02 Jun 2019

A Data-Driven Approach to Gun Policy

Research conducted by two HBS professors inspired gun waiting-period legislation now being considered in Congress
by Jennifer Gillespie


Illustration by Decue Wu

HBS professor Deepak Malhotra recalls the moment he learned about the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, a tragedy that took the lives of 20 first-graders and six staff members on December 14, 2012. “I had returned to my hotel room after meetings in San Francisco and switched on the TV to watch the news. For the next six hours I was transfixed,” he explains. “I don’t get emotional very often, but I was overwhelmed.” Back in Boston, fellow HBS faculty member Mike Luca had a similar reaction as he watched the news.

Lee J. Styslinger III Associate Professor of Business Administration
(photo by Stu Rosner)

Not long after, the pair discussed the tragedy in Newtown. As researchers working at the intersection of psychology and economics who draw on data to inform managerial and policy decisions, they decided to see if they could use their skills to examine gun violence in America.

Today, nearly seven years later, research conducted by Malhotra and Luca has inspired a proposed bill in Congress that would require a waiting period of three business days for most handgun sales. If enacted, their research suggests, the federal waiting period would reduce gun homicides and could save more than 900 lives a year; additional lives are expected to be saved by a reduction in gun suicides.

In February 2019, Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) introduced the Choosing Our Own Lives Over Fast Firearms (COOL OFF) Act, which, at the time of this writing, is cosponsored by 71 other members of the US Congress. The act builds on legislation the congressman first proposed in 2017 after reading the HBS study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (October 2017).

The study began to take shape in early 2013. Malhotra, the Eli Goldston Professor of Business Administration, and Luca, the Lee J. Styslinger III Associate Professor of Business Administration, working with doctoral student Christopher Poliquin (now assistant professor of Strategy at UCLA Anderson School of Management), were at first unsure about how they could have an effect on a dire statistic: Nearly 40,000 gun-related deaths occur annually, almost 15,000 of which are homicides, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We spent the first year understanding the landscape around gun policy and research,” says Luca, whose research largely focuses on applying insights from behavioral economics to improve managerial and policy decisions. “We knew we had the resources and support at HBS to conduct whatever research we thought was important, and to see if there was a way to make a positive impact,” adds Malhotra, an expert on negotiation, dealmaking, diplomacy, and conflict resolution.

Eli Goldston Professor of Business Administration
(photo by Evgenia Eliseeva)

The researchers worked with two MBA students—a liberal and a conservative to ensure diverse perspectives—to document existing gun policies, and to determine which had been effective, how rigorous the evidence was, and the extent to which different policies had bipartisan support.

By year’s end, they had assessed both the academic and the political landscape of gun violence to see what might work in the current environment. “Looking for evidence-based policies that have some chance of being enacted—and which we could show would save lives—seemed to be a worthy use of our time,” says Malhotra, adding that waiting periods have support among majorities of both Democrats and Republicans. A 2017 Quinnipiac University poll said 71 percent of Republicans, 94 percent of Democrats, and 76 percent of independents favored a federal mandatory waiting period on all gun purchases.

The researchers ultimately examined handgun waiting periods, partly due to the potential for enactment. They analyzed data from 1970 to 2014, a time span during which 44 states (including the District of Columbia) had enacted, for some period of time, some type of gun-purchase waiting-period law. To understand the causal effect of waiting periods, the team exploited the significant geographic and temporal variations in the implementation of waiting periods. The researchers tested for state-level changes in gun deaths in states that had recently implemented a new policy—relative to other states—and discovered a 17 percent annual drop in gun homicides.

To reinforce their causal claim, they ran a second set of analyses, exploring variations that occurred because of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, federal legislation that compelled states without waiting-period laws to enact them. The stopgap measure was in effect from 1994 to 1998 until instant background-check laws were introduced. However, when the Brady Act went away, so too did federally mandated gun-purchase waiting periods. (Today, only nine states and DC have mandatory waiting-period laws.) This natural experiment provided a second approach for the researchers to explore the causal impact of waiting periods, and it confirmed the initial results, bolstering the team’s confidence in its findings.

In February 2019, the House passed legislation to strengthen background checks. “What our research shows is that waiting periods would have an additional and independent impact on gun violence, separate from the effects of background checks, because waiting periods solve a different problem,” says Malhotra. The new COOL OFF Act is part of a comprehensive approach to prevent gun violence.

“If it were not for the way the School works, the resources it provides for research, and the culture of trusting faculty to study what they think is important, there might not have been a study.”

“If it were not for the way the School works, the resources it provides for research, and the culture of trusting faculty to study what they think is important, there might not have been a study.”

The team acknowledges that some people will oppose any gun policy, regardless of its positive impact. “However, most US citizens favor some regulations that can stem the violence, including waiting periods,” says Luca. “This 17 percent is a big effect for a single policy—one that doesn’t eliminate anyone’s right to own a gun and that has the potential to save lives.”

“This is not just about the 17 percent of would-be victims who will now be saved. It’s the communities—the families, friends, and neighbors who also are affected,” says Malhotra. “Years from now, I want to be able to say to my kids that when we saw problems, we tried to do something about them. We may not solve the whole problem, but at least we’re moving things in the right direction.”


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