Shooting Blanks

This month the National Academy of Sciences issued a 328-page report on gun-control laws. The big news is that the academy's panel couldn't identify any benefits of the decades-long effort to reduce crime and injury by restricting gun ownership. The only conclusion it could draw was: Let's study the question some more (presumably, until we find the results we want).

The academy, however, should believe its own findings. Based on 253 journal articles, 99 books, 43 government publications, a survey that covered 80 different gun-control measures and some of its own empirical work, the panel couldn't identify a single gun-control regulation that reduced violent crime, suicide or accidents.

From the assault-weapons ban to the Brady Act to one-gun-a-month restrictions to gun locks, nothing worked.

The study was not the work of gun-control opponents: The panel was set up during the Clinton administration, and all but one of its members (whose views on guns were publicly known before their appointments) favored gun control.

It's bad enough that the panel backed away from its own survey and empirical work; worse yet is that it didn't really look objectively at all the evidence. If it had, it would have found not just that gun control doesn't help solve the problems of crime, suicide and gun accidents, but that it may actually be counterproductive.

The panel simply ignored many studies showing just that. For example, the research on gun locks that the panel considered examined only whether accidental gun deaths and suicides were prevented. There was no mention of research that shows that locking up guns prevents people from using them defensively.

The panel also ignored most of the studies that find a benefit in crime reduction from right-to-carry laws. It did pay attention to some non-peer reviewed papers on the right-to-carry issue, and it also noted one part of a right-to-carry study that indicated little or no benefit from such laws. What the panel didn't point out, however, is that the authors of that particular study had concluded that data in their work did much more to show there were benefits than to debunk it.

James Q. Wilson, professor of management and public policy at UCLA, was the one dissenting panelist and the only member whose views were known in advance to not be entirely pro-gun control. His dissent focused on the right-to-carry issue, and the fact that emphasizing results that could not withstand peer-reviewed studies called into question the panel's contention that right-to-carry laws had not for sure had a positive effect.

Wilson also said that that conclusion was inaccurate given that "virtually every reanalysis done by the committee" confirmed right-to-carry laws reduced crime. He found the committee's only results that didn't confirm the drop in crime "quite puzzling." They accounted for "no control variables"--nothing on any of the social, demographic, and public policies that might affect crime--and he didn't understand how evidence that wouldn't get published in a peer-reviewed journal would be given such weight.

While more research is always helpful, the notion that we have learned nothing flies in the face of common sense. The NAS panel should have concluded as the existing research has: Gun control doesn't help.

Instead, the panel has left us with two choices: Either academia and the government have wasted tens of millions of dollars and countless man-hours on useless research (and the panel would like us to spend more in the same worthless pursuit), or the National Academy is so completely unable to separate politics from its analyses that it simply can't accept the results for what they are.

In either case, the academy, and academics in general, have succeeded mostly in shooting themselves in the foot.

John R. Lott Jr. is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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