Science Magazine Jumps Into the Gun-Control Debate

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Science Magazine editor-in-chief H. Holden Thorp recently declared that researchers need to get off the sidelines and into the gun-control debate. His call to action was wrong in every possible way.

Consider for a moment the following paragraph: Scientists should not sit on the sidelines and watch others fight this out. More research into the public health impacts of vaccination will provide further evidence of its deadly consequences. Science can show that fewer vaccines make societies healthier.

No reputable science journal would publish an article promoting this anti-vaccine sentiment, and rightly so. Not only does the assertion start with a flawed premise—that scientists haven't published a bevy of high-quality research and commentary on the safety and efficacy of immunization—but it also assumes that further studies will only confirm a predetermined conclusion: that vaccines are inherently dangerous. [1]

Now think through this next paragraph. It's almost identical to my hypothetical above, except this one was published in Science, perhaps the most prestigious academic journal in the world, and it pertains to gun control instead of vaccination. In an article titled “We know what the problem is,” journal editor-in-chief H. Holden Thorp wrote this:

Scientists should not sit on the sidelines and watch others fight this out. More research into the public health impacts of gun ownership will provide further evidence of its deadly consequences. Science can show that gun restrictions make societies safer.”

You almost certainly have your mind made up about gun control, and I have no desire or ability to change it. But I do have several serious problems with Thorp's article. First, he ignored any evidence that contradicts his view. More importantly, he called on the science community to take a stand on an incendiary political issue—and announced in advance what that stance should be. This is antithetical to proper scientific reasoning and likely to undermine the public's trust in science.

What do the studies show?

The first and obvious response to my argument could be that research has indeed shown that gun-control laws reduce gun violence. Thorp took this approach. Citing a 2017 analysis, he argued that

extending criminal sentences for gun use in violent crime, prohibiting gun ownership by individuals convicted of domestic violence, and restricting the concealed carry of firearms lead to demonstrable reductions in gun violence. It’s not a stretch to assume that further restrictions would save even more lives.

It's actually more of a stretch than Thorp lets on. There are quite a few studies that seem to vindicate gun control, but many others don't. According to one study, for example, which looked at the influence of guns in the home on suicide and violent crime globally, “no significant correlations with total suicide or homicide rates were found, leaving open the question of possible substitution effects.” If Thorp's “sensible gun control” recommendations are so effective, why aren't their effects seen consistently around the world? Even US states with strict gun laws struggle to contain gun-related crime.

One possible explanation is that violent criminals get creative when their access to firearms is restricted. Research has shown that homicide rates in the Soviet Union were higher than those in the US, despite the USSR's outright ban on handgun ownership and restrictions on other firearms. NPR reported in 2013 that this disparity between America and Russia persisted long after the Soviet Union dissolved:

There are fewer than 13 million firearms in circulation in Russia, compared with an estimated 300 million in the United States. That works out to about 9 guns per 100 people in Russia and closed to 100 guns per 100 people in America. The most recent homicide statistics for Russia show that there were 21,603 killings in 2009. According to the FBI, the United States had 13,636 homicides in 2009 with a population that is more than twice as large. More than 80 percent of those killings were gun-related.”

Russia also enacted additional gun-control measures just last year in response to a deadly school shooting. Does this evidence settle the debate? Hardly. The gun-control fight will probably continue until the end of time. But Thorp did not address any of the evidence discussed above, yet he felt justified in declaring that “Restrictions work, and it’s likely that even more limitations would save thousands of lives.”

It's complicated

I suspect gun control remains a popular policy because it seems an easy solution to a tragic problem. People are shooting each other at alarming rates! Just take away the guns. Lemon squeezy, right? Not exactly. It turns out that violent crime is a complex problem that has more to do with the perpetrators than their weapons.

We know this, in part, because violent behavior isn't a trait evenly distributed throughout a population. According to a 2018 analysis, "... a relatively small subset of individuals is responsible for the vast majority of violent crime." This means we may be able to identify the risk factors that lead to violent crime.

Two of the best predictors of violent behavior are repeated exposure to physical violence and substance abuse. Children (up to age 14) raised in broken families are also more likely to receive a criminal conviction by age 50 than those living in two-parent homes. Even having multiple sexual partners and casual attitudes about sex seem to predict violent behavior.

I eagerly await Science's demand that we all get married, stay married, and reduce the number of our sexual partners. The journal would surely never publish that sort of moralistic opinion piece because commenting on people's sexual proclivities in such a manner is unfashionable today. But if Science won't champion the nuclear family as a means of reducing violent crime, the magazine should similarly refrain from lecturing everybody about gun control. We have to address all the relevant data, not just the pieces that fit a certain political outlook.


Science is a forum where researchers can publish their original research. It's not the place to complain about “the National Rifle Association and their well-funded political lackeys,” as Thorp did, nor claim that “unfettered gun ownership by American citizens is not consistent with a flourishing country.”

A majority of Americans share my view here. Sixty percent of us do not want public health institutions involved in efforts to address gun violence and deaths, found a 2021 survey from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. It's important that scientists take results like these seriously. When researchers ignore the public's concerns, the public begins to ignore what experts say altogether. We saw this very clearly during the pandemic.

With all this in mind, I respectfully encourage Thorp and everyone else in science media to stick to—wait for it—science! Quit using your platform as a vehicle for political activism. We all agree that school shootings are tragic and less gun violence is a desirable goal. As a new dad, I can only pray that I never have to experience what those parents in Uvalde are going through now. But rehashing the same partisan bromides doesn't get us any closer to solving the problem. 


[1] If it needs to be said, ACSH is adamantly pro-vaccine, as am I.