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Follow the Science, Unless it Leads Where You Don’t Want to Go

Monday, May 16, 2022

Follow the Science, Unless it Leads Where You Don’t Want to Go

Researchers in California have published the results of a study evaluating the effectiveness of so-called “gun violence restraining orders” (a.k.a. “extreme risk protection orders” or “red flag” orders). Assembly Bill 1014, was enacted in California in 2014, and since then, 19 states and the District of Columbia have adopted similar laws.

Authors of the study, Firearm Violence Following the Implementation of California’s Gun Violence Restraining Order Law, include Garen Wintemute, the director of the University of California Firearm Violence Research Center and a “key contributor” who helped draft AB 1014.

Very briefly, these laws create a mechanism that allows a family member, police officer, or some other third party (in California, this includes coworkers, school employees, and teachers) to file a petition in court, supported by allegations that the person named in the petition, at some point in the future, poses a danger to themselves or others by possessing or having access to a firearm. If the court is satisfied that there is some potential of future harm, it issues an order authorizing police to take away all firearms the person owns or controls, and prohibiting the person from possessing or acquiring firearms while the order is in effect. The initial court process may be “ex parte” (without any notice to, or an opportunity to respond by, the affected person) or a full hearing on notice. In California, the ex parte order has a minimum duration of 21 days. Once confirmed in a full hearing, the “temporary” order is in effect for up to five years, although orders may be renewed indefinitely.  

The researchers examined whether implementation of the California gun violence restraining order (GVRO) law was associated with decreased rates of “firearm assault” or firearm self-harm between 2016 (when AB 1014 took effect) and 2019. They compared the post-GVRO rate of firearm violence in San Diego County (chosen because it had a “high GVRO uptake” or incidence of GVROs) with the estimated outcome in a synthetic control unit (a combination of California control counties weighted to match the firearm violence trend in San Diego, 2005-2015, as closely as possible). The researchers “hypothesized that the GVRO law would be associated with a reduction in firearm violence.” 

The results, though, showed that the GVRO law had no impact – “we found no evidence that GVRO implementation was associated with decreased firearm assault or firearm self-harm at the population level in San Diego.” The researchers sought to qualify this result by noting that the findings could be “partially explained by access to firearms through the underground market,” or “could reflect a true absence of association or limitations of our study; further research is needed to determine which of these is the case.”

A 2,000 word editorial authored by another set of researchers, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concurrently with the Wintemute study, repeated this “telling caveat” and sought to downplay the findings, expressing the hope that “this will deter gun industry lobbyists from spinning the study’s results as definitive evidence that ‘gun laws do not work’…”

“Spin” is a remarkable word to use here. The editorial authors are self-described “collaborators” in another, ongoing study on GVROs, “funded by the National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research, which includes [the 2022 study researchers] Dr's Pear and Wintemute.” One of the editorial authors is a “founding member” and serves on the Executive Steering Committee of a consortium that was “influential in developing the Gun Violence Restraining Order (GVRO) law in California,” the very law under review.

The palpable spin – and spin it surely is – is the attempt to diminish, or dismiss entirely, the findings as “premature,” or affected by “unobserved contextual factors specific to San Diego County,” or due to the small number of GVROs compared to the “theoretical pool” of “suicide-planners in gun-owning households and angry gun-carriers in San Diego County,” resulting in “too small a pebble to make much of a ripple in such a big pond.” Would these same elaborate justifications and qualifications be advanced as forcefully or at all had the study results reflected the promises that this legislation was predicated on? 

The Wintemute study established that rates of firearm injury and death had (to use the words of the editorial’s authors) “no statistically significant association with GVRO implementation.” The results are based on data from a jurisdiction that has had a GVRO law in place for several years. The study used similar methodology to much social science research, that these researchers are normally happy to draw conclusions from, assuming that they’re the “right” conclusions. But, when this “evidence” points to the conclusion that gun control doesn’t work, these same researchers will downplay their own results.

The NRA and other organizations have opposed GVRO-type laws for many reasons, notably because they deprive citizens of their fundamental rights and property without due process safeguards and a clear evidentiary basis. Orders may issue unchallenged, without notice or the opportunity to respond, on flimsy grounds and without any evidence of actual wrongdoing. The ACLU of Rhode Island expressed “great concern” about a “red flag” law because the “standard for seeking and issuing an order is so broad it could routinely be used against people who engage in ‘overblown political rhetoric’ on social media” or based on a person’s “mere possession of firearms,” and because the process sets a precedent “for the use of coercive measures against individuals not because they are alleged to have committed any crime, but because somebody believes they might, someday, commit one.” In one troubling indicator that appears to bear out these concerns, an early analysis showed that the vast majority of California GVROs that were issued “ex parte” (without notice) were later not confirmed or extended by a court in a full hearing. 

The flip side of “gun industry lobbyists … spinning the study’s results” to show gun laws don’t work is gun control proponents continuing to maintain that that GVROs are an effective way of addressing suicide and gun crime despite their own study results being incompatible with that notion. The researchers here maintain that “[d]espite our null findings, the state of the evidence overall supports GVROs and related legislation as tools that may be useful in preventing firearm injury and death,” and the editorial collaborators dismiss the study as simply an “early report” with new studies and more work needed. As it happens, the unintended consequence of this gratuitous and excessive spin – the over-rationalizing and minimizing of the results – is to undermine the reliability and credibility of any further research endeavors and trivialize future findings.

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