Gun control after Uvalde: What could work, what won’t work, and what we can learn from the world
Polling indicates Americans favor gun reforms like “red flag” laws and assault weapons bans, but the reality is much more complicated.
What are 360s? Grid’s answer to stories that deserve a fuller view.
Over the course of only 10 days this May, mass shootings claimed the lives of 10 people in Buffalo, New York, and 21 others — mostly children — in Uvalde, Texas. These incidents sparked a familiar cycle of anger and frustration from those who want a solution to the increasingly frequent mass shootings in the United States. These mass shootings happened while guns quietly overtook cars as the leading cause of death for Americans under 20. Guns killed more than 45,000 people in the U.S. in 2020, via suicide, homicide or accident.
“This time we must actually do something,” President Joe Biden said in a speech Thursday night. “How much more carnage are we willing to accept? How many more innocent American lives must be taken before we say ‘enough’?”
Biden proposed a list of gun reforms in his speech, many of which are part of negotiations among a bipartisan group of eight senators in Congress: banning assault-style rifles and raising the minimum age of purchase to 21, establishing a national “red flag” law, expanding background checks for gun purchases, creating new gun storage standards, repealing liability protections for gun manufactures and investing in mental health services.
Gun control is complex: There are few strategies that are politically viable in the U.S. today and no guarantee that implementing a certain gun control measure will stop the next mass shooting.
“This is an incredibly frustrating issue because usually, whenever we have public safety crises, we act proactively. After 9/11, we did a number of things to try to be proactive to stop terrorist attacks from happening. I’m not sure why we don’t look at these mass shooting events and see what we can do to prevent it,” said Cole Wist, a former Republican state legislator in Colorado who broke from his party to sponsor a red flag bill in the state legislature. Colorado passed a red flag law a year later, but Wist lost his reelection bid amid fierce opposition from a pro-gun group.
Gun control has often been a nonstarter in Congress. Polls have found some of these strategies — like raising the minimum age required to purchase a gun — are popular among voters in both parties. But talks about gun control often stall out in the weeks following a mass shooting.
There are several reasons why: increased polarization among members of Congress, a number of competing legislative priorities and the fact that pro-gun influence groups regularly outspend gun control groups on lobbying by a factor of more than 6 to 1. Last year, pro-gun organizations spent $15.7 million lobbying Congress, while opponents spent $2.7 million.
Though high-profile mass shootings — like those in Australia in the 1990s — inspire swift reforms and bans, that seems less likely here in the U.S. The Senate’s structure, and norms that prevent anything with less than 60 votes from passing, typically prevents the chamber from mirroring overall public opinion on gun control. Slightly over half of Americans believe the country should have stricter gun laws, according to Pew Research Center polling, but in the Senate, the 20 states with the highest rates of gun ownership elected 32 of 50 Senate Republican lawmakers in 2020, according to a Rand Corporation study and the Atlantic.
It’s tempting to blame influence alone, but it’s worth remembering that public opinion is complicated. Though several reforms poll well when the public asks about them, Republicans maintain a 4-point advantage on gun policy, and sales of guns tend to increase following mass shootings, suggesting some sectors of the public don’t see the solution as fewer guns.
And even if gun control could pass Congress, the Supreme Court is increasingly leaning in the direction of strengthening the Second Amendment — commonly known as the “right to bear arms.” This means any legislation faces an uncertain future in the courts.
There are many potential ways to prevent future gun deaths, like tightening background checks or raising the minimum age requirement for buying a gun. Polling has found that some of these strategies, like red flag laws and raising the minimum age to purchase guns, have support from a majority of voters in both parties. But in America, strong polling isn’t enough. There’s going to need to be a fundamental rethinking of the debate.
Commonly proposed policies, and what the evidence says about them
Raising the Minimum Age to Purchase a Gun
Under federal law, the minimum age to purchase a handgun is 18. A handful of states — California, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Vermont and Washington — currently prohibit sales of semi-automatic rifles to people younger than 21.
Proponents of increasing the age at which semi-automatic rifles may be purchased nationwide cite the fact that attackers in mass casualty shootings — including attacks in Buffalo and Uvalde as well as El Paso, Texas, and Parkland, Florida, among other cities — have used rifles they legally purchased before they turned 21. They also point to scientific research that has found teenagers are more likely to engage in violent and criminal activity.
