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In Pursuit of ‘Good Laws’


This philosophy, says John Donohue ’74, is what drives his work. Donohue is a leading legal scholar who hopes his recent research on right-to-carry gun laws will help inform the U.S. Supreme Court as it considers a Second Amendment case heard in December.

Donohue, an economist and the C. Wendell and Edith M. Carlsmith Professor of Law at Stanford Law School, is well known for applying evidence-based analysis to inform the impact of law and public policy. His latest long-range study, released recently by the National Bureau of Economic Research, finds that right-to-carry laws indeed make a difference in violent crime: they can increase it by as much as 15%.

“The U.S. is alone among affluent nations in its level of homicidal violence,” Donohue says. “Since I got interested in why crime was spiking so sharply during the Reagan and first Bush administrations, it was natural to investigate how our uniquely lax regulations and massive prevalence of guns were influencing these unfortunate events.”

He first became interested in gun research 20 years ago when Ian Ayres, the William K. Townsend Professor of Law at Yale Law School, asked him to help review John Lott’s book More Guns, Less Crime. Decades of research have led to Donohue’s 2019 publication “Right-to-Carry Laws and Violent Crime: A Comprehensive Assessment Using Panel Data and a State-Level Synthetic Control Analysis” that takes a hard look at violent crime in states that have adopted right-to-carry concealed handgun laws.

To determine the impact of these laws, Donohue and his team used a technique called synthetic control analysis. “What we will do is try to look at states that have not adopted right-to-carry [laws] at the time when, let’s say, Texas adopts, in 1996,” Donohue told the Los Angeles Times in a question-and-answer piece back when the study was first released. “We will look at the crime pattern that Texas had the 15 years before they adopted the right-to-carry law and see if there are other states we can think of as a composite of Texas, that mimic that identical pattern of crime that Texas had prior to 1996.”

Researchers then take that composite of other states and see what happened there after 1996. The difference between that number and what actually did happen in Texas after 1996 becomes a prediction of what the impact of Texas passing the right-to-carry law has been on violent crime.

Donohue and co-authors Abhay Aneja and Kylie Weber found that over a 10-year span, states that implemented right-to-carry laws saw a 15% increase in violent crime rates. “To give a sense of what it costs to address such an increase,” Donohue says, “it would take a doubling of the current U.S. prison population to reduce the crime rate by about 15%.”

Donohue hopes his findings will prove helpful to members of the Supreme Court, who heard oral arguments in the case New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. City of New York on Dec. 3. At stake: the constitutional right to carry a gun outside of the home. The NRA hopes that the court will expand the Second Amendment and curtail other gun safety measures. Donohue says that, “An NRA affiliate paid one of the nation’s highest-priced oral advocates to push for an expanded notion of the Second Amendment beyond the individual constitutional right to have a gun in the home for self-defense. The Supreme Court created this for the first time in its 2008 decision in Heller.”

I hope that my latest work will inform the U.S. Supreme Court that the costs in increased violent crime of expanding the Second Amendment from a right to have a gun in the home, to a right to have a gun anywhere, would not be small.

A pivotal part of this decision will be the vote of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, a former student of Donohue’s, who had previously written a decision that, although rejected by his two fellow Republican judges, would have ruled that the Second Amendment prohibits bans on assault weapons. Nevertheless, Donohue believes his work will speak for itself and help inform some of the justices. “Since my work has documented the lapse of the federal assault weapons ban has ushered in a 10-fold increase in deaths from mass shootings, I think any Supreme Court decision that stripped the American people of the ability to address the serious problems of gun violence would be both unwise and highly antidemocratic,” he says.

At a more local level, Donohue’s research has already swayed courts. The University of Missouri’s 60-year ban of guns on campus was recently upheld, even as Missouri now allows 19-year-olds to carry concealed weapons without a permit. “I was the expert witness [in the case] that found that any form of gun regulation must undergo strict scrutiny before it can be permitted,” Donohue says. “But the court concluded that our evidence in support of the University of Missouri’s ban of guns on campus was sufficient to sustain the gun ban.

“I hope that my latest work will inform the U.S. Supreme Court that the costs in increased violent crime of expanding the Second Amendment from a right to have a gun in the home, to a right to have a gun anywhere, would not be small,” Donohue adds. “It will be interesting to see if the Supreme Court will be moved by the best empirical evidence on the impact of their forthcoming decision.”

No matter the future of gun rights, Donohue will continue to conduct research into policy areas where he can impact change. “I am working on three books — on empirical evaluation of law and policy, on drug policy, and on the battle that led to the abolition of the death penalty in Connecticut,” he says. He is also continuing his investigation into the relationship between legalized abortion and crime, and racial bias in the administration of the death penalty in Texas.

To Donohue, his work is about trying to advance social welfare. “I am trying to advance our knowledge in a way that will promote better laws and policies. My work has largely been driven by the realization that wise law and policy make an enormous difference in the lives of individuals,” he says.

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