Are We Doing Everything We Can to Prevent Gun Violence?

No one expects Washington to crack down on guns. But we can still work toward a national agenda.

 Guns seized by the New York Police Department (NYPD), in the largest seizure of illegal guns in the city's history, are displayed on a table during a press conference on August 19, 2013 in New York City. (National Journal)

Those wondering what set of policies might have prevented last weekend's tragedy at the University of California (Santa Barbara) are asking the wrong question.

Would tougher gun-control laws have stopped Elliot Rodger from obtaining the weapons he used in his attack? Would broader mental-health counseling have flagged his problems earlier? In each instance, it's impossible to conclude anything more definitive than: maybe.

But the right question isn't whether any new law or regulation might have stopped this individual killer. The real issue is whether we are doing everything we can to improve our odds of preventing attacks like this — and the routine fusillade of gun violence that on average produces 30 homicides daily. The appropriate test for public policy is whether it maximizes our chances of achieving the outcomes we want as a society. And when it comes to preventing gun violence, including mass shootings, it's impossible to argue that we are doing that.

"If we tighten up the system there is no question that we will improve our odds of stopping things like this, and vastly improve our odds of stopping more regularized crime committed by garden-variety criminals," says Matt Bennett, a vice president at the centrist Democratic group Third Way, who has advised the families of the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

After a GOP-led filibuster last year blocked Senate passage of a universal background check for gun purchases, no one expects Washington to "tighten up the system" any time soon. Like other issues rooted in cultural affinities, gun control unites Republicans by ideology but divides Democrats by geography. So long as red-state Democratic House and Senate members resist gun control, and Republicans from blue and swing states don't feel irresistible pressure to support it, Congress is unlikely to approve major legislation restricting access to firearms.

But that's no reason to stop formulating an updated national agenda to confront gun violence. In presidential politics, gun-control advocates face a more competitive landscape than in Congress. Measures to restrict access generally draw strong support within the growing constituencies (particularly minorities and college-educated white women) and the states that have provided Democrats the edge in most presidential elections since 1992. Advancing new initiatives to reduce gun violence could strengthen the Democrats' hold on that winning coalition in places like the suburbs of Denver or Philadelphia — and pressure the GOP nominee to respond.

Any reformulated agenda would reflect an important shift: The focus among gun-control advocates is evolving from hardware to people. Although a ban on assault weapons still carries emotional power, more voices in the gun-control camp consider it too easy to circumvent with cosmetic adjustments. And, as Bennett notes, while a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines might have more impact, so many of them are already in circulation, "it's incredibly easy for people to get their hands on them."

Thinking about gun violence instead is tilting toward working harder to deny weapons to people likely to abuse them. That agenda's centerpiece is the universal background-check legislation that would close the current loophole exempting gun-show and Internet sales from such requirements. That idea still draws overwhelming public support in polls.

The frontier of new thinking focuses on the nexus between mental health and gun violence. President Obama's post-Newtown review of gun laws actually made important progress on two fronts: The administration issued regulations toughening requirements on health insurers to fund mental-health services, and it strengthened the federal database used to screen gun buyers under the "Brady bill" by clarifying federal privacy rules that discouraged some states from sharing mental-health records with the system.

The Brady law blocks gun purchases for people who have either been involuntarily committed to a mental institution, adjudicated as mentally ill, or who fit a few other categories, most notably a conviction for domestic violence. Sarah Bianchi, who led the administration's review as Vice President Joe Biden's domestic policy adviser, says the biggest question for any future gun-control agenda is whether to expand those categories. "This issue "¦ needs a new way of thinking," she says.

Broadening these excluded categories raises complex issues; mental-health professionals complained after Connecticut's post-Newtown legislation denied guns for six months to anyone who had been voluntarily hospitalized for mental illness. A recent Johns Hopkins University-led commission of gun-violence experts proposed to target expanded exclusions not at mental illness but at behaviors that might signal future violence, including convictions for violent misdemeanors or alcohol and drug abuse. Other policymakers are examining the equivalent of restraining orders to temporarily ban gun possession.

These tough questions point to a final priority for any gun-violence agenda: more research. Obama's review, through a new legal interpretation, lifted congressional restrictions that had blocked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from studying gun violence for more than 15 years, but funding remains scarce. If a foreign terrorist had attacked UCSB (or Newtown), we would exhaustively study every chink in our defenses. It's indefensible to turn away just because the violence came from down the block.