Opponents of increasing the age limit note that 18-year-olds are entrusted with a range of other responsibilities in American society. “An 18-year-old is considered responsible enough to lose his or her life in defense of this country, responsible enough to cast a vote that decides the future of the country,” Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) recently said in response to questions about the age debate.
After the school shooting in Parkland in 2018, then-President Donald Trump briefly entertained an increase in the minimum purchase age for semi-automatic rifles to 21. He said the discrepancy with the minimum handgun purchase age “doesn’t make sense,” before backing down under pressure from the NRA.
Since the Uvalde shooting, a few prominent Republicans have voiced support for the idea. Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois and Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson have said recently that they would support discussing increasing the minimum age at which certain firearms can be purchased.
House lawmakers are expected to include a provision proposing to increase the legal purchase age for semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21 as part of omnibus gun safety legislation.
📊Americans overwhelmingly support raising the federal minimum age to purchase guns. That includes large majorities of both Republicans (67 percent) and Democrats (79 percent), according to an Ipsos-Reuters online poll conducted on May 25.
Assault Weapons Ban
In 1994, Congress passed and then-President Bill Clinton signed a 10-year “ban” on certain semi-automatic firearms and ammunition magazines. The move was prompted by a series of mass shootings, including a 1989 school shooting that injured 32 children and killed five.
The federal ban made it illegal to own, sell or manufacture certain semi-automatic firearms named in the legislation, as well as any guns possessing certain features, like folding or telescoping stocks, bayonet mounts, or threaded barrels for attaching flash hiders or suppressors. There were some exceptions for law enforcement and a grandfather clause that allowed such weapons to be transferred legally before the date of enactment.
The ban also applied to “large-capacity ammunition feeding devices,” known by gun control advocates as “high-capacity” magazines. It defined them as storing more than 10 rounds of ammunition. Since the ban expired in 2004, such magazines are widely available and cheap, often less than $10. They can also be made using 3D printers.
Since the ban expired, nine states and the District of Columbia have regulated or banned assault weapons or high-capacity magazines. The laws vary in scope and enforcement, with California, Connecticut, New York and D.C. having the most comprehensive bans, according to the Giffords Law Center.
Proponents of assault weapons bans say this may have an effect on the largest and most deadly mass shootings. Researchers have alleged a connection between the expiration of the ban and an increase in mass shootings. A meta-analysis by the Rand Corporation, a federally funded think tank, found inconclusive evidence that the ban had a measurable effect on mass shootings, pointing out weaknesses in highly cited studies. While there was a decrease in mass shooting deaths and injuries during the decadelong ban, overall crime trended downward over this time, and there was no statistically valid comparison group. Another study found nine fewer mass shooting-related deaths per 10,000 firearm homicides over the period of the ban.
Critics of the ban say it failed definitionally, a consequence of lawmakers not having a deep understanding of firearm technology. Even under the ban, a semi-automatic pistol could be customized in a way that resembles an assault rifle. Small tweaks could be made to firearms to get around language in the ban, like removing a pistol grip and replacing it with a thumbhole in the stock, or shortening a barrel by merely a few millimeters. Research by the Justice Department found that manufacturers boosted production just before the ban was to be implemented and prices dropped significantly after the ban, leading to increased availability.
📊Most polling shows that American support for assault weapons bans has fallen since the previous ban expired in 2004, but a majority still favor a ban.
Universal background checks
Since the passage of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993, federal law has required any person seeking to buy a gun from a licensed dealer to undergo a background check. Potential buyers are disqualified from purchasing a firearm if they have certain offenses on their records, such as a felony conviction or a restraining order.
Currently, federal law does not require background checks for private gun sales. That excludes purchases at gun shows and many online transactions. About 22 percent of gun owners surveyed in 2015 purchased their most recent gun without a background check — down from 40 percent in 1994.
At least 15 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws eliminating the private-sale exclusion, although some have exceptions for guns given as gifts, or on certain types of guns.
