Stand-Your-Ground Laws Make People ‘Less Safe’: RAND

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Illustration by Andrew Silanskas via Flickr

Credible research indicating a link between stand-your-ground laws and an increase in firearm homicides should persuade states that have passed such laws to repeal them, says a RAND study.

More than two-thirds of states now have laws on the books giving individuals the right to use deadly force in self-defense if they feel threatened. The measures, some of which explicitly remove the “duty to retreat” when faced with what is perceived as a life-threatening assault at home or place of work, were promoted as a deterrence measure that would save lives.

But there is “supportive evidence” from research studies that the laws “actually make people less safe, and instead more likely to be the victim of a firearm homicide,” RAND said.

As a result, RAND argued, “states with stand-your-ground laws should consider repealing them as a strategy for reducing firearm homicides.”

The recommendation was contained in a review of studies by dozens of researchers investigating the impact of U.S. firearms policies released Wednesday under RAND’s  Gun Policy of America Initiative.

The massive 412-page document, which updated a previous 2018 review, was aimed at developing a “shared set of facts that have been established through a transparent, nonpartisan and impartial review process,” the report said.

The RAND authors examined published studies on 18 separate firearms policies in order to determine whether the evidence showed that the policies produced the outcomes envisioned by authorities.

Earlier research on stand-your-ground laws, for example, produced conflicting or ambiguous results about their impact on gun violence—which has served to reinforce the views of both gun rights and gun control advocates.

But the subsequent, well-framed studies suggested that the evidence didn’t back up supporters of those laws.

“Because these laws are designed to empower victims of crime to defend themselves more effectively, it might be suggested that the elevation in homicide rates is an intended effect of the law, if the increases were driven by a surge in justifiable homicides,” the RAND study said.

“But that does not appear to be the case.”

The RAND reviewers cited evidence indicating that the increased number of deaths was attributable to criminal homicides.

Other findings in the review included:

  • There was “moderate” evidence that background checks reduce firearm homicides;
  • There was “limited” evidence that “right-to-carry” laws increase violent crime rates; and
  • There was “limited” evidence that laws prohibiting individuals with histories of mental illness from possessing firearms were effective.

The RAND reviewers said they found no credible studies that examined the impact of gun-free zones, and laws allowing armed personnel in schools-—policies promoted by advocates of gun control  and gun rights, respectively. And they said evidence of the effects of extreme-risk protection orders or “Red Flag” laws, firearm safety training requirements, and bans on low-quality handguns was “inconclusive.”

The findings of “limited,” “moderate” or “inconclusive” evidence did not necessarily prove that the policies were mistaken (or worthwhile), RAND cautioned—only that there was, so far, not enough credible scientific research available to test their assumptions.

“Even a policy with a small effect may nevertheless be beneficial,” the study said. “For instance, a policy that reduces firearm deaths by just a few percentage points could save more than 1,000 lives per year.”

The review made clear that the uncertain findings about many policies underscored the gaps in knowledge caused by the huge cuts in federal funding for firearms research mandated by Congress since 1996.

As a direct result of the cuts, academic publications on gun violence fell 64 percent between 1998 and 2012, and Washington now invests 270 times more money in traffic safety than in firearms research.

Just 21 of the 123 studies published since 1995 and included in the RAND review received federal funding.

Private foundations have taken up part of the burden. The latest RAND study for instance was supported by Arnold Ventures.

Last December, in a major change of direction, Congress agreed to allocate $25 million to gun violence  research.  However, RAND said a more systematic commitment was needed.

RAND called on Congress to consider an annual appropriation for “a sustained and significant program of research on gun policy and gun violence reduction.”

Such a program was critical to the development of objective knowledge in the face of a “hyper-partisan political environment” in which some advocates on both sides were guilty of “selective misuse of facts,” the study said.

“Moving past such roadblocks will be impossible unless decisionmakers can draw on a common set of facts based on transparent, nonpartisan, and impartial research and analysis.”

The complete report on “The Science of Gun Policy–Second Edition” and related material can be downloaded here.

This summary was prepared by TCR executive editor Stephen Handelman.