Did the National Research Council Report on “Firearms and Violence: A Critical Review” show that right-to-carry laws don’t reduce crime?

12 Aug , 2017  

A frequent claim by gun control advocates is that the National Research Council (NRC) 2005 report, “Firearms and Violence: A Critical Review,” has “debunked,” “emphatically rejected,” “disproved,” or failed to support research showing that right-to-carry laws reduce crime.  It is not too surprising that gun control advocates and the media like to point to their interpretation of the NRC report because the studies that look at the data for the US normally find strong support for right-to-carry laws reducing violent crime.  Here are a couple such quotes by Professor John Donohue.  I was just given a copy of part of Donohue’s report from June this year.

“Despite some initial claims that RTC laws could actually reduce violent crime, the 2004 report of a special committee the National Research Council (“NRC”; with only one dissenter out of 16 committee members) emphatically rejected this conclusion based on the committee’s review of the then-current information with data through 2000″ (emphasis added). John Donohue, Expert Report in Flanagan v. Becerra, United States District Court (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:16-cv-06164-JAK-AS, June 1, 2017.  Donohue was an expert for the state of California

“The National Academy of Sciences convened a panel of talented experts who spent two years looking at John Lott’s work, Gary Kleck’s work.  They came before the committee, testified, fifteen to one in that panel of sixteen, they concluded the scientific evidence does not support the more guns, less crime proposition. The lone dissenter was someone who was not an econometrician, who admitted in his dissent that he wished he knew more econometrics, and who had previously testified as an expert witness on behalf of the execrable NRA.” John Donohue, Intelligence Squared debate October 28, 2008 at the 38:00 minute mark.  The debate was carried nationally on National Public Radio.

In fact, it would be more accurate to say that the panel didn’t reach any conclusion on right-to-carry, just as it didn’t reach any conclusion on any of the other policies, and that they merely called for more research.

The conclusion of chapter 6 noted: “Thus, the committee concludes that with the current evidence it is not possible to determine that there is a causal link between the passage of right-to-carry laws and crime rates.” It ended with a call for more research: “If further headway is to be made on this question, new analytical approaches and data sets will need to be used.

What is ignored by gun control advocates in discussions of the NRC report is that the report studied over 100 different types of gun control proposal and that it didn’t reach a conclusion on any of them and only called for more research.  Yet, no gun control advocates would say that the NRC debunked their favorite gun control laws.

For example,

— on page 2 of the report: “there is almost no empirical evidence that the more than 80 prevention programs focused on gun-related violence have had any effect.” p. 219: “we found no credible scientific evidence in the Institute of Medicine’s report or elsewhere that demonstrates whether safety devices can effectively lower injury.”

— p. 98: “handgun ban yields no conclusive evidence with respect to the impact of such bans on crime and violence.”

— p. 99: “We have documented what is known about how people obtain firearms for criminal activities and identified the weaknesses of existing evaluations of interventions. There is not much empirical evidence that assesses whether attempts to reduce criminal access to firearms will reduce

— p. 219: “we found no credible scientific evidence in the Institute of Medicine’s report or elsewhere that demonstrates whether safety devices can effectively lower injury.” p. 98: “handgun ban yields no conclusive evidence with respect to the impact of such bans on crime and violence.” p. 99: “We have documented what is known about how people obtain firearms for criminal activities and identified the weaknesses of existing evaluations of interventions. There is not much empirical evidence that assesses whether attempts to reduce criminal access to firearms will reduce

— p. 98: “handgun ban yields no conclusive evidence with respect to the impact of such bans on crime and violence.” p. 99: “We have documented what is known about how people obtain firearms for criminal activities and identified the weaknesses of existing evaluations of interventions. There is not much empirical evidence that assesses whether attempts to reduce criminal access to firearms will reduce

— p. 99: “We have documented what is known about how people obtain firearms for criminal activities and identified the weaknesses of existing evaluations of interventions. There is not much empirical evidence that assesses whether attempts to reduce criminal access to firearms will reduce gun availability or gun crime.”

