It seems that “citing gun research without bothering to read it first” is no longer an affliction specific to Judge Ho! George Washington University Law School gadfly Jonathan Turley watched the State of the Union last night and has some thoughts on the prospect of an assault weapons ban to share. And, like Judge Ho, when he found that these thoughts were bereft of evidentiary support, he just went ahead and mischaracterized whatever evidence he could find.
Remember folks, he’s definitely not using his dwindling credibility for “wrongful ends.”
During the State of the Union, President Biden cited the assault weapons ban from 1994, stating, “In the 10 years the ban was law, mass shootings went down. After Republicans let it expire, mass shootings tripled.”
Both of these statements are true. We can quibble over whether the ban deserves 100 percent of the credit for this decline or if an identical ban today would deliver the same result, but as far as it goes, there used to be a ban and it corresponded with reduced gun violence.
Turley does not like that these claims are true. Or at least “the people who give Jonathan Turley television bookings” do not like that these claims are true, though at this point that distinction may be moot. So Turley fires up his blogging machine to complain that “the President’s factual claim is far from established.”
However, the cause-and-effect claim has never been well-established.
Support for this claim could be based on a 2019 study in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery that found that “Mass-shooting related homicides in the United States were reduced during the years of the federal assault weapons ban of 1994 to 2004”. However, the authors said that this reduction was merely “observational” and that the Act was not clearly the cause of the reduction in shootings and deaths.
They did not. When he says “merely ‘observational,’” he seems to be flagging a reference in the abstract that says “Level of evidence: Observational, level II/IV.” Scholars — which Turley most definitely is not at this point — would recognize that this means the researchers are clarifying that their conclusion rested on three categories of evidence including “Evidence obtained from at least one well-designed randomized controlled trial” (also known as level II) and “Evidence from well-designed case-control or cohort studies” (level IV). To the extent the study includes “observational” evidence, this is not meant as a disclaimer, but an admission that the authors didn’t come up with all the stats involved. Like, perhaps, the national crime statistics.
As for what the study actually concluded:
Mass-shooting fatalities were 70% less likely to occur during the federal ban period (relative rate, 0.30; 95% confidence interval, 0.22-0.39).
It does not say that the ban and only the ban caused this decline. But that’s not really the job of a study like this. It concluded that the existence of the ban produced a “statistically significant” reduction in mass shootings, making the law more likely than not a valuable policy tool for anyone looking to achieve that goal.
Then Turley writes “A Rand study found such claims ‘inconclusive‘…” which is a weird way to describe an article that didn’t “study” anything. Rand just wrote up a rudimentary literature review of FIVE OTHER STUDIES of assault weapon bans. Since a couple of those focused on state bans that failed to prevent people carrying assault weapons over the border to kill people, Rand concluded that everything was inconclusive and dismissed the other three studies that did show bans leading to a significant decline in gun violence. Somehow, Turley thought this was relevant to a discussion about a federal assault weapons policy.
Potato, po-tah-to, tomato, toma-mass murder.
He also cites a research brief put out by the National Institute of Justice that said on page 1 — Turley can’t be bothered to read a whole TEN-PAGE study — that maybe there were other contributing factors to the still undisputed through all of Turley’s citations decline in mass shootings during the policy and corresponding increase after the policy lapsed.
Can we take a second to consider the profound disrespect Turley — and Ho before him — have for their audience with these cites? It’s so easy these days to click on a cite and find out what it actually says, and yet both Turley and Ho are profoundly confident that no one will expend the modicum of time and effort to check. Sadly they’re probably right on this score.
Anyway, we aren’t done with Turley’s whirlwind tour of studies that don’t really say what he wants them to say.
Another study that advocates banning high-capacity magazines (almost certainly a plank of any Biden proposal anyway) downplayed the efficacy of assault weapon bans alone, but concluded that “this study was not designed to fully explore the relationship between assault weapon bans and their impact on fatal mass shootings,” making the whole citation an FYI at best.
Alas, Turley saved the best for last, with a link to a Justice Department study from 2004 that guessed that mass shootings probably wouldn’t go through the roof if the ban was lifted. Which… did not pan out.
But, it’s even worse than that! This specific study is routinely cited by the NRA as proof that assault weapons bans don’t work. In fact, it’s cited for this claim so often that THE AUTHOR OF THE STUDY HAS PUBLICLY DEBUNKED THIS CHARACTERIZATION:
You can read the full study for yourself here and see that while it was not a ringing endorsement of the assault weapons ban, as many gun control advocates had hoped, it hardly “proved” the law to be a failure, as LaPierre claims. To the contrary, it found some encouraging signs, like an average 40 percent drop in the number of assault weapons used in crimes (some cities saw a drop of over 70 percent) and some benefit from the ban on high-capacity magazines.
Crackerjack research work for an ostensible legal academic! But then, Turley can’t even cite himself without getting it wrong so maybe he really just doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Joe Patrice is a senior editor at Above the Law and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email any tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter if you’re interested in law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe also serves as a Managing Director at RPN Executive Search.