Ending the carnage

Twenty-five ideas to reduce gun violence in the era of mass shootings

The gunman in the Mandalay Bay Hotel room in Las Vegas was able to fire nine rounds per second using a bump stock

The gunman in the Mandalay Bay Hotel room in Las Vegas was able to fire nine rounds per second using a bump stock

Photo by HåkanDahlström/creativecommons

About this story:
A version of this article first appeared in the Inlander, a weekly based in Spokane, Wash.

Here’s the good news: America, overall, is a much less violent place than it used to be. Our reported violent-crime rate is almost half what it was in 1991. But here’s the bad: Mass shootings haven’t decreased. In fact, they’ve become even deadlier.

In 2010, the World Health Organization found that the United States’ gun-homicide rates were more than 25 times higher than in any other high-income country. And that was before Las Vegas. And before Parkland, Fla. We’ve witnessed 19 of the 30 deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history during the past decade.

It isn’t just about murders. The suicide rate has been skyrocketing as well, reaching a 30-year high in 2016. More than half were with firearms.

Today, high school and middle school students have risen up in protests and marches after the Parkland shooting, demanding that something be done.

But what?

We looked at ideas to reduce gun violence, weighing the results of academic research and the analysis of experts. Here are the proposals likely to reduce gun violence and save lives:

1. Plug the holes

Gaps in the federal background check system (the National Instant Criminal Background Check System) allow domestic abusers, convicted felons and people with mental illness to purchase guns.

Roughly 20 percent of Americans purchase guns without a background check. A 2013 survey of prisoners locked up for gun violence found that more than 96 percent of offenders, who were legally prohibited from owning guns, had purchased them without a background check.

Experts point to three major holes:

1. In most states, gun buyers are able to purchase firearms from unlicensed dealers who aren’t required to run a background check at all. After Missouri stopped requiring background checks for all firearm purchases, researchers found a 25 percent increase in firearm homicides.

2. If the FBI doesn’t complete a background check in three business days, licensed dealers are free to sell the gun anyway. This is how the man who killed nine parishioners inside a church in Charleston, S.C., bought a gun.

3. The federal definition of “domestic abuser” doesn’t include unmarried or childless couples. Many states, including Oregon this year, have closed the so-called “Boyfriend Loophole.”

Strengthening the federal background-check system is one of the most feasible and most effective measures to reduce gun violence. States that require universal background checks have lower gun-death rates, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics show. Surveys show overwhelming public support.

2. Let people sue gun makers (again)

It’s the American way: If a product is killing an unbelievable number of people, the proper remedy is to sue the hell out of whoever made that product. This, after all, was the plot of the 2003 John Grisham movie adaptation Runaway Jury.

But since 2005, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act made gun manufacturers and dealers essentially legally bulletproof.

A victim can still sue if a gun, for example, malfunctions and explodes—but not if a teenager uses it to kill 14 of his classmates. Guns are meant to kill, the Republican argument went, so why should people be able to sue when the gun has done what it was built to do?

Remove the shield, a recent op-ed in The New York Times pointed out, and that means gun manufacturers suddenly would have a financial incentive, like every other industry, to make their products safer—likely preventing more accidental shootings.

3. Lift the research ban

From 2004 to 2014, gun violence killed about as many people as the life-threatening health complication known as sepsis, but funding for gun violence research was only about 0.7 percent of the amount spent to study sepsis, according to a 2017 research letter in the Journal of the American Medical Association. In fact, the researchers found that gun violence was the least researched cause of death, in relation to mortality rate, and only research into deaths by falling are funded less.

The nonpartisan RAND Corp. looked at thousands of U.S. gun-regulation studies and found that, in many areas, there just wasn’t enough research to definitively show effects one way or another. The lack of research in certain areas muddles debates over policies, like some listed in this story.

Part of what has stymied gun research in the U.S. is the 1996 “Dickey Amendment,” which prevents the CDC from spending money on activities that “advocate or promote gun control.” Former Arkansas Rep. Jay Dickey, a Republican and the amendment’s namesake, told NPR he never intended for the amendment to cut off federal gun research altogether, only gun-regulation advocacy, and regrets that the effect was to essentially halt research in the area.

This March, President Donald Trump signed a spending bill that left the Dickey Amendment in place but clarifies that the CDC can research the causes of gun violence. It’s not clear yet if federal research will increase, though, as no funding for gun-violence research was included.

