The ‘Fair and Effective’ Approach to Gun Violence.

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              Back on January 18, I posted a column on the work that is being done by the RAND Corporation on gun violence, specifically the republication of a report in 2021 which carried a list of the more than 500 ‘experts’ who constitute the be-all and the end-all of expertise when it comes to helping RAND “establish a shared set of facts that will improve public discussions and support the development of fair and effective gun policies.”

              RAND has been helping America develop ‘fair and effective’ policies about various issues since the corporation was founded in 1948, and its tagline about producing ‘objective analysis, effective solutions,’ continues to guide the organization’s work in the many areas in which it gets involved, of which the most important areas – international affairs, national security, health, energy – are listed here.

              Gun violence hasn’t made it into the top tier of issues being studied by RAND but give it time. After all, we have only experienced a significant increase in gun fatalities over the last couple of years, with the 2020 number coming in at 44,000 and change. Before that, we were only running yearly gun deaths in the mid to high 30’s, so what’s the big friggin’ deal?

              I first heard about RAND in 1971, when The Failing New York Times published a series of articles based on documents known as the ‘pentagon papers,’ which had been swiped and given to the paper by Daniel Ellsberg, who had worked on a study of the Viet Nam War commissioned by the Pentagon but conducted by a team employed by RAND.

              The papers showed that the government had consciously and continuously lied about the war, in particular the fact that it wasn’t a civil war at all but was a military invasion of another country by the United States based on a strategy which was going to fail.

              In a 2002 memoir, Ellsberg claims he first began to doubt our role in Viet Nam when he attended an anti-war demonstration in 1969. I hate to break it to Ellsberg, but I got involved in anti-war activities in 1964, and I didn’t need a Ph.D. from Harvard or a fancy job at RAND to know that the presence and behavior of the United States in Southeast Asia was simply wrong.

              Not maybe wrong, but so wrong and so arrogant and so destructive, that the idea our decision to immolate tens of thousands, maybe several million Vietnamese and Cambodian peasants was something that could be made ‘right’ if we just changed our tactics a little bit here and there, only demonstrates how little serious research was conducted by Dan Ellsberg and his band of merry RAND men.

What RAND does with the money it gets from private donations and government research grants is to sit a group of so-called experts down in a room and get them to come up with ways to make it look like the government can plan and implement policies and programs which look more right than wrong.  

Come up with effective solutions to ‘pressing challenges’ facing the world today? Not one bit. Develop a storyline that will take the U.S. government off the hook for problems that the government creates? You’re goddamn right.

Ellsberg was part of the RAND team which in 1967 produced the first Viet Nam report. By the end of that year, we had lost some 20,000 men in combat, a number which would be exceeded by twice as many casualties over the next three years.

Know what was the conclusion of the RAND report? That the government needed to counteract media stories about how the war was being lost by promoting stories about all the good things we were doing in Viet Nam.

RAND’s so-called ‘fair and effective’ approach to solving problems reminds me of how Eisenhower used to answer questions at his press conferences: “On the one hand this, on the other hand that.” I can just see the experts hired by RAND develop a new plan to make the federal government look both like a protector of the public from gun violence while, at the same time protecting the gun owner’s Constitutional freedoms and ‘rights.’

Here’s how the new plan that RAND can promote which will not just reduce gun violence but get rid of it altogether. The CDC can stop counting the number of people who get shot with guns, and instead the Consumer Product Safety Commission can collect and publish data on how many guns are used in unsafe ways.

After all, why should guns be any different than skateboards or bikes?

Where Research On Gun Violence Needs To Start.

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Last month our friends at the RAND Corp. unveiled a new initiative on gun violence, the National Collaboration on Gun Violence Research (NCGVR) which will soon begin allocating $20 million in research funds to promote gun-violence research.  The purpose of this effort, according to the NCGVR, is to support “rigorous research designed to broaden agreement on the facts associated with gun policy, and support development of fair and effective policies.”  RAND’s plan is to eventually grow their funding to $50 million. This ain’t chopped liver, even in my book.

              This new project grows out of a 400-page study, The Science of Gun Policy, which RAND published last year and can be downloaded here. The study identified eight major gun-violence categories (referred to in the report as ‘outcomes’), linked these outcomes to thirteen public policies that were believed to reduce violence levels in each category, and then analyzed the degree to which research conducted since 2004 supported the mitigating effects of each policy or not. The outcomes were what you would expect: homicide, suicide, unintentional injury and so forth.  The policies were the usual grab-bag of what has long served as the ‘wish list’ of gun-control advocates – comprehensive background checks, red flag laws, more intensive licensing, etc.

The researchers evaluated the ‘science’ of gun-violence research by scoring the research based on the degree to which it showed that each policy actually made a difference in the level of gun violence which the particular policy was designed to affect. The ratings ranged from inconclusive to limited to moderate to supportive, and not a single category of research received a supportive rating, not one. Two outcomes, gun suicide and gun homicide, were found to be moderately impacted by background checks and CAP laws; a spread sheet detailing the value of gun research for determining the value of every other public policy for all the other outcomes was basically blank. To put it bluntly, the RAND report found scant evidence that research conducted since 2004 has been of any real value at all. Wow.

This report no doubt reflects a decision of RAND to try and fill the gap. And while the lack of government funding for such research efforts has definitely played a significant role in restricting the degree to which the science of gun policy has remained far behind where it might otherwise be, I would like to suggest that perhaps there is another reason why the team that produced the RAND report found little, if any research that could be used to support gun-control policies from an objective, evidence-based point of view.

Every year somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million Americans attempt or succeed in inflicting serious injury on someone else. It’s called ‘aggravated assault,’ but for all kinds of reasons, we don’t have any hard data on how often it occurs. For that reason, gun-violence researchers rarely focus on gun assaults unless the victim winds up dead. Most of these deaths started as arguments, escalated to assaults, then out comes the gun.  But in most cases, actually in at least 80% or more of these events, the shooter doesn’t know how to aim the gun and the person with the bullet inside them lives.

Let’s put this into context. The context is that less than 10% of the arguments that wind up as aggravated assaults involve the use of a gun. So how come 10% use a gun and 90% don’t?  It can’t be explained by saying that there aren’t enough guns to go around. The guns are all over the place!

As long as gun-violence researchers rely on medically-based data about victims to understand gun violence, we won’t get very far. And if we don’t understand what’s going on in the head of the shooter, as opposed to the body of the victim, how can we develop public policies to reduce gun violence that will really work?

I just hope my friends at RAND will take this issues into account when deciding how to distribute their generous and much-needed research funds.


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