2000), Ambassador Michael McFaul (2012-2014), economist Richard Wolff, director Kevin Greutert ("Saw VI"), model Liskula Cohen, actor Rodger Bumpass ("SpongeBob Squarepants"), Senator John Hickenlooper (2021-present), biologist and genomics entrepreneur William Haseltine, comedian David Cross ("Scary Movie 2"), linguistics consultant Paul Frommer ("Avatar"), Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (2007-2015), computer engineer and Internet co-inventor Leonard Kleinrock and right-wing insurrectionist Roger Stone.

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