4. Copy the Aussies

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have both pointed to Australia as a model of how dramatic gun regulation can make a nation safer. It’s also about as close to “taking your guns” as the mainstream gun-control movement gets.

Here are the facts: There were 13 mass shootings in 18 years before Australia’s sweeping National Firearms Agreement in 1997. In the 20 years after, there’s been one. While skeptics quibble with whether the law can be entirely credited, the country’s already-low firearm homicide rate fell further—and suicides plunged.

The flashiest piece of the program featured a mandatory buyback program that gathered around 650,000 firearms—a full fifth of the country’s arsenal. However, today Australia has about as many guns as before the buyback.

Instead, the key, as the Science Vs. podcast explains, seemed to be the thicket of other laws that came with it, including a ban on semi-automatic and pump-action rifles and shotguns. You have to show a good reason to own a gun—and self-defense doesn’t count. You can sell only through a licensed dealer. You have to register your gun and report if it’s stolen.

Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers opposes efforts to raise the age for buying rifles to 21.

Photo courtesy of the Inlander

Much of the Australia program would also almost certainly be struck down by the Supreme Court—and the cultural and physical geography of the United States would create serious regulatory challenges. But even some pieces of Australia’s gun-regulation program, when combined, could seriously reduce deaths.

5. Track ’em

One of the most effective parts of Australia’s strategy was simply creating a gun registry—and then enforcing it.

The potential benefits are clear, particularly when combined with a requirement that lost or stolen guns are reported: It’s a way to close the loophole of “straw purchasers”—where a person illegally buys a gun for somebody else ineligible to purchase one. It hands law enforcement officers the ability to actually identify which guns are stolen—cracking down on both illicit arms traders and allowing cops to get convictions for thieves. And it encourages gun owners to do a better job of safely securing their weapons.

A 2002 report from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives concluded that about 85 percent of criminal gun owners weren’t the original purchaser of their gun.

6. Background checks and tracking ammo

Only a handful of states currently have laws regulating the purchase of ammunition. Federal law does not currently require ammo purchasers to submit to a background check.

This year, congressional Democrats introduced a bill that would establish a federal background check system for ammo. U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Florida), one of the sponsors of the bill, has said it would plug an “absurd loophole” that allows people to “amass hundreds of rounds of ammunition without so much as sharing their first name with a gun store clerk.”

Starting in 2019, California will require ammo vendors to report bullet sales to the state’s Department of Justice and conduct background checks on ammunition sales. New York and New Jersey have similar laws.

While the NRA has opposed such proposals, a 2013 Fox News poll found 80 percent of respondents were in favor of ammunition background checks.

And a study in the journal Injury Prevention analyzing school shootings between 2013 and 2015 found that states with ammunition background checks (along with other factors) have lower rates of school shooting incidents.

7. Ban high-capacity magazines

To trained hands, reloading a weapon is second nature, like wiping your brow or cracking your knuckles. The rounds run out, the bolt slams forward, the magazine drops with a simple push of a finger and a new magazine is inserted. It takes a few seconds.

But in a mass shooting, those seconds can buy people time to get to safety—or disarm the shooter. At Seattle Pacific University in 2014, an unarmed student used pepper spray to subdue a shooter while he was reloading.

And as advocates of high-capacity magazine bans point out, you wouldn’t need more than 10 rounds before reloading to kill a deer.

High-capacity magazines and the weapons capable of bearing them, including handguns, were disproportionately recovered by police in connection with violent crimes in Baltimore, Minneapolis and Richmond. These same types of magazines were used in the 2017 Las Vegas shooting. Ultimately, reducing the number of rounds that can be shot from any weapon will reduce its lethality.

8. Lock ’em up

An eighth-grade school shooter in Townville, S.C., The Washington Post reported, thought he’d be able to kill at least 50 of his classmates—150 if he got lucky. But he couldn’t get into the gun safe where he thought his dad kept the powerful Ruger Mini-14 semi-automatic rifle. Instead, he settled for a pistol he found in his dad’s dresser—a pistol that jammed after he shot several elementary school students. He didn’t notice that the rifle hadn’t actually been locked up either.

More than two-thirds of school shooters got their guns from their own homes or homes of relatives.

