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C. Eugene Emery Jr.
By C. Eugene Emery Jr. April 10, 2013

Facebook post ignores caveats in citing Harvard study on gun laws

Does having more gun laws in a state result in fewer gun deaths? You would think so if you've seen the recent Facebook posting, created by a group called Anti-Republican Crusaders and shared more than 1,700 times on that and another Facebook page.

The posting has the Joe Friday character from TV's "Dragnet" saying, "Just the facts, ma'am," followed by this headline: "Harvard Study Finds States With Most Gun Laws Have Fewest Gun Deaths."

There's also a color-coded U.S. map showing the states with the most laws and fewest deaths.

We wondered if the Harvard study did, in fact, prove that point.

The Facebook posts send readers to a study published online by JAMA Internal Medicine (not the Journal of the American Medical Association, a separate medical journal, as the post reports). The team led by Eric Fleegler of Harvard and Boston Children's Hospital created a "legislative strength score" to gauge which states had more gun laws. Then they compared that to the state-by-state firearms death rate.

The more gun laws a state had, the lower the rate.

That may sound conclusive, but there's a huge caveat. As the researchers concluded: "Our study could not determine cause-and-effect relationships."

There could be many other factors, such as the rate of gun ownership or a state’s culture of gun ownership..

Curious Facebook readers might have uncovered this if they followed a link to an interview with Fleegler conducted by Robin Young on the March 13, 2013, edition of "Here & Now," the news program produced by WBUR in Boston. Young zeroed in on the same problem, asking if the relevant factor could be a state's gun culture.

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Fleegler acknowledged the point. "[It] may be true that there are states [where people] don't own a lot of guns, they're OK with passing legislation [and] they have lower rates of firearm deaths," he said.

Dr. Garen Wintemute of the University of California-Davis School of Medicine, was even blunter in a commentary that JAMA Internal Medicine released at the same time.

When the Fleegler team took into account the amount of gun ownership, "the association between firearm laws and firearm fatalities essentially disappeared," he wrote.

Another key shortcoming of the study: The scorecard used to assess how many laws a state has "does not account for variations between states in the specifics of their laws and includes no measure of whether or how effectively the states enforce them."

Wintemute noted that while gun laws were almost certainly enacted to reduce criminal violence, their real impact was a reduction in suicide, which "accounted for 94 percent of the observed decrease in firearm-related mortality."

Fleegler, in his "Here & Now" interview, noted that suicide was a key factor because when people think of killing themselves, the presence of a gun means they will succeed 85 percent of the time compared to close to 2 percent when they don't have a firearm available.

In the end, when the Facebook posting says "Harvard Study Finds States With Most Gun Laws Have Fewest Gun Deaths," it is correctly summarizing one finding of the study. But it leaves out important details and context that argue against the idea that reducing gun deaths is simply a matter of blindly passing more gun laws in each state.

For that reason, we rate it Half True.

(If you have a claim you’d like PolitiFact Rhode Island to check, e-mail us at [email protected]. And follow us on Twitter: @politifactri.)

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Facebook post ignores caveats in citing Harvard study on gun laws

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