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Our Minds are Made Up – Don’t Confuse Us with Facts

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Carmen Ashley
October 6, 2017

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” – John Adams

Author’s note: The decision to write on gun legislation was made prior to the recent Las Vegas mass shooting. This article is not intended as a political fodder. Rather, it is an attempt to use a concrete example to illustrate the challenges our public administrators face in relation to evidence based decision-making. As defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, evidence based decision-making is, “a process for making decisions about a program, practice, or policy that is grounded in the best available research evidence and is informed by experiential evidence from the field and relevant contextual evidence.”

When we hear the names Columbine, Sandy Hook, Orlando and Aurora we now immediately associate them with the tragic mass shootings that occurred in each of these cities. Sadly, this is far from a complete list and it continues to grow. When tragic events like this occur, there is an inevitable cry for gun control legislation, and an equally loud cry in opposition to any such initiative. But what does the evidence tell us about legal and regulatory efforts at gun control?

Groundbreaking research by Columbia University in 2016 indicated a significant inverse association between firearm legislation and gun-related deaths. The study evaluated laws and regulations in ten countries covering a span of 60 years.

There are earlier studies that both support and refute this research. This writer’s limited review of both kinds of research seems to indicate, not surprisingly, “pro-gun” advocates tended to cite the articles refuting the research findings most often, while the scientific community and “gun control” advocates tended to cite the articles in support of the research findings most often. This writer focuses on the 2016 research for this article because it is the most recent, most substantial research on the issue. It also is the most in-depth, broad evaluation of firearm laws and regulations.

The reliance on relevant studies is due partly to the limited information available through federal agencies with an interest in firearms. The data provided by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, for example, does not include research related to firearm laws and regulations. And federal funding for gun violence research remains almost nonexistent.

If we accept the findings from this 2016 study we are faced with an obvious question. With the proliferation of gun violence, with the spiraling number of mass shootings, why, then, has there been no change in gun regulation in the United States? Perhaps the answer can be found in Kraft and Furlong’s Public Policy: Politics, Analysis, and Alternatives. The authors discuss eight criteria for evaluating public policy proposals.

A cursory review of these eight criteria will quickly illustrate why it is impossible

Photo courtesy of CBS News.

Photo courtesy of CBS News.

for any legislation to be considered or adopted based solely upon on an evidence-base (even though “effectiveness” and “efficiency” are two of the eight criteria described by Kraft and Furlong).

Three of those eight are, almost certainly, the reason there remains almost no regulatory firearm legislation in the United States:

  • Liberty/freedom. Regarding gun laws, this criterion considers the expansion or restriction of personal rights. Americans are sharply divided ideologically over gun control, with most of the arguments being based on the Second Amendment to the Constitution and its interpretation.
  • Political feasibility. This is identified by Kraft & Furlong as the degree to which politicians will support a policy. This is the most impactful and guiding criterion used when a politician is forced to consider controversial policy options. Politicians in the United States represent a constituency sharply divided over firearm legislation, and the average politician can rarely see past the next election.
  • Social acceptability. Similar to political feasibility, Kraft and Furlong describe this criterion as the degree to which the public will support a given policy option. We are deeply divided on the subject of gun control.

We as a society must reach some level of public policy equilibrium at which we find the right balance of the elements of liberty and freedom, political feasibility, and social acceptability. Only then will comprehensive firearm legislation be implemented in the United States.

While this article focused on the issue of evidence-based policies related to firearm legislation, there are many other issues with which this same challenge exists. Will we—politicians and the general public—ever come to a point at which the majority of our policies are decided upon by what the evidence tells us?

Perhaps seventeenth century French philosopher Blaise Pascal answered that question for us when he remarked, “People almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of truth but on the basis of what they find attractive.”

Author: Carmen Ashley is a doctoral student at Valdosta State University, and she is a public health analyst at a federal agency. Her email is [email protected], and her Twitter handle is @CarmenLAshley. 

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