Updated on April 27, 2016, at 10:10 p.m.
Any American with even a glancing familiarity with the news can rattle off the progression, a litany of place names transformed from cities and towns into metonyms for gun violence: San Bernardino, Colorado Springs, Umpqua, Charleston, Fort Hood, Navy Yard, Sandy Hook, Aurora …. That doesn’t even take into account the thousands Americans killed by guns in single-death murders, or the roughly 21,000 who take their own lives with firearms annually.
The many shootings have produced a robust (if seemingly gridlocked) debate about how to stop gun violence.
Are you sure about your premise, that there’s increasing gun violence? The number of deaths by firearm has actually been in a steady decline for the last 20 years or so. Take out suicides and the drop is even more dramatic.
Deaths by Firearm per 100,000 People
It’s not just fatal shootings, either. The drop in gun crime is even more dramatic:
Violent Crime Victimization per 100,000 People, 12 and Older
People aren’t wrong to note that gun violence recently overtook deaths by automobile as a cause of death in the United States, but the important context is that both of those numbers have been steadily decreasing—which is a good thing!
Okay, fair enough—but would Obama’s proposals really have much impact on the problem of gun violence? They might look like “common sense” to many (though
certainly not all) Americans, and they might prevent some deaths, but it’s hard to believe they would make a serious dent in the rate of gun violence. Let’s take them one at a time. But first, it’s important to draw a distinction. Many of Obama’s proposals have been inspired by and publicized after mass shootings. But most gun violence isn’t mass shootings. Around two-thirds of annual U.S. gun deaths are suicides. Of the remaining third, only a tiny fraction are from mass shootings. It doesn’t take anything away from the horror of those events to suggest that mass shootings are a fairly small part of the problem.
Now, on to Obama’s ideas. First, background checks: The idea here is that there are people who shouldn’t be getting guns but are, and are causing mayhem with them. The best research we have suggests that universal background checks would probably have some negative effect on the number of shootings. The main reason appears to be simply that it takes guns out of circulation. In terms of what effect it might have on the cases you cite, one calculation based on a database compiled by Mother Jones found that more than 80 percent of guns in mass shootings were legal.
One of the more striking pieces of journalism about mass shootings in the last year has been The New York Times’ “How They Got Their Guns,” a visual display of the types of firearms used in notable shootings, tracing how the shooters got the weapons. What starts to jump out as you trudge through the tragedies is how many of the guns were acquired legally.
All 14 guns belonging to the Umpqua shooter? Legally purchased. Adam Lanza? He had access to guns belonging to his mother, who bought them legally. There are some more marginal cases. For example, Dylann Roof should have been blocked from buying his pistol because he admitted drug possession. He was allowed to buy the gun not because the rules weren’t strict enough but because of human error—meaning the existing system should have worked to stop him. Why bother tightening controls if the current rules work but aren’t enforced, some gun-rights advocates ask?
The assault-weapons ban is another example of a policy that makes logical sense to many folks—as Martin O’Malley said in a Democratic presidential debate, “I've never met a self-respecting deer hunter that needed an AR-15 to down a deer”—but wouldn’t necessarily make much difference to gun crime.
The 1994 assault-weapons ban, which expired a decade later, didn’t have much discernible effect on gun violence. Gun crime dropped, but the effect of the AWB seems small, and there’s not enough data to judge its effect on mass shootings. A ban on high-capacity magazines, part of the AWB, suffers from the same lack of definitive proof. There’s data to suggest that high-capacity magazines did become more rare, but not about the impact.
Strict penalties for straw purchasers seem like a logical idea, too. But the penalties are already pretty steep: Up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The problem with straw purchases isn’t necessarily the lack of a sufficient deterrent: It’s the difficulty in proving a straw purchase was a straw purchase.
Is mental-health screening for firearm buyers really effective at reducing gun violence? Jeffrey Swanson, a psychologist and sociologist at Duke, found that mental illness is not a good indicator of gun violence. (Drug and alcohol abuse are far better predictors.) Most mass murderers don’t have a history of mental illness, while the vast majority of mentally ill people don’t ever kill anyone.
Politicians have suggested better reporting of mental-illness information to the federal background-check system. When that was tried in Connecticut it was very successful—at keeping guns from the mentally ill. But it reduced crime by less than 1 percent. Meanwhile, several notorious mass-shooters with mental illnesses wouldn’t have been stopped by such a mechanism. Both Aurora shooter James Holmes and Jared Loughner, who shot Representative Gabrielle Giffords, had their names run through the check successfully. Adam Lanza wasn’t subject to a background check, since he used his mother’s guns.
Are smart guns a plausible solution to gun violence in the U.S.? Smart guns—for example, with biometric safeties that mean only the owner can use the gun—do sound great in theory. But as my colleague Adrienne LaFrance laid out recently, there are real questions about whether they can work all that effectively.
And let’s say you designed a perfect, fool-proof smart gun: How long would it take to replace all 350 million guns already in circulation in the United States? It would require either enormous customer demand or a government mandate, which seems unlikely, given that much more modest reforms have stalled in Congress.
Do more guns make people more safe? That’s the argument put forward by the conservative economist John Lott. (In fact, it’s even the title of his book: More Guns, Less Crime.) You’ve heard it expressed “the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” though the deterrent effect is also a central element. But Lott’s research has been criticized as faulty by many other analysts, and newer studies tend to find that the best way to lower gun crime is simply to reduce the number of guns available. A National Journal analysis in 2015 found that the stricter the gun laws were in a given state, the lower the number of gun-related deaths per capita.
Does confiscation drive down gun crime, and could it work in the U.S.? Several countries have tried that, and they have generally been successful. The United Kingdom aggressively reduced guns following the Dunblane massacre and Australia after the Port Arthur massacre, both in 1996. Japan has had strict laws for much longer.
Effectively banning guns does, unsurprisingly, lead to huge reductions in gun violence. It’s true that if you make guns criminal, only criminals will have guns, but that doesn’t mean crime won’t drop. But such models are widely seen as non-starters in the United States.
There are cultural, constitutional, and political hurdles. Americans—or more accurately, some Americans—are deeply fond of firearms, which is why there are more guns in the U.S. than people, even though only a third of American households own guns. The courts have in recent years tended to recognize the Second Amendment as a guarantee of the individual right to own a gun, which isn’t always the way judges have viewed it in the past. And finally, there’s the politics of it: Given that, once again, more modest steps are stalled out on Capitol Hill, confiscation is dead on arrival.
Perhaps something could change these politics, but as many people have pointed out, it’s hard to imagine what that factor could be, given that even the Sandy Hook massacre didn’t lead to significant changes in the law.
Does this mean that nothing can be done to stop gun violence? Of course not. Perhaps the problem is in thinking about gun policy in a vacuum. A better approach might be to start considering a range of potential strategies, especially the integration of tools that focus on root causes rather than on violence itself.
How much difference can be made simply with smarter policing strategies like increased patrols, targeting of hotspots, and more intensive probation?
Can tools like ShotSpotter, a system that detects gunfire, help? (The evidence so far is mixed.)
What about intervening in areas and with the people who are most likely to shoot and be shot—especially black men in urban areas—to try to prevent the situations that lead to violence?
And what lessons can be gleaned from Hawaii, where gun-ownership rates have increased but gun violence remains extremely rare?
Maybe there’s an answer we haven’t considered yet. Drop your thoughts into an email to email@example.com.