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The Politic Blog

Moving the Gun Debate Forward: Policy Solutions for U.S. Mass Shootings

At this point, the statistics are probably quite familiar. Americans own 48% of the 650 million civilian-owned guns worldwide. Since the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012, there have been 1,907 mass shootings in the United States, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which defines mass shootings as those in which four or more people were killed or injured, not including the shooter. In 2018 alone, 360 people have been killed and 1,276 wounded in 321 mass shootings.

But after every mass shooting that hits the headlines, Americans undergo the same routine. People rush to one side of the ideological spectrum, and the conversation loses its grounding in what actually happened and how it could have been stopped. The urge to invoke vague national mantras about gun reform precedes the conversation about policy and prevention.

In discussing actual policy solutions, Americans can have more productive conversations in their attempt to end the bloodshed. In this article, I hope to use the details of various recent mass shootings—how they transpired, who were the perpetrators, and how the guns were acquired—to shed light on what this country can do to prevent the next attack.

Increasing Age Limits

In the 2018 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, gunman Nikolas Cruz killed 17 students and staff members. Cruz was 19 at the time of the attack and when he purchased the gun that he used in the shooting, a Smith & Wesson M&P 15 military-style rifle. Under federal law, rifles and long guns can be sold to anyone over 18, while handguns can only be sold to people 21 and over. One policy solution for this kind of shooting would be to raise the rifle purchase age to 21.

After all, young people are more likely to commit homicide, reported a federal study of homicide trends from 1980 to 2008. Approximately half of murderers during this time period were under age 25. Preventing younger people from acquiring rifles and long guns could have a major impact on national gun violence.

Gunmen under the age of 21 using either an assault rifle or a semiautomatic rifle committed 13 mass shootings between 2009 and 2016, according to Everytown for Gun Safety. While the Gun Violence Archive includes injuries in their definition, this organization defines a mass shooting as one in which four or more people are killed, excluding the shooter.

While it is true that those who would have been stopped by age restrictions only make up about 8% of the total shootings in this time period and many of them purchased their arms illegally, the impact of increasing the age limit for rifle purchases cannot be ignored. Had Cruz been prevented from purchasing a rifle due to a federally mandated age limit, 17 more people might still be alive today.

Safe-Storage Laws

A stronger critique of increasing the age limit for purchasing rifles is that individuals under 21 banned from obtaining a gun legally will manage to do so anyway. Sandy Hook is a case in point. Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old gunman who murdered 27 people at an elementary school, stole his weapons from his mother Nancy, which she had purchased legally in her name. In another instance, 19-year-old Robert Hawkins killed eight people in the Westroads Mall in Nebraska in 2007. He had stolen his AK-47 from his stepfather, who also purchased the guns legally.  

But the claim merely proves that there would be a need for additional precautions on top of the age limit, not that the limit itself would be entirely ineffective. One additional reform would be to increase federal safe-storage laws—that is, requiring gun owners to either store their firearms securely in locked containers or disable their firearms with a gun lock when it is not being used. Such laws are aimed at keeping guns out of the reach of children, thieves, or any other illegal or unlicensed user.

Safe-storage laws could have been a preventative mechanism against the two shootings mentioned above. Even if safe-storage laws do not succeed in preventing a given shooting, they would justly penalize neglectful gun owners in the aftermath who helped facilitate the shooter’s access to weapons. Moreover, such a penalty would then encourage future gun owners to be more careful with how they store their firearms.

In the United States, around two million minors live in homes where loaded guns are easily accessible. A 2004 federal study showed that 68% of school shootings are committed using arms acquired from the shooter’s home or the home of their relatives. These figures and the actions of Lanza and Hawkins point to the importance of safe-storage laws in preventing future mass shootings.

Improving Background Checks

The 1994 Brady Law put into place a federal background check system that has prevented 2.4 million potential gun owners from purchasing a firearm. Most of these individuals were rejected on the basis of past convictions for a felony or mental health concerns.

But multiple mass shootings point to the ineffectiveness of the current background check system—it is simply not doing enough. In the 2017 shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas in which 25 people were killed, gunman Devin Patrick Kelley was convicted of domestic violence while in the Air Force. But the military never informed the FBI of Kelley’s criminal record. Without any information about the felony in his background check, Kelley was able to purchase a gun that he used to kill dozens of innocent people.

In the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, which claimed 9 lives, gunman Dylann Roof was able to purchase a gun despite a drug conviction. The felony, again, did not show up on his record, and so he passed his background check and acquired his gun legally.  

The core trend here is that the background check system places greater priority on easy access to guns than on precautions to prevent convicted felons and the mentally ill from acquiring those weapons. Most background checks take a few minutes—95% of them are over in less than two hours. Indeed, all the gun dealer has to do is call the FBI or a state agency and wait for them to indicate if the buyer has a problematic record. Even if there were many red flags in the buyer’s past, such as repeated complaints to police or—for youth—an alarming school disciplinary history, as long as no disqualifying record is present in the database, the gunman is allowed to purchase the weapon. This is what enabled Kelley to purchase his firearm, despite a previous conviction in the military justice system.  

A similar instance occurred with the Virginia Tech shooter in 2007. The gunman was able to purchase his weapon legally despite a Virginia court’s earlier determination that he was dangerously mentally ill. Again, the court’s adjudication was never entered into the background check database. Huge gaps remain in the system, allowing far too many dangerous individuals to fall through the cracks.