Reform advocates say that most people who used a gun to commit a crime acquired them outside of a licensed dealership, and 40 percent of those buys would have been disqualified under background check laws. Proponents also argue that these checks will help connect a gun used in a crime to its owner, who can be held accountable.
Moreover, they argue that a federal universal background check law would cut down on weapons trafficking overall because states would have uniform laws so that traffickers couldn’t as easily move arms from states with looser laws to states with tighter laws.
Opponents say that a background check will not stop a person who is acquiring weapons on the black market and will not limit illegal weapons trafficking. They note that a majority of mass shooters passed a background check. Law-abiding gun owners are more likely to be caught up in this bureaucratic step, they argue.
📊Expanding background checks to include private transactions receives extraordinarily high support among Americans — 94 percent, including 90 percent of gun owners, according to a 2019 Quinnipiac survey.
Red Flag Laws
So-called red flag laws allow a family member, law enforcement official or medical professional to initiate a court proceeding to require that a person, if deemed a danger to themselves or others, temporarily turn in their guns. They also temporarily bar them from buying guns.
At least 17 states have such a law, most enacted after the 2018 mass shooting in Parkland. The Biden administration has urged Congress to pass a federal red flag law. Both Democrats and Republicans have proposed national legislation to incentivize states to pass their own.
Proponents of these laws point out that certain behaviors, such as engaging in domestic violence, correlate strongly with gun violence. Studies show that a person experiencing suicidal thoughts is more likely to act on that impulse if he or she owns a handgun.
Data on the laws’ effectiveness is scarce, in part because they are few — and new. Many were enacted after 2018, and the results are just now being studied. According to the gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, such laws may be especially effective in reducing suicides.
Opponents of red flag laws argue that the court orders — Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs), as they are formally known — punish people who have not committed a crime and deny them due process. They also argue that a person who is determined to commit violence will do so regardless of the tool.
Second Amendment advocates also express concern that ERPOs could be abused by family members, who could use them to go after a relative’s guns unnecessarily as an act of revenge.
📊According to a 2019 APM Research Lab study, more than three-quarters of Americans support family-initiated ERPOs, and 70 percent support police-initiated ERPOs. The people most likely to support red flag laws are women, people with higher education levels and people living in urban areas.
“Smart Guns” to reduce accidental shootings
Almost 500 people a year die in unintentional shootings, often children or people cleaning guns. And there has been an alarming increase in gun deaths among children and teens in the last decade, about 32 percent of them suicides. Gun thefts are rampant across the country, with an estimated 1.8 million stolen from 2012 to 2017. Smart guns offer one answer to those problems.
“Guns aren’t going anywhere. But we can use technology to help to keep them out of the wrong hands,” said Margot Hirsch, president of the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation, which promotes gun safety innovations.
Smart guns pair their owner to the weapon with either a radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip — often embedded in a ring — or a biomimetic fingerprint reader. No one else can fire the gun. These technologies were first proposed as way to prevent cops being shot by their own weapons during arrests, blamed in the ‘90s for about 1 in 6 police deaths.
But so far, personalized guns are far from gun store shelves. Edmund sees smart gun sales at least two years away, their upstart prospects still dicey. Established gun makers that tried to introduce them in the last two decades faced boycotts that led to layoffs, factories closing and death threats against gun store owners. The NRA and the wider gun community saw smart guns as a pretext for eventual bans on older, less-secured guns.
“The technology is there, and it’s pretty basic, standard,” said Marissa Edmund, a gun violence analyst at the Center for American Progress. “To not have it implemented is kind of mind-boggling.”
📊In one recent poll from Morning Consult, more than half of gun owners said they would be comfortable using a smart gun; about a quarter of them opposed the idea.
Additional reporting by Ben Powers.
What kinds of guns are out there?
Four in 10 U.S. adults live in households with at least one firearm, according to a Pew survey from last year. As protests against police violence and then the pandemic shook the country, gun sales surged to record levels, according to background check data and manufacturers. Six days in March of 2021 made the list of the top 10 FBI firearm background checks since 1998, which can be used to estimate interest in firearm sales.
