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The first is the old dictum that correlation does not prove causation. Assume for a moment that our tests yielded stronger correlation coefficients; we still wouldn’t know whether they indicate that laxer (or tighter) gun controls led to higher murder and violent crime rates, or if the higher crime rates led to laxer (or tighter) gun controls as a result of public demand for different gun laws. Or some other cause could produce both higher murder rates and changes in gun laws.
Another problem is that many factors besides gun laws likely affect murder and violent crime rates (and suicides, for that matter—see Kessler's and Volokh's columns for more on this). Controlling for those factors could reveal different relationships (or non-relationships) than what Isenstein's table and my analysis suggest.
Advanced statistical methods may be able to overcome those problems, and plenty of trees have been felled to provide paper for such academic analysis of American gun laws. Problem is, there's hardly a consensus among researchers as to whether any causal relationship has been found. (For a sense of the literature, see this.) The United States is hardly alone in this. For instance, though gun control advocates are now lionizing Australia's 1996 National Firearms Agreement restricting the licensing and ownership of different weapons, there appears to be no consensus among researchers as to whether the policy has reduced Australian homicide rates. (There does appear to be consensus that it has reduced suicide rates, though some researchers reach different conclusions.)
The difficulty with this research is that it's hard to compare outcomes in the real world to outcomes in a hypothetical world where different gun laws exist but everything else is the same. Hence researchers' use of advanced mathematics and statistics. The problem is, unless you have a Ph.D. in some statistical science and a good appreciation of the specific issues involved in gun research, you'll be hard pressed to understand the critical points of that research, let alone form a knowledgeable opinion about which analyses are most likely correct.
That brings us to the derisive comments accompanying all those posts of Isenstein's table. We now know the snark is misplaced. So why is the gun control debate, and American politics in general, so rife with such nastiness?
Part of the reason, understandably, is the stakes: gun control and gun rights involve some of the most cherished human values, including public safety, self-preservation, defense of innocents, privacy, and property rights. Part of the reason is simple fear: many people believe their risk of being victimized by violence is increasing (though the data show the opposite). And part of the reason is the trend in American politics over the last century: government has imposed itself so broadly that many issues are now winner-take-all, and people are desperate to avoid being on the losing side.
Those factors, along with the muddled complexity of gun research, should encourage more civil, open-minded, and respectful debate about gun laws, not to mention greater modesty about what policy can accomplish. Unfortunately, the opposite is happening. There's a lot of Red team/Blue team, "my side is smart and caring/your side is stupid and cruel" bile.
Adding further fuel to this angry fire is the simple fact that people who dislike guns usually also dislike—and want to stick it to—people who like guns, and vice versa. And that's a serious threat to American society, too.
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