In the midst of frantic calls for action after school shootings, like the one earlier this year in Uvalde, Texas, Jennifer Doleac’s measured response stands out: Policymakers don’t really know what would help, because — while every school shooting is a tragedy — these events are rare and thus hard to study.
Hasty reactions to a single, widely publicized event are rarely the best long-term solution. Sometimes, it can even make things worse. After the Sandy Hook school shooting, as Doleac points out in her 2018 article for The Regulatory Review, people worried about violent crime purchased more guns, which, inevitably, led to a matching spike in gun homicides and accidental deaths.
As an associate professor of economics at Texas A&M University, Doleac looks at criminal justice policy through the lens of causal factors on a society-wide level. She founded Doleac Initiatives, a policy research nonprofit, and runs a podcast about law, crime, and economics. Across her work, she uses careful, data-based analyses to unpack systemic factors like poverty that influence gun deaths, particularly gun homicides, and what social programs actually address them. She also digs through the crime literature, synthesizing and signal-boosting other researchers’ work that she believes calls for further study or investment via her Twitter, interviews, and articles.
Some of her most valuable work is in helping people think through what the data appears to show. Because gun laws in a region are already heavily tied to existing public opinion, Doleac warns that the data on gun restrictions that find reductions in gun ownership or gun-related deaths shouldn’t be taken at face value, since people in regions that pass gun control laws are more likely to have generally anti-gun sentiments.
Since most research on the ramifications of gun laws doesn’t allow for natural experiments, Doleac focuses on the interventions that do — for example, the varying times of the youth curfew in Washington, DC.
There are other effective ways to reduce gun deaths that aren’t mired by politics or by confounding factors, Doleac points out. For example, when I interviewed her in May, she highlighted the work done by researcher Sara Heller and her colleagues showing that cognitive behavioral therapy programs for vulnerable youth lowered violent crime arrest by up to 50 percent — a vastly stronger effect than the mandatory waiting periods.
These programs may be hard to implement widely, but Doleac believes that summer job programs, like the youth job lottery in New York City, are much easier to scale and can reduce mortality for the youth included by 18 to 20 percent, as Judd Kessler and colleagues at J-PAL found. “When policymakers and practitioners ask me what they can do, what’s a reliable way to reduce crime in general and violent crime in particular, summer jobs are always the first thing I bring up,” Doleac said.
Doleac has looked into a long list of similar interventions, including the effects of air pollution on gun crime, which she hopes will be less politicized and more feasible to implement. Setting policy in an area with so many competing and confounding factors, and often limited data on outcomes, is always going to be a challenge and an ongoing process, but — and this is what makes her essential — Doleac takes the long view.