Gun policy has become increasingly polarized over the past several years and it often seems like compromise is impossible, but new data suggests that may not be the case.
While wide gaps remain in attitudes toward gun policies, research indicates some areas of agreement among gun policy experts–often beyond the typical proposals that dominate the conversation around guns. That’s according to survey data published on Tuesday by the RAND Corporation. Researchers found that experts across the ideological spectrum were largely united on policy outcome objectives and even shared some common interest in specific policies such as prosecuting prohibited possessors who seek firearms and expanding mental health prohibitions.
“Our results strongly suggest that differing favorability ratings in the permissive and restrictive groups were explained largely, and indeed almost exclusively, by differences in estimates of what the true effects of the policies will be, not by differences in which policy outcomes predict the groups’ favorability ratings,” the study said. “Indeed, both groups’ most strongly preferred policy goals were to reduce firearm suicides and firearm homicides.”
The results indicate the potential for achieving broad support for certain strategies to reduce gun violence. Commonly proposed policies like “assault weapon bans” continue to face heavy ideological opposition—particularly in a closely divided partisan landscape—and skepticism regarding their efficacy. But if policymakers instead focused on areas in which both sides of the debate shared favorability, future legislation might be possible.
The survey polled experts about 19 common policy options ranging from universal backgrounds checks to permitless carry. It asked them to rate their likely effects across ten outcomes, such as homicides and the right to bear arms. Researchers found the experts generally fell into two ideological camps, a restrictive group favoring stricter regulation of gun ownership and a permissive group favoring a more lenient approach to gun ownership.
But, even those distinct approaches found common ground on half a dozen different proposals. Most dealt with ensuring those who had already been prohibited from owning guns due to a prior conviction or disqualifying mental health records were actually disarmed. State prosecution of prohibited possessors seeking firearms, expanded prohibitions against gun ownership based on severe mental illness, child access prevention laws, surrender of firearms by prohibited possessors, and firearm prohibitions for individuals subject to domestic violence restraining orders were the most agreed-upon policies.
State prosecution of prohibited persons attempting to buy firearms and confiscating guns already in their possession were the most popular policies. 75 percent or more of experts in each group had either a neutral or positive reaction to the proposals.
In addition to general consensus on these specific policies, researchers said, “there was higher-than-average agreement on the direction and magnitude of the expected effects of these five policies.”
However, the researchers found that among the 19 policy options, three, in particular, proved to be the most divisive between the two camps of experts.
“The patterns of favorability ratings highlighted three policies for which the two groups had median ratings on opposite ends of the scale,” the study said. “Those three policies were required reporting and recording of firearm sales, requiring a license to purchase a firearm or ammunition, and a ban on sale of ‘assault weapons’ and high capacity magazines.”
The restrictive group of experts said these policies would be among the most effective at reducing gun homicides and mass shootings. In contrast, members of the permissive group were more likely to say that these policies would have no effect on gun death and would instead impact the right to bear arms.
“Most differences appear not to be driven by different policy goals, but rather by different beliefs about what individual policies might accomplish,” Rosanna Smart, the study’s lead author, said in a press release.
She said because many of the disagreements over policy had to do with perceived effects, more social science research on the impact of the surveyed policies could lead to more agreement among experts in the future. RAND also created an interactive tool showing what each group of experts believe the impact of each policy proposal would be on outcomes like homicide, suicide, and gun rights.