Light Over Heat #27: Lessons Learned from a Duke Firearms Law Center Workshop

In this week’s video, I talk about my experience attending a works-in-progress workshop at the Duke Center for Firearms Law. One of the best parts of this workshop is the diversity of perspectives represented. This year, it ranged from an attorney for the National Rifle Association to an attorney for Giffords Law Center*.  (*In the video I said Everytown, sorry!)

The topics covered are incredibly varied as well, and the entire discussion is conducted in a scholarly and respectful manner. I feel very fortunate to be able to spend the day learning outside my primary area of expertise.

Watch the video on YouTube and read more of my reflections below.

As an empirical social scientist, I am not entirely irrelevant to the proceedings, though. Many of the papers either draw upon or could benefit from data on how guns and gun laws actually work in society.

As I discuss in a later “Light Over Heat” video, establishing a clear empirical connection between restrictive/permissive gun laws and beneficial/harmful outcomes is very difficult, and people sometimes overplay the implications of their findings.

Here, a recent argument made by Andrew Morral, who heads up RAND’s gun policy research initiative, is worth some thought. In a New York Times article on gun violence research, Morral says we can’t expect definitive evidence: “That’s sort of like saying our standard for passing laws is a criminal standard — beyond all reasonable doubt. I think we should come into these discussions with a civil standard: Where does the preponderance of the evidence lie? Is there reason to think that the proposed legislation might be better than what currently exists?” (Drawing on a paper by the Duke gun scholar Phil Cook and the University of Chicago economist Jens Ludwig.)

My initial take: Perhaps we need to think of these things as on a continuum from not very sure to pretty sure to very sure (in the social sciences certainty is impossible), and the standard of evidence should vary according to how invasive the proposed policies are. E.g., banning people from owning/doing something should be based on a higher standard than an intervention with a significant upside & limited downside. On the latter, I think of community-based violence disruption or the work of Dr. Joseph Richardson on hospital-based interventions where the only cost is money.

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