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Laws and regulations designed to improve safety and prevent harm need to be built on evidence and properly evaluated. Associate Professor David Humphreys’ research at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention seeks to understand how public policy can affect health and wellbeing, for better or worse.

Chelsea fans at pub Chelsea fans, Railway Tavern, City of London - Salim Fadley, CC BY-SA 2.0

Where guns and alcohol are concerned, it makes sense to create laws that reduce violence and harm. But have laws that aim to reshape or control people’s behaviour actually made things better?

Dr David Humphreys at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention has examined laws on key issues such as alcohol licensing in the UK and self defence laws in the US, and found that both evidence and evaluation are often thin on the ground. In the absence of these, a well-intentioned law may end up making little difference, or – more worryingly – actually make a situation worse.

The UK Licensing Act (2003) introduced 24-hour licensing, allowing premises to serve alcohol whenever they wanted. The idea was that abolishing the fixed closing time of 11pm – when most alcohol-related violence happened – would reduce violence, but there was little hard evidence that this would happen.

Dr Humphreys’ own research, carried out in Manchester, found no significant difference in levels of violence before and after the Licensing Act became law. So while the Licensing Act hasn’t actively made matters worse, it seems that it has failed to achieve its main aim. A House of Lords Select Committee has now been set up to review the Act’s effectiveness, and in 2016 Dr Humphreys presented his findings to committee members.

In the US, however, it seems that new ‘stand your ground’ laws (allowing people to use lethal force if they believe themselves to be in danger) have made things worse. Dr Humphreys analysed homicides in Florida before and after the state introduced a ‘stand your ground’ law in 2005, and found that rates of homicide (especially by firearm) increased dramatically after 2005.

However well-intentioned laws may be, Dr Humphreys’ research shows that enacting laws in the absence of sound evidence can have disastrous consequences.