Is There a Meaningful Legislative Solution for Mass Shootings?

They account for only 2 percent of gun deaths—and researchers are split on how best to respond.

Senator Dianne Feinstein speaks during a news conference about gun legislation on Capitol Hill in Washington.  (Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP)

Authorities discovered 23 guns in the Las Vegas hotel room of Stephen Paddock, the man who opened fire on a crowd of country-music fans on October 1. At least 12 of those guns were weapons equipped with bump stocks, devices used to increase a gun’s rate of fire. In the days following the massacre, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle suggested Congress should review rules regulating bump stocks. The National Rifle Association, which is typically quiet after mass shootings, broke its silence to say the same.

But as policymakers and influence groups were debating legislation, another more fundamental debate began among those who have spent their careers studying gun violence: Are mass shootings a problem with a meaningful legislative solution?

The consensus among most researchers is that America does, indeed, have a gun-violence problem: Nearly 12,000 people have died in gun-related incidents so far in 2017. Since only an estimated 2 percent of those deaths are in mass-shooting events, though, some within the gun-research community suggest that it’s best not to craft legislation around comparatively rare occurrences. But that’s the kind of argument that makes other researchers want to pull their hair out.

Advocates for gun-control legislation often have a single policy prescription for preventing mass shootings: If people on the terror-watch list were barred by law from obtaining a gun, Omar Mateen might not have been able to murder 49 people at Pulse nightclub in Orlando last year. If it were illegal to purchase high-capacity magazines, maybe Adam Lanza wouldn’t have been able to shoot so many first-graders in Connecticut. If dealers were required to report gun buyers purchasing multiple weapons in a short time period, perhaps Paddock would have been more closely watched.

Leah Libresco is skeptical of those proposals. A statistician and former writer for FiveThirtyEight, Libresco wrote a column in The Washington Post describing her previous research on gun-control legislation for the data-journalism site. “My colleagues and I at FiveThirtyEight spent three months analyzing all 33,000 lives ended by guns each year in the United States,” she wrote. “We looked at what interventions might have saved those people, and the case for the policies I'd lobbied for crumbled when I examined the evidence.”

“There isn’t an easy solution where we can simply ban something and make a big impact,” Libresco told me in an interview. “Pushing these solutions eclipses the bigger goal, which is to reduce gun death.” For Libresco, that means addressing the high rate of suicides—which make up 60 percent of gun deaths in the U.S. every year—and gang violence. She thinks lawmakers and activists should work on developing tools for suicide outreach and creating chains of accountability between family and friends of gun owners, as well as deploying intervention teams to partner with locals in communities with high levels of gang violence. Change, she says, is more likely to come from protecting victims and reforming would-be killers, than legislatively regulating the weapons themselves.

Conservative outlets have republished Libresco’s arguments and applauded her conclusion, praising it as a refreshing and well-reasoned take when so many others are clamoring for hard-and-fast reforms. But David Hemenway, an economist and a professor of health policy at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, thinks Libresco undersells what can actually be done. “No one law is going to say, ‘Hey now we’ve eliminated this problem,’” Hemenway said, but “if you did a lot of things, it would be a great help.” Interest in gun-control legislation grows after major shooting events, he argued, and the opportunity shouldn’t be squandered.

Hemenway rattled off a cocktail of legislative remedies: Requiring all gun buyers to undergo a federal background check before purchasing a weapon from a federally licensed dealer or a private citizen; implementing one-gun-per-month laws, which would crack down on weapon trafficking across state lines; a host of gun-safety regulations, like requiring gun owners to lock up their guns; getting gun manufacturers to develop semi-automatics that won’t fire when the magazines are removed; and gun-violence restraining orders that allow family members to petition a court to remove a person’s access to firearms.

“I could list 60 things,” he says. But he argued that reducing the availability of firearms could have a powerful effect. “You make things harder, fewer people do it.”

Libresco’s argument that there is no single, easy solution to America’s gun-violence problem is true partly because of the sheer number of guns. “With 320 million guns out there, any law you adopt is going to be necessarily less effective,” said Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA and author of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America. “You can ban assault weapons but there’s seven to 10 million assault weapons out there.” Winkler also acknowledged the uniqueness of mass shootings that makes them a very challenging problem to solve.

In the wake of America’s most significant mass shootings, advocates often reach for legislation that would have prevented the latest attack; some seem to push desperately for any law that could prevent even one death in a future mass-shooting event. “It’s that kind of idealism that has saddled the gun-control movement,” Winkler said. “Obviously one life is worth saving, but any [gun-control policy] has to be made in a balance trying to figure out whether it’s worthwhile.”

Getting rid of all guns, for example, would probably save lives, Winkler said, but it would also require ditching the Second and Fourth Amendments. A mixture of several smaller gun laws, however, would make a significant difference in total gun deaths, as well as in mass shootings. And, Winkler said, “we should recognize that many gun-control proposals don’t infringe on people’s rights.”

Approaching mass shootings from a public-health perspective, Winkler said, means working toward a reduction in the daily death toll from guns, which necessarily involves legislating the guns themselves. He, like Hemenway, argues that multiple gun regulations, in aggregate, would have this effect—things like universal background checks and limits on interstate gun purchases.

“[Libresco] is right that the answer is not going to come from broad-based bans on weapons,” Winkler said. “I think she’s wrong that she sets the standard too high.”

Winkler argues for creating an environment in which prospective shooters encounter more obstacles. Closing loopholes and tightening rules will force “someone who wants to do bad things to go deal with bad people.” Will it prevent criminals from getting guns? “No,” Winkler said. “But will it make it harder? And will that make a difference? Yes.”