A major problem is that law enforcement also has little power to improve background checks on its own and expand the process beyond a simple database check. In advance of the Parkland shooting, the police were called 20 times concerning Cruz’s suspicious or problematic behavior. Cruz was also suspended from school for fighting and expelled for disciplinary reasons. His high school at one point needed to call a mobile crisis unit to provide him with counseling. Through all this and more, local law enforcement still had no legal basis under federal or Florida law to prevent him from acquiring a firearm. Had the background check system required authorities to contact local police, school officials, or even Cruz’s mother, it would have been clear that the individual should never have been able to buy a gun.     

The Terrorist Watch List

A related but distinct problem is that people previously on the no-fly list—a subset of the FBI’s larger terrorist watch list—are still able to easily acquire firearms. Prior to the 2016 shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, gunman Omar Mateen had been investigated twice by the FBI and was placed on the terrorist watch list.  

Because Mateen was off the FBI list by 2014, he was able to buy his weapons legally from a local store in 2016. And yet, the Orlando shooting draws attention to a major policy flaw.

Being on a terrorist watch list is not a disqualifying factor for purchasing a gun. While Americans allowed to buy guns made up only 2% of the terrorist watch list in 2014, prohibiting people under active investigation from purchasing a firearm still seems like a no-brainer.

The Government Accountability Office, Congress’s nonpartisan investigative agency, claimed that from the time the background check system started to monitor the terrorist watch list in February 2004 until 2015, 2,477 people on the watch list applied to purchase a gun or explosive. And of that number, 91%, 2,265 people, were able to go through with the purchase legally.

Banning Assault Weapons

Perhaps the most contentious policy solution in the gun debate is banning assault weapons altogether. After all, such guns—namely the AR-15—were used in some of the most deadly recent mass shootings, including the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the Parkland shooting, the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, the Virginia Tech shooting, and the Sutherland Springs shooting. These weapons permit the shooter to fire multiple bullets without reloading.

Congress tried to outlaw assault weapons in 1994, with mixed results. The ban on certain semiautomatic weapons and large-capacity magazines did not cause a marked decline in overall homicide rates as compared with the period after the ban expired in 2004, when gun homicide rates continued to decline. But the ban did cause a decrease in the number of people killed from mass shootings, according to an article in The Washington Post. And as of 2012, the number of mass shootings per year had doubled since the ban expired. Still, without additional evidence, experts remain hesitant to draw sweeping conclusions about the ban’s overall effect.

Asking the Right Questions

Although the evidence supporting these reforms is strong, the issues are always more complicated than they appear. Asking difficult questions about these potential policies is a way to make them even stronger and more useful to the American public.

For example, regarding expanding background checks, it is important to examine the correlation between convictions for a felony and the propensity to commit another crime. If a potential gun owner was convicted of a crime punishable by imprisonment for over a year—the federal standard for denying gun ownership—is that person necessarily more likely to use a gun for harm? What if the crime had nothing to do with guns or violence in the first place?

Furthermore, are a series of phone calls to the police or a suspension from school really enough to disqualify one from owning a firearm? In the case of Cruz, it was particularly clear that he should not have been able to possess a firearm. But what about the next potential gun-owner, one who got into some trouble at school but otherwise had a clean record? What are the exact standards that the country can put in place across the board?

And lastly, is it discriminatory to prevent people suffering from mental health issues from participating in a right—purchasing a firearm—that other people have? Indeed, both the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) backed the Trump administration and Congress in blocking an Obama-era regulation that required the Social Security Administration to share information with the FBI about people receiving disability benefits due to serious mental health issues. The rule was supposed to make it easier for the FBI to notice these mental health issues in doing background checks for firearm purchases. The NRA and ACLU, whose supporters often find themselves on opposite sides of the political spectrum, argued that the regulation violated people’s Second Amendment rights without due process.

None of these questions have simple answers, but asking them is a crucial prerequisite to implementing real policy solutions.

Putting Things into Perspective

This article set out to focus on ways that government policy can prevent future mass shootings. But in 2016, while there were 39,000 gun-related deaths, mass shootings accounted for only 2% of that total, 456. Over 14,000 were homicides, and almost 23,000 were suicides. Because mass shootings receive the most media coverage, it seems like they are the greatest source of gun death in the country. They are not.

“I would hope that we can get to a place where a death in Baltimore matters just as much to people as deaths in suburban Florida,” said Matt Post ’22, student activist and national field strategist for the March for Our Lives movement.

“If you look at the people who… the media cares about, it’s affluent white people.”

But just because mass shootings account for a small percentage of total gun death does not mean that there are not real policy solutions to prevent them from occurring, nor does it mean that those policies are any less important to implement.

Looking Forward: Marching and Mobilizing

Talking about real policy solutions to major mass shootings is a way to alter the terms of debate. By honing in on what allowed each mass shooting to occur, Americans can have more fruitful conversations—in Congress or at the dinner table—about how to stop the next attack. What better way to honor the victims than to work to ensure that no American ever suffers the same fate?

Indeed, there have been instances in which a mass shooting and the response of activists and lawmakers actually changed the national conversation. In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, Connecticut passed one of the strongest gun laws in the country. The 2013 legislation mandated universal background checks for all firearms purchases—not just those from federally licensed dealers. The bill also added 100 firearms to the state’s ban on assault weapons, including the AR-15 that Lanza used to carry out the shooting.

After the school shooting in Parkland this year, over a million people participated in the student-led March for Our Lives demonstration. The marches occurred across the country, even in traditionally pro-gun regions like upstate New York. Hearing the harrowing stories of high school students huddled under their desks in fear of losing their lives, the country simply could not look away.

“There have been 50 gun laws passed in 12 states since Parkland. At the state level and city level especially, it’s a lot easier to get things done,” said Post.

“As my friends in Parkland like to say, it’s not a moment, it’s a movement.”