The AR-15, named for ArmaLite, the manufacturer that created the original design, has become the gun of choice for many of the deadliest mass shooters, as well as one of the most popular guns in America overall. Far more powerful and destructive types of firearms are widely available and legal.
Higher-caliber weapons, also available in semi-automatic, high-capacity platforms, can do greater damage per shot. In the El Paso shooting in 2019 that killed 23 people, the shooter used an AK-47-style rifle and hollow-point ammunition. The Romanian rifle and ammunition was ordered online, legally, and shipped to Texas. Imported rifles can be less expensive than domestically manufactured AR-15-style rifles.
An AR-15-style rifle can cost anywhere from $500 to over $3,000. Semi-automatic pistols, like the Glock 17 9mm, are in high circulation as the most commonly used law enforcement weapon and can be less than $500. The Glock 17 has a magazine capacity of 17 rounds, but can also be purchased with a 10 or 15 round magazine to comply with some state laws. A Glock 17 was one of the guns used in the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting that left 49 dead. The other gun was a Sig Sauer MCX .223, an AR-15-patterned weapon.
Technologies like “bump stocks,” which allow a semi-automatic weapon to perform like an automatic weapon, were banned in 2019. A bump stock was used in the 2017 Las Vegas shooting that killed 58 people. After the Vegas shooting, where the bump stock allowed the shooter to fire over 1,000 rounds in quick succession, Congress attempted to ban bump stocks, but efforts stalled. The Trump administration announced a ban through regulations on Dec. 18, 2018. Though the deadline to turn in or destroy bump stocks was March 26, 2019, very few were surrendered of the estimated 520,000 in circulation.
A 1994-style ban would be somewhat obsolete with the introduction of “additive manufacturing,” known as 3D printing. For less than $500, a device that bonds small layers of material, usually plastics or composites, can allow a person to download a file and manufacture various gun parts at home.
3D printing makes it possible to produce fully automatic weapons, high-capacity magazines and bump stocks. This technology allows people to download and print the lower receiver, which under federal law requires a background check from a federally licensed dealer. Other parts can then be easily ordered online and assembled at home, creating an untraceable “ghost gun” with no serial number.
Since 2004, gun manufacturers have produced millions of weapons and magazines that would have been illegal under the ban. A patchwork of state laws has allowed an industry of state-compliant modifications to flourish, and a healthy aftermarket means millions of guns will be in circulation regardless of regulation.
Public Health Lens
Viewing gun-related injury and death as a public health crisis
For nearly 60 years, car crashes killed more kids than anything else in the United States. But the introduction of public health interventions ranging from seat belts to drunken driving campaigns cut yearly deaths by roughly half.
Now that guns have taken over as the leading cause of death for children, many experts argue that gun-related injury and death should be treated as a public health problem, like car crashes, instead of a political fight over gun ownership. Since most kids who kill themselves or someone else with a gun use a family member or friend’s weapon, safe storage is crucial.
“How can it not be a public health issue when it’s the most likely reason your child will die in this country?” said Chethan Sathya, a pediatric surgeon and director of the Center for Gun Violence Prevention at Northwell Health. Sathya and others argue that a more comprehensive public health approach could succeed where a singular focus on political solutions has failed.
This approach isn’t focused on confiscation or outright bans, said Megan Ranney, an emergency room physician and academic dean at the School of Public Health at Brown University. “It’s about a more nuanced understanding of the steps needed to reduce the risk of firearm injury while also recognizing that 40 percent of households have a firearm.”
Gaining that understanding starts with researching who gets hurt by guns, where that happens and why, Ranney said. Congress’ passage of the Dickey Amendment in 1996 effectively banned federal funding for studying gun violence, shutting down most research. For example, while sepsis kills about as many Americans as guns, it has received more than 140 times as much funding between 2004 and 2015. “We lack even the most basic data on the number of injuries that happen and to whom,” Ranney said. That obscures who’s at highest risk.
Compiling such basic data can inform the development and implementation of harm-reduction strategies, which must be tailored to different populations depending on their risks. Some physicians are already taking action by discussing guns with patients like they discuss exercise or sugar intake. “We’re asking every patient questions around firearm injury risk,” Sathya said, and making relevant safety recommendations.
