Light Over Heat #27: Lessons Learned at 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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  1. I don’t want to be too casual in answering some of this. Certainly Swanson, Cook, Morral, et al are correct in that there will always be a great deal of uncertainty in the effectiveness of various gun laws. There is no real controlled experiment (give 500 inner city kids and 500 cell phones with games loaded in identical social situations and watch what happens?). As the NY Times article makes obvious with respect to some academic institutions, there is barely a semipermeable membrane, perhaps more of a sieve, if that, between the advocacy and the academic side. So it is hard for me to imagine that when the academics write their letters to Congress, there is not a bit of bias. After all, folks go into that field to reduce the carnage and they must actually want to see something done. Its tough, I know. As a geoscientist, it is hard for me to talk about climate change research without also saying “we need to put the brakes on emissions or all hell might break loose”.

    Plus, the “preponderance of evidence” is a low standard to use when passing laws. Throw all this stuff against the wall and see what sticks. Meanwhile, the vast majority of gun owners never cross paths with the law or do DIY brain surgery. We have to deal with the flip side of these laws–the burden the laws put on law abiding gun owners. So there has to be a recognition that not all laws are created equal, and those which are passed should put the burden on the problem rather than on the innocent bystander as much as possible. Constitutional rights aside, most people are good.

    As far as ERPO, at least one Federal version had pretty good due process and this is one type of law that focusses on demonstrated risk rather than nebulous risk, such as whether I might go postal after 68 years of good citizenship. It has a right to counsel and uses the clear and compelling standard of proof. Far better than the junk one that was passed in New Mexico with no right to counsel, the lowest standard of proof, and which most law enforcement here therefore refuse to implement.

    Well, time to walk the dog.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mark Oknyansky and I just covered some of this in the recent podcast. It is something that I have been pointing at for years. Between laws being used as political totems and laws being passed based on forecasting (and not solid evidence of effect) we have two major influences on ineffectiveness. People accept that this is the political reality…the reality of legislation. Perhaps there is a threshold where society can tolerate such a thing without exceptional negative effect. Perhaps there is a realm where games-personship and poor information push our political reality into a regressive force. Perhaps we are past that threshold right now?

    I mention the Depew / Swenson Economic Journal paper on The Sullivan Act (2019) in the podcast and quote:

    “…the behavioral sciences increasingly call into question the assumption of criminal law’s ex-ante influence on conduct.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Same with Bruen v NYSRPA ruling and its ex-ante influence. The Sullivan Act has been in force for over a century in present form (I’m not quite a century old but was born and raised in NYS and got my first handgun license there, albeit Upstate. NYC homicide rate has risen and fallen repeatedly over that time. Nothing to do with the gun laws, everything to do with all the other factors that affect crime.

      The current weeping, gnashing of teeth, and rending of clothing is for political demonstration purposes only, i.e., send your checks and donations this way, folks. This ruling, to with, that NYC must adopt a more user-transparent and due process driven “shall issue” permitting system, will have negligible effect on gun violence in the Big Apple. Its all about those Somethings Else.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Multiple factual, logical, & legal issues with Krishnamurthi & Salib’s “Small Arms Race.” Just to note a few:

    * How can WI’s lack of duty-to-retreat factor in Kyle Rittenhouse’s defensive shooting of Jacob Rosenbaum, when Rittenhouse did flee from Rosenbaum until cornered?

    * No point fretting whether “uncertainty about the burglar’s intent” will initiate “brinksmanship” that will “spiral toward a bloody end.” Every state code contains a castle doctrine similar to California’s § 198.5 PC, which presumes a reasonable fear of imminent death or great bodily injury exists with the mere presence of an intruder;

    * Sad that the imaginary “vignette” of ‘Jesse’s’ encounter with another armed stranger passes for serious scholarship. No evidence exists of these lurid ‘OK Corral’ fantasies manifesting in any significant number in the now 25 states with permitless and/or open carry;

    * “In our view, Heller’s analysis must rest on some kind of balancing inquiry.” Heller and Bruen expressly forbid any means-ends balancing.


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