Massachusetts legally requires guns to be either kept in locked containers or protected with a trigger lock that prevents them from being fired. Gun-rights advocates strenuously objected, arguing that locking up their firearms made it nearly impossible to ward off a home invader.

But a 2015 Harvard University analysis found that victims using guns to ward off criminals were more likely to be injured than people who just tried to run away. By contrast, other studies have found that safe storage practices significantly reduce the risk of suicide and accidental gun deaths. Not only that, it makes it harder for thieves to steal them during a burglary.

9. Doctors and gun talk

The American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend doctors discuss guns with their patients to prevent accidental shootings and suicides. So far, the research on the effectiveness of doctors talking with patients about guns is limited and mixed, but it does seem to improve patients’ use of safe storage devices, especially when doctors actually give out the devices.

Not only that, but one 2000 American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry study found that after counseling from a psychiatrist, a third of the parents of suicidal teens removed firearms from their homes. With suicide, by far, the leading cause of deaths from firearms—that’s a big deal.

10. Ban bump stocks

When a mass shooter fires into a crowd with a semi-automatic rifle, how fast he can pull the trigger becomes a life-or-death question. In the Las Vegas shooting last October, the gunman in the Mandalay Bay Hotel room was able to fire nine rounds per second. That’s all thanks to a rifle modification called a bump stock, which harnesses the recoil of a weapon to allow a shooter to fire at speeds comparable to already-illegal automatic weapons.

After Las Vegas, banning bump stocks has become a rare measure even Republicans in Congress say they support—though, as of yet, not enough to actually pass federal legislation to ban them.

But the impact likely would be small. While fewer people may have died in Las Vegas if bump stocks were banned, the devices have rarely, if ever, been used in prior shootings.

11. Raise the age

Check out this absurdity: You can’t buy a handgun from a licensed dealer if you’re under 21. But if you’re 18, you can still buy an AR-15.

While Republicans like Washington state’s Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers argue that those old enough to join the Army should be able to privately own semi-automatic rifles, after the Parkland shooting, even gun-rights-loving Florida passed a bill that hiked the age to 21.

The reform is unlikely to have a dramatic impact on mass shootings, however: Out of the 156 mass shootings since 2009, a Vox piece explained, only one was committed by a gunman under 21 with a legally purchased semi-automatic rifle. So, gun-control advocates suggest going further: Raise the legal age for unlicensed dealers as well, barring informal gun-sellers—dealers at gun shows, for instance—and online stores from selling handguns and rifles. Heck, raise it to 25. Treat guns as seriously as rental cars. FBI data shows that more than half of firearm-homicide offenders from 2005 to 2015 were under 25.

12. Respond to red flags

The horror of the Parkland shooting was compounded by the fact that so many people knew that the shooter was a danger. Why didn’t anyone take away his weapons? They legally couldn’t. All the red flags in the world can’t do much if the cops don’t have a legal right to act on them.

It’s caused a number of states to enact “red flag” laws, giving cops the power to ask a court for a warrant to temporarily remove a person’s access to firearms if they’re an imminent danger to themselves or others.

In the 14 years after Connecticut implemented such a law in 1999, police temporarily removed an average of seven firearms from each at-risk gun owner across 762 firearm-removal cases, one study found. Often, those gun owners were connected with mental health treatment they wouldn’t have received otherwise. Ultimately, more than 100 suicides may have been prevented, the study estimated.

13. Empower family members

The profile of mass shooters can vary radically, but a few things keep popping up: They’re almost always men. And they very often have a history of domestic violence. In fact, more than half of the shootings from 2009 to 2016 tallied by Everytown for Gun Safety involved domestic or family violence.

It’s scary as hell to be a woman trapped in a violent relationship—it’s even scarier if he can kill you with the click of a trigger. It’s why some states have adopted the use of Gun Violence Restraining Orders.

Red-flag laws in states like California and Washington let family members, friends and employers—not just a police officer—ask a court to temporarily take away a person’s firearm access.

14. Alert the cops

Here’s a policy both Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and his counterpart Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson support: It requires federal officials to notify local authorities within 24 hours whenever someone tries to buy a gun but fails the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

15. Share records with the feds

Technically, federal law already prohibits people with a history of some mental health conditions from possessing guns. But the FBI’s federal background check system relies on states voluntarily reporting that information, and participation is spotty. A New York Times report in 2016 found that Pennsylvania had entered over 718,000 mental records into the federal background check system, for example, while Montana had entered in a grand total of four.

