Harvard Study Shows No Effect of Firearm Laws on Gun Deaths

By Timothy Wheeler, MD

Harvard medical researchers just published a scholarly paper in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, claiming that more firearm laws in a state are associated with a lower rate of gun homicides and suicides.  However, examination of their data and research methods shows the opposite.

McMaster University researcher Caillin Langmann, MD, PhD noted that the Harvard authors’ own best analysis:

  • Does not show that states with more gun laws have fewer gun deaths
  • Demonstrates that “assault weapon” bans have no effect on homicide
  • Demonstrates that laws prohibiting guns in public places have no effect on homicide

Even more damning, Dr. Garen Wintemute, well known for research advocating gun control, agrees with Dr. Langmann.  In his editor-invited commentary Wintemute faults the Harvard authors for relying on a state gun law grading system used by the Brady Center (formerly known as Handgun Control, Inc.) and the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.  Both of these organizations are dedicated gun control advocates.  Using their political ploy in a scientific journal is disgraceful.

It gets uglier.  Intentionally or not, these authors tailored the data to favor the pro-gun control conclusions they wanted.  In state rankings, the authors deleted New Hampshire, Vermont, and North Dakota, all states with low homicide rates and relatively few gun laws.  By contrast, the District of Columbia is a jurisdiction with many gun laws and high gun homicide rates.  According to Dr. Langmann, properly including D.C. in the calculation causes the average homicide rate in states with few gun laws to be much lower than the rate in states with more gun laws.  The simple act of excluding D.C. from the analysis biases the results.

Glaringly absent from the paper is any mention of criminology research, which mostly happens to disagree with the Harvard authors.  But none of the prominent criminologists specializing in this field were invited to comment on the article.  And in keeping with the authors’ tendency to ignore findings refuting their message, they neglected to mention to the media a point crucial to current debate—their finding that assault weapons bans are not associated with homicide.

Further refutation of the Harvard study comes from none other than the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), no friend of gun owners.  A CDC task force concluded that it could not find any evidence that gun control laws reduce violent crime.

The timing of the article’s publication is also suspect, just as Congress is considering gun control legislation.  JAMA editors scandalously rushed into publication an article in 1999, right before President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial involving sexual misconduct, showing that college students didn’t consider oral sex to be “real sex.”  JAMA editor George Lundberg was fired for having, in the words of AMA chief Dr. E. Ratcliffe Anderson, Jr., “threatened the historic tradition and integrity of the Journal of the American Medical Association by inappropriately and inexcusably interjecting JAMA into a major political debate that has nothing to do with science or medicine.”

The major political debate this spring is over gun control.  This hopelessly flawed scientific paper should have been thoroughly red-penciled by JAMA Internal Medicine’s peer reviewers and rejected for publication.  But instead they let it pass, and now gun-grabbing politicians see it as ammunition in their hands to help pass more gun control laws.  Unfortunately for them, when brought out into the sunlight, the study becomes the exact opposite—a powerful affirmation that research shows no effect of gun laws on gun deaths.


Dr. Tim Wheeler

—Timothy Wheeler, MD is director of Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership, a project of the Second Amendment Foundation. 

All DRGO articles by Timothy Wheeler, MD.