Scaling up effective interventions will take buy-in from the gun-owning community, which can be difficult with such a polarizing issue, said Christopher Barsotti, a physician and co-founder of the American Foundation for Firearm Injury Reduction in Medicine. “When you take a health approach and stay away from policy, you’ll find that there’s a lot of consensus on safety and risk.”
Lessons from the world on how mass shootings have catalyzed gun reform
Australia’s sweeping gun reforms in the wake of the Port Arthur shooting in 1996 can be instructive in how other countries around the world have acted swiftly to restrict the availability of guns after facing their own atrocities.
In the early 1990s, gun control activists faced challenges similar to those in the U.S. — opposition from politicians and a strong gun lobby. Then, in 1996, a man killed 35 people in Port Arthur, a popular seaside destination, shocking the nation’s politicians into action. Conservative Prime Minister John Howard successfully gathered support for far-reaching legislation, which included banning automatic and semi-automatic weapons, setting up a national gun registry, requiring permits for new guns and rolling out a mandatory buyback program for the newly illegal weapons.
More than 700,000 guns were sold back to the government and destroyed through the buyback program. A recent Rand Corporation review of the policy’s effectiveness found that it likely helped reduce female homicides, firearm suicides and mass shootings — Australia has had only one mass shooting since the changes went into effect. Rebecca Peters, an international gun control expert who led the coalition of Australian organizations advocating for reform in the 1990s, described Port Arthur as a breaking point that forced politicians to act. “In terms of this sort of thing that we think of as a mass shooting in modern times, 35 people killed was the largest that had ever occurred, and Australia just thought — ‘That’s the kind of thing that happens in the United States. How can that happen here?’”
Similar to Australia, the United Kingdom, Norway, New Zealand and many other countries have greatly restricted gun access in response to public demand after mass shootings over the past few decades. “No one expects the U.S. to adopt the same laws,” Peters told Grid, but it’s difficult to grasp why the U.S. hasn’t been able to implement “the most glaringly obvious ones.” She said, “It’s very hard for us to understand, why would you say people should be able to have guns without a background check? In what universe is that a good idea?”
In Europe, where owning a gun is a “privilege, not a right,” the U.S. resistance to reform is also difficult to comprehend, said Katharina Krüsselmann, a doctoral student at Leiden University who studies gun violence.
“The biggest thing that is discussed in European media with regards to U.S. mass shootings is how could it not be possible to ban assault rifles? Even if we try to understand that everyone has the right to own a firearm, why an assault rifle that really has no other function other than killing someone?”
Many discussions of “what can be done about America’s gun violence problem” often end in pessimism. It’s easy to think of this as a debate between “ban all guns” and “do nothing,” but there is a huge chasm between these two options. Many new lines of inquiry within gun violence research may help America bridge this divide between pro-gun and gun control advocates.
In light of the staggering rates of suicide among gun owners, for example, temporary transfer laws are increasingly discussed as a form of harm reduction with bipartisan support: Since many suicides that take place happen on the spur of the moment, these programs allow gun owners experiencing suicidal ideation to temporarily turn their weapons in to law enforcement storage until a period of crisis is past. This idea frequently sees strong support from firearms instructors, police departments and military veterans.
Another program that offered lethal means counseling and cable locks for firearm storage to members of the military (another group disproportionately affected by gun suicides) found that these low-effort interventions led to “meaningful and sustained changes in firearm storage practices” within a six-month period.
The former congressman Jay Dickey, whose amendment of 1996 effectively cut off federal support for studying gun violence for decades, spent the final years of his life expressing regret for not foreseeing the long-reaching effects of the law. He also spoke frankly about the fact that the rhetorical conflation of gun control measures with abolition of gun ownership (despite the lack of any prominent initiatives calling for the latter) was destructive to national discourse. In an interview with NPR, he compared harm reduction strategies as deployed by the national highway system to the types of interventions that could make gun ownership safer without eliminating it entirely.
Given that the lessons learned from other countries that have successfully reshaped the parameters of gun ownership in the years following mass casualty shootings often hinged on creating unlikely coalitions of former opponents, these spaces of alignment may be a clue as to what next steps are likely to save the most lives.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.