Is There Science to Back Obama’s Gun-Law Proposals?

by from Pacific Standard

In an emotional speech yesterday, President Barack Obama outlined his plans for new executive actions meant to combat the United States’ epidemic of mass shootings.

But what are the odds Obama’s proposed rules actually do reduce gun violence and death in America? Let’s take a look at what the science says:


Right now, licensed gun shops must run background checks on their customers, while other types of firearms-sellers, including online sellers and those who hawk at shows and flea markets, are exempt. Obama wants to extend the federal background-check law to cover more of these would-be sellers. He also pledged to hire more people to run the background checks, and to update the system.

Contrary to Obama’s claim that “we know that background checks make a difference”—which suggests the issue is settled—it’s hard to know if expanded background checks will prevent gun violence. There’s no reason to believe they won’t, but it would be inaccurate to characterize the science on this as super solid.

The research that exists suggests suites of interacting laws, including background checks, are associated with fewer guns getting channeled to criminals. In fact, the research says that the federal background-check law, as it stands now, hasn’t been associated with less firearms violence. But those who study these issues think the law hasn’t been very effective precisely because it opts not to scrutinize so many sellers.

“We cannot expect that that’s going to be the answer, to have half a system of accountability,” Johns Hopkins University health policy researcher Daniel Webster told Pacific Standard last year. Obama’s proposal aims to fix that.


This one’s a little easier to evaluate, scientifically speaking. In a review of 16 years of firearms-policy studies, Webster and University of California–Davis researcher Garen Wintemute identified two studies that address laws like this. They found laws that require gun owners to report when one of their weapons is lost or stolen are indeed associated with fewer guns getting diverted to criminals.


This is not a gun law, but yes, certain mental health treatments, including psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, have been shown to reduce the risk of suicide. Since suicide is the most common type of firearm death in the U.S., reducing suicides overall probably would reduce gun deaths.

Obama talked about working with gun manufacturers to deploy technology such as fingerprint recognition to prevent kids from accidentally setting off guns. But it’s doubtful this would make much of a difference. Accidental gun deaths are already uncommon among children. In 2013, 69 children ages 14 and younger died from accidental shootings. Such deaths are tragic, however, and it seems callous to say we must simply accept them. Since fingerprint-reading guns are fairly new, they haven’t been much studied. The existing research supports the idea that certain firearms storage practices keep kids safer, including keeping guns locked and unloaded, and storing weapons and their ammunition separately. Making sure more households with kids follow these recommendations might prove beneficial.
Overall, the gun laws Obama proposed are generally conservative and well backed by research—or as well backed as any gun-laws are, considering the freeze on firearm violence research in the U.S. Whether America will be able to pass and keep these laws is another question, but should that happen, we’re cautiously optimistic it’ll help.


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