There are legitimate debates about which mental health conditions should exclude a person from gun ownership; the vast majority of people with mental health conditions, after all, are not violent. But as it stands, some states failing to share their information or properly enforce the law has allowed dangerous individuals like the Virginia Tech shooter to gain access to guns. Recent bipartisan legislation has directed grant money to help states better share that information.

16. Surrender their weapons

This legislative session, Washington state passed a first-of-its-kind law intended to prevent suicides. Citizens can now voluntarily waive their rights to own a gun by having their name added to a list of prohibited purchasers in the national background check database.

The new law outlines a process to make sure identities aren’t falsely added to the prohibited list, and also includes a way for people to restore their gun rights later.

Making it harder to access guns can stop suicides: About half of people who survived suicide attempts and were interviewed for studies said just a few minutes to half an hour passed between when they felt suicidal and when they attempted. Guns are more lethal than other suicide methods, leading to death more than 80 percent of the time.

Other means of voluntary gun surrender vary. Most law enforcement agencies and gun sellers are willing to temporarily store guns for people who are concerned their loved one is suicidal or worried about their gun being safely stored while they are away from home or have visitors over, according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health in October 2017. About 75 percent of the 448 law enforcement agencies in the eight states surveyed in the study already provided some form of temporary storage.

17. Require a police interview

In 1911, New York passed the Sullivan Act. In an interview on Slate’s podcast The Gist, Richard Aborn, president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, calls the act “possibly the most effective gun-control law in the history of the country.”

In New York, it generally takes about six months to get a gun after the applications, background check, safety training and an interview with a uniformed NYPD officer, Aborn says. New York also requires safe storage and reporting if a gun is lost or stolen and bans large-capacity magazines and assault-style weapons.

“The goal is not to prevent law-abiding citizens from getting guns,” Aborn says on the podcast, “but rather to make sure criminals didn’t get a gun. And guess what? It works!”

Firearm death rates in New York are consistently among the lowest in the entire country. In 2016, CDC data shows a rate of 4.2 firearm deaths per 100,000 people, compared to say, Alaska’s 23.3 or Idaho’s 14.6.

18. Mandatory gun-safety classes

In some countries, the checklist of what people need in order to buy a gun includes a requirement to take a gun-safety course and pass a test, demonstrate gun knowledge or get a membership at a shooting club or range.

In the United States, about 61 percent of gun owners have gotten some type of training, which typically included information about safe handling, storage and preventing accidents, according to a 2015 University of Washington study. But the study identified gaps in training: Only 15 percent of owners said they were trained about suicide prevention, and only 14 percent of those who lived with gun owners had received any safety training.

In countries that require some type of safety course (often coupled with other strict rules around gun ownership) such as Japan, the U.K. and India, the rate of gun deaths are significantly lower than those in the U.S.

19. Manufacture and sell smart guns

A 2-year-old shot and killed his mother inside a Hayden, Idaho, Walmart in 2014. From the shopping cart, the toddler had reached inside the 29-year-old mother’s purse, where she kept a concealed pistol. When we talk about smart guns, advocates often point to this example for support.

Smart guns are designed to restrict who can fire them. Some require an authorized fingerprint, others use a radio-controlled watch or other device that must be within a certain distance of the gun in order to fire. There are also trigger guards that require a fingerprint to unlock.

A small 2003 study of 117 unintentional and undetermined firearm-related deaths found that personalized firearms technology was among the most effective at reducing accidental deaths.

While the National Institute of Justice issued baseline requirements for smart guns at Obama’s direction, so far, a relative lack of funding along with backlash from gun-rights proponents, including the NRA, has stifled smart guns’ popularity.

20. Harness corporate power

One sign the response to the Parkland shootings has been different? Corporations started speaking out: Walmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Kroger raised restrictions on the minimum age required to buy firearms. CitiGroup banned their business partners from selling firearms to those under 21—and from selling high-capacity magazines or bump stocks at all.

Companies like Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Symantec, Metlife, Delta and United all announced they’d be ending their discount programs for NRA members.

Some pundits urge corporations to go even further: The New York Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin argues Visa and MasterCard could follow the example of PayPal and Square, by refusing to allow their products to be used to purchase guns.

