The American Conservative discussing the “The War on Guns” in his essay “Does Gun Control Work?”

23 Oct , 2016  

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Robert Verbruggen, an editor at The American Conservative, writes:

. . . Today I’ll look at the issue, with a special focus on a new analysis the economist John R. Lott presents in his book The War on Guns. . . .

Enter Lott. In his book, he does spend some time going over the Missouri and Connecticut cases. (His assessment of Connecticut is the same as mine, but he reads the Missouri trends much differently than I do.) But far more importantly, he notes that numerous other states have enacted various background-check laws too, and he conducts analyses on all of the states at once, using data that run from 2000 to the most recent (2013 to 2015, depending on the variable). This approach avoids cherry-picking, and he helpfully provides these laws’ enactment dates in an appendix for anyone who would like to explore the data themselves.

As Lott notes, he actually studied the effects of background-check laws on the murder rate years ago, finding no significant impact. In his new book, he looks at a variety of other outcomes, including suicide rates, killings of women, and mass shootings, again finding no effect. His models control for things like guns coming in from other states (which liberals say undermine state-level background-check laws), demographics, and divorce rates. He also runs separate analyses for background checks on “at least some private transfers” vs. “universal background checks.”

This isn’t the final answer on this question. There’s always a different way to perform these kinds of studies, often leading to different results. (I would have liked to see earlier data included, for example, because most of the states with these laws enacted them before 2000.) But this is a good step toward building a real literature about the effects of state background-check laws, one where researchers refrain from cherry-picking states that fit—or can be made to fit—their preferred narrative. This is especially important because several states have enacted these laws just in the past few years, and a steady flow of new data can enhance our understanding if analyzed properly. . . .

Verbruggen concludes:

As I’ve said repeatedly in the past, I’m not nearly as gung-ho about universal background checks as many liberals are, but such a policy is probably the gun-control idea most likely to work.

As Verbruggen notes, the main point is: “far more importantly,” there are 19 states that have had these background checks on private transfers to varying degrees. Let’s say that the way Verbruggen evaluated the data on background checks on private transfers is the right way to do it, picking the two states the public health researchers have identified is not a useful way to go about doing the experiment.  The public health authors picked the two states and the particular crimes and years that they examined presumably because they provided the best possible cases for their claim.  Even if Verbruggen’s approach is the best one, only one of those two states produce any evidence to support their claim.  Given that, Lott’s finding for all the states that there are no benefit from these laws isn’t very surprising.

As to Lott studying the period from 2000 to 2015, he had done earlier work on background checks on private transfers from 1997 until 2005 (and it found similar results for violent crime rates) and for the study in “The War on Guns” he didn’t have the time to put the data together for all the different factors he was studying back past 2000 (he didn’t want to study the impact of different crime rates over different periods of time and the year 2000 seemed like a justifiable cut off year).

Of particular interest is that Verbruggen doesn’t discuss any of the costs of background checks that are written about extensively in The War on Guns.  Should virtually everyone who has been stopped be a law-abiding person who should have been able to buy a gun, but that the government just made a mistake?  Is it fair that blacks and Hispanics are the ones who are discriminated against with these background checks?  Should the cost of the background checks be born by the person buying the gun when the supposed benefits in lower crime accrue to everyone?  These seem like important questions to address before advocating or expanding background checks.


1 Response

  1. Fred Miller says:

    Whenever I hear about “universal background checks” I immediately think about Bonnie and Clyde. Imagine them driving down the street in their stolen car, stolen guns in the back seat. Bonnie reads to Clyde from the stolen newspaper, “Clyde, we didn’t submit to a background check when we stole these guns! We have to find an FFL RIGHT NOW!!”

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