We’ll begin with two scenarios and explore which one is worse. In the first scenario, we know there’s a crisis, and we know there’s a solution to the crisis, yet we lack the political will to solve it. This is often the way we talk about mass shootings, and it’s wrong. We do not, in fact, have a solution to the crisis, and the very thought that we do is further tearing at the fabric of American life—wrongly pitting those who think they’ve solved the problem against those they view as callous or indifferent to the loss of innocent life.
The second, true, scenario is this—we don’t know how to solve the mass-shooting problem. We don’t even really know how to make it better. We have good-faith ideas, but we don’t have sufficient evidence that they work.
Let’s discuss first what we know, and then we’ll explore why that might be. The “what” is best stated by a Rand Corporation review of studies of the effects of 18 policies designed to address mass killings. Its conclusion: “We found no qualifying studies showing that any of the 18 policies we investigated decreased mass shootings.” To be clear, for nine of the policies (including red-flag laws and arming teachers), there were no studies that met Rand’s standards for quality and rigor. We don’t know the effects of those policies on the present crisis. It’s too soon to tell.
But nine policies were rigorously studied, and they include many of the most popular gun-control proposals in America, including background checks, bans on the sale of assault weapons and large-capacity magazines, minimum age requirements, and waiting periods. This finding is consistent with a famous fact-check by The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, where he found that neither enhanced background checks nor assault-weapons bans would have prevented recent, deadly mass shootings.
At first blush, this seems to make little sense. After all, don’t assault-weapons bans put high hurdles in the way of a mass shooter who wants to use an AR-15? Won’t magazine-capacity restrictions limit death tolls? But again, the evidence doesn’t support our instincts. And the reason why relates to the nature of the crime itself.