It’s uncertain whether many companies will be willing to infuriate major chunks of their customers by championing regulation of their gun rights. But we’ve already seen what sort of massive power corporations wield when they get into politics. As an example, look at how they beat back trans-bathroom bills in Texas and North Carolina.

21. Ban ‘assault-style’ weapons

In 1994, the United States banned the manufacture and sale of certain semi-automatic weapons with military-style features and large-capacity magazines. The idea was to limit the number of crimes committed using weapons that could fire a large number of bullets rapidly.

In several of the highest-casualty mass shootings in modern U.S. history, the shooters used semi-automatic weapons.

The ban was lifted in 2004. A 2018 Quinnipiac poll found that 67 percent of Americans support the ban returning.

A federally funded study found the effect on overall violence to be minimal, in part because assault weapons are used in so few incidents (though high-capacity magazines were more common), and in part because the ban’s narrow definition of “assault weapon” hinges on military-style features such as a pistol grip or a folding stock.

“We cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation’s recent drop in gun violence,” the authors wrote in the federal study. “Should it be renewed, the ban’s effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement.”

Although semi-automatic rifles are rarely used to commit crimes, when they are, the potential devastation is terrifying. The purpose of the ban in 1994 was to reduce the lethality of mass shootings: Mass shootings have become much more lethal since the ban expired.

22. Repeal right-to-carry laws

In 1996, University of Chicago researchers studied the link between a citizen’s right to carry a concealed handgun and the violent crime rate. John Lott and David Mustard concluded that “allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons deters violent crimes and it appears to produce no increase in accidental deaths.” Further, they predicted that states without concealed carry laws could have avoided a total of 1,570 murders, 4,177 rapes and more than 60,000 assaults.

At the time, the research was used to support right-to-carry laws, which allow people to carry concealed firearms. All states now allow concealed carry in some form. The NRA has pushed for permitless concealed carry laws, which already exist in some states.

In the two decades since Lott and Mustard’s study, academics have debunked their research, concluding that right-to-carry laws actually lead to higher rates of violent crime.

Efforts to eliminate or restrict concealed carry are sure to be (and have been) met with legal challenges. Appeals courts are mixed, and the U.S. Supreme Court has recently declined to weigh in on the issue.

23. Make buyers wait

The idea is to require a gun buyer to wait some period of time between the purchase and when he or she actually takes possession of the gun. Waiting periods would give authorities more time to complete background checks, advocates say. Research strongly suggests waiting periods can create a “cooling off” period and reduce impulsive violence and suicides.

The American Medical Association has voiced support of waiting periods, and a Quinnipiac University poll found 79 percent of voters support such a mandate.

At least nine states and the District of Columbia have some sort of waiting period (typically between two and seven days), according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. There is no federally mandated waiting period to purchase firearms.

A 2017 study in the National Academy of Sciences journal using data on waiting period laws from 1970 to 2014 found that the laws are associated with a 17 percent reduction in gun homicides and a 7 percent to 11 percent reduction in gun-related suicides.

24. More counseling in schools

Mental health counselors in schools can play a critical role in identifying at-risk students and referring them to appropriate treatment. That can prevent students, including would-be school shooters, from harming themselves or others.

Nearly 87 percent of shooters leave behind evidence that they were victims of severe bullying that resulted in thoughts of suicide or revenge, studies have shown. Though most bullied children do not decide to open fire on fellow students as revenge, providing resources to these students could prevent harm. While schools typically lack the number of school psychologists recommended by the National Association of School Psychologists, school leadership has in recent years been more open to adding mental health resources and threat assessment teams in schools.

25. Name shooters less

After each mass shooting, experts call for the media not to name the shooter, arguing that glorifying and obsessing over shooters only gives them infamy and creates copycats. And after each shooting, while some members of the media comply, most news organizations publish the shooter’s name and details.

Many school shooters say they studied those before them to learn how to make their shooting more memorable. And research shows there is some contagion effect—a 2015 study by an Arizona State University researcher found that mass shootings are often inspired by other shootings weeks earlier.

The problem with never naming a shooter is the public will find out anyway. Plus, naming a shooter can prevent misinformation, like the wrong person being blamed for a shooting, says Kelly McBride, vice president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. Details of a shooter—their motivation, access to weapons, clues that were missed—can give information that may help prevent future tragedies.

Journalists shouldn’t vow not to name a shooter, she says, but instead name shooters only when pertinent. And they should always tell victims’ stories completely.