Gun violence study results ‘should be interpreted with caution’

The Center for American Progress released an updated study last week purporting to show a link between “weak gun laws” and high rates of gun violence, but the results left some academic researchers unimpressed.

Specifically, CAP says the 10 states with the loosest gun regulations — Louisiana, Alaska, Mississippi, West Virginia, Alabama, South Carolina, Wyoming, Arizona, Montana and Oklahoma — collectively report levels of gun violence three times higher than the 10 states with the strictest gun control policies.

“And while this correlation does not prove a causal relationship between stronger gun laws and fewer gun deaths, the link between stronger gun laws and lower rates of gun violence cannot be ignored,” said CAP researchers Chelsea Parsons and Eugenio Weigend in the study summary. “As the gun debate continues to churn, policymakers at all levels of government must take action to close dangerous loopholes and enact strong gun laws to protect all of the nation’s communities from this national disgrace.”

Dr. William Sousa, professor and director of the Center for Crime and Justice Policy at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, said Monday, however, the very admittance of a lack of a causal relationship should temper any conclusions drawn from the CAP study results.

“This is not to say that there isn’t some type of connection between gun laws and gun violence — just that the methodologies such as the one in this report do not establish a causal connection, so we have to be careful when we interpret the results,” he said.

Sousa has been outspoken about the inconclusive studies surrounding gun laws and reduced rates of gun violence before. Last month he participated as the lone “neutral” voice in a town hall at the Las Vegas Mob Museum debating the merits of Nevada’s Question 1 ballot measure, which would require background checks on most private sales and transfers across the state. It was there he unpacked several different types of studies often cited by gun control advocates as proof positive of the benefits of enacting universal background checks.

Except, the evidence — such as what is found in the CAP report — isn’t as cut and dry as it seems, according to Sousa.

“This appears to be a study that I would classify as a trend study that shows some association between gun control laws and lower rates of gun violence,” he said. “But like others I’ve discussed … this has a relatively weak methodology in terms of establishing cause and effect.”

Sousa said while states with the “weakest” gun laws may also have high rates of gun violence, there may be many possible explanations besides a direct link between the two issues.

“And there may also be exceptions,” he said. “For example, although New Hampshire and Maine are not in the ‘top 10,’ they receive very low ratings in terms of the ‘Gun Law State Scorecard,’ meaning that they have ‘weak’ gun laws. But for the most part, New Hampshire and Maine have relatively low rates of gun violence.”

Dr. John Lott, economist and author of “The War on Guns,” criticized the study’s methodology more directly, saying it didn’t account for outside influences and cherry-picked years to analyze data.

“The problem is none of the evidence they have actually looks at evidence as to whether the laws really reduced the level of violence,” he said. “It’s a weird dataset and very cross-sectional. Virtually no academics would do that.”

Lott founded the Crime Prevention Research Center and is a favorite among gun rights groups for his research linking lower crime rates to concealed carry laws. Gun control advocates pan his expertise and remain critical of his research methodology, featured in other best-selling books “More Guns, Less Crime” and “The Bias Against Guns,” among others.

Lott, in particular, took issue with the way the study measured lethal use of force by police officers: it compiled data from The Guardian and The Washington Post reported over the last year, citing a lack of federal records available.

“I mean are they seriously going to argue that data is only available for one year? It’s just not serious discussion,” he said.

The CAP report referenced two studies conducted by Daniel Webster, professor of Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where he serves as the Director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research, which purportedly illustrate the impact of requiring universal background checks for handgun purchases in two states, Connecticut and Missouri. Specifically, Webster found a 40 percent drop in Connecticut’s gun-related homicides after implementing the law, while Missouri’s rate skyrocketed 26 percent after repealing the requirement.

Lott says this study’s “sloppy” methodology doesn’t prove anything.

“If you have 19 states that have had these laws at one time or another, you don’t just pick Missouri and Connecticut,” he said. “You look at all the states.” reached out to the Center for Gun Policy and Research for comment, however, Webster was unavailable for an interview.

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