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The Journal Gazette

  • Madeira

Wednesday, October 04, 2017 1:00 am

FACTS of the MATTER

In gun debate, it's important to gather, weigh all the evidence

Jody LyneÚ Madeira

Jody LyneÚ Madeira is a professor of law and Louis F. Niezer Faculty Fellow at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law.

What is a fact?

This simple question was raised time and again with respect to permitless carry on Sept. 7, when members of an Indiana General Assembly study committee called for “facts” while questioning research linking increased crime and firearm homicide rates to laws that make it easier to carry a handgun.

This word is pretty easy to define. Merriam-Webster says a fact is “a piece of information presented as having objective reality.” At the inaugural permitless carry hearing on Aug. 22, committee members demanded just this: empirical evidence regarding permitless carry. One legislator grilled representatives of the Fraternal Order of Police and the Indiana Sheriffs' Association, who oppose permitless carry, as to whether they had comprehensively surveyed their members. This same legislator accepted the National Rifle Association lobbyist's bare assertion that its membership wholeheartedly supportedápermitless carry.

On Sept. 7, several expert witnesses shared their research, discussing at length studies describing the legal and public health consequences of “right to carry” laws and permit regulation repeals. Afterward, however, a handful still claimed to be hungry for “the facts.” This suggests that, to some, “facts” are only favorable “information presented as having objective reality.” But it's hard to argue that the data presented did not have an objective reality; it had been published in leading journals and subjected to peer review.

Yet, such disputes over “facts” are part of a disturbing trend in the age of perpetual “fake news” allegations. In a Feb. 7 House Public Policy Committee hearing on HB 1071 (allowing people with protective orders to carry firearms without a license), the bill's author said, “You know, we've heard a lot of statistics, assumptions, mindsets, data; I don't care about that.” If research studies and statistical evidenceá– routine, essential ingredients to public policy decisionsá– are not “facts,” it seems unlikely that facts demonstrating that permitless carry can be dangerous could ever seem meaningful.

It's also more and more common to believe that “facts” are completely distinguishable from “emotions.” Under conventional Second Amendment wisdom, folks who prefer looser firearms regulation often claim the “factual” high ground, portraying folks advocating restrictions as mucking about in “emotional” swamps. Yet the distinction between the two is much less clear cut. Emotions can be factual, and facts can induce emotions.

This is why both gun violence survivors' stories and research studies are invaluable evidence to permitless carry debates. Survivors' testimony, though emotional, is also factual. Fact: Witness Deandra Yates' 13-year-old son was shot attending a party and cannot talk or control basic bodily functions.

Conversely, expert statistical testimony, though factual, is also emotional. Fact: One peer-reviewed study concluded that Missouri's repeal of “permit to purchase” regulation created a 29.4 percent increase in homicides the very next year. This translates into an additional 55 to 63 murdersá– a fact that is undeniably emotional.

When we cannot accept these informational sources as factual, we adhere instead to the counterfactual –áprivileging unsubstantiated anecdotes, hunches and other unsound means of making policy decisions. Merriam-Webster defines “counterfactual” as “contrary to fact.” This approach presents a very real threat to policymaking, which should be informed by both sound expert data and citizens' experiences.

We need our elected representatives to make evidence-based decisions. When our legislators ask for “just the facts” on permitless carry, they need to take a critical look at all the evidence.

The current summer study committee provides them with an excellent opportunity to do so.