— p. 229: “the available research evidence on the deterrent effects of firearms sentencing enhancements on firearm-related crime is mixed, with city-level studies suggesting reductions in firearm-related homicides and possibly other types of firearm-related crime in urban settings (McDowall et al., 1992), as well as nationwide studies suggesting no crime prevention effects at the state level (Marvell and Moody, 1995). The committee recommends more rigorous study of firearms sentencing enhancement laws” For prevention programs and technology: “The committee recommends that firearm violence prevention programs should be based on general prevention theory, that government programs should incorporate evaluation into implementation efforts, and that a sustained body of empirical research be developed to study the effects of different safety technologies on violence and crime.”

And on and on.

Being on a panel is a National Research Council is a cushy, prestigious position, and there is a lot of pressure to sign on to any conclusion. Those who don’t aren’t invited back to be on future panels, so almost always these panels reach no conclusion.  The non-conclusion for these gun regulations is what is expected.  What was unexpected was that there was a dissent that supported Dr. Lott’s work.  Dissents for NRC reports are extremely rare. Over the ten years prior to the “Firearms and Violence” report, there were only two dissents out of the previous 236 reports by the NRC. Wilson himself had been on four of these panels and never previously wanted to write a dissent, including the previous panel that attacked work showing that the death penalty deters crime.  So there was actually more support in the report for right-to-carry laws than there was for any other gun control — the opposite of what is typically claimed.

But for Wilson, the firearms panel was different. Wilson’s dissent was not only rare, he was also forceful: “In view of the confirmation of the findings that shall-issue laws drive down the murder rate, it is hard for me to understand why these claims are called ‘fragile.’”

Wilson said that that panel’s conclusion raises concerns given that “virtually every reanalysis done by the committee” confirmed right-to-carry laws reduced crime. He found the committee’s only evidence that didn’t confirm the drop in crime “quite puzzling.” The result that they pointed to was co-produced by John Donohue, a law professor at Stanford, and accounted for “no control variables” – nothing on any of the social, demographic, and public policies that might affect crime. Furthermore, Wilson didn’t understand how evidence that was not publishabled in a peer-reviewed journal would be given such weight.

Some such as Donohue have been called on his claims before, but if anything, his claims regarding the NRC report have become even stronger.  Here is a public debate from Intelligence Squared in 2008 that followed the second quote noted above (1 hour and 13 minutes and 40 seconds into the video).

JOHN DONOHUE: But, again, this is exactly what the National Academy of Science looked at. And, they concluded the opposite, that the data did not—
GARY KLECK: They did not conclude the opposite.
JOHN DONOHUE: They concluded that the data does not support the proposition that we’re debating today which is that guns reduce crime.

GARY KLECK: No, actually what that report persistently said was, we don’t have strong enough evidence to draw firm conclusions about virtually every issue they addressed, so, that was more of a no-decision decision than it was reaching the opposite conclusion, they did not reach the conclusion that making it easy to get a carry permit increases crime. They did not conclude that John Lott was wrong, and basically, you know, you learn nothing from what that particular panel said—
JOHN DONVAN: I’ve read the same report and I have to say, Gary, that I read it the same way, actually, it was a bit of a Pontius Pilate moment that didn’t know who was right or who was wrong.

Yet, continued public rebukes such as this have had no effect on Donohues incorrect claims.

Donohue also wasn’t willing to let Wilson’s dissent go unanswered, and the attacks became quite personal. In a debate noted above, Donohue’s attack on the lone dissenter, Wilson, is not so surprising:

The lone dissenter [Wilson] was someone who was not an econometrician, who admitted in his dissent that he wished he knew more econometrics, and who had previously testified as an expert witness on behalf of the execrable NRA.

When later called on this claim after the debate, Mr. Donohue did not offer proof, but instead called on Wilson to prove that he had never gotten paid by the NRA. When asked for evidence, Donohue emailed me and demanded that I ask Wilson for evidence that he hadn’t been paid by the NRA: “Do you have Wilson’s email address or not? I am going to assume you do and that you know he worked for the NRA since you could ask him via email to confirm or deny and cc me, and you are not doing so.” Even later in 2009 after Wilson had denied that he had ever worked for the NRA, Donohue refused to accept it: “On the issue of the NRA, somehow I suspect that the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy doesn’t think the NRA is a bad organization and therefore any affiliation would not be deemed problematic . . . .”

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One Response

  1. Tom Campbell says:

    Stanford needs to have some sort of QA on this guy Donohue. Since when is a Law prof a statistician? Does he have a post graduate degree in stats, or a stats-intensive discipline? I wonder what the folks at the Hoover Institute think of him and his “research?”

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