Opinion 6 solutions to gun violence that could work

(Rich Pedroncelli/Washington Post illustration)
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This article was originally published in 2018 and has been updated.

For far too long, those who oppose gun reforms have said that nothing can be done to stem the violence.

Those claims are demonstrably wrong. Research on gun violence is notoriously underfunded, but the data we do have shows that well-designed gun laws informed by science can save lives.

1

Ban weapons of war

The Las Vegas massacre. The killing spree at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. The movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo. The Virginia Tech slaughter. The massacre at a Walmart in El Paso.

These are the five highest-casualty (deaths and injuries combined) mass shootings in modern American history. And what did they all have in common? Semiautomatic weapons that allowed the shooter to fire rounds into crowds without reloading.

Based on the evidence we have, banning these weapons probably won’t do too much to curb overall gun deaths. We know this because in 1994, Congress passed legislation to outlaw the sale of certain types of semiautomatic guns and large-capacity magazines, and the effect was unimpressive. Gun homicide rates declined during the ban, but they also continued to fall after the ban expired in 2004. One federally funded study of the ban found that the effect on violence was insignificant, partly because it was full of loopholes.

Three decades of

mass shooting victims

Deaths

Wounded

1995-2004

Assault weapons ban

700

600

500

400

300

200

100

0

1982

1990

2000

2010

2020

Source: Mother Jones

THE WASHINGTON POST

Three decades of mass shooting victims

Deaths

Wounded

1995-2004

Assault weapons ban

700

600

2017

Las Vegas

shooting

500

400

300

200

100

0

1982

1990

2000

2010

2020

Source: Mother Jones

THE WASHINGTON POST

Three decades of mass shooting victims

Deaths

Wounded

More than 400 people were wounded and 60 were killed in the 2017 Las Vegas shooting.

1995-2004

Assault weapons ban

700

600

500

400

300

200

100

0

1982

1990

2000

2010

2020

Source: Mother Jones

THE WASHINGTON POST

But banning so-called assault weapons was never meant to reduce overall gun deaths. It was meant to make America’s frustratingly common mass shootings less deadly — even if these horrific events represent a small portion of gun violence.

And, in fact, mass shooting casualties dipped during the ban, although a review of studies by the Rand Corporation found the role the ban played in the dip to be inconclusive.

Here’s what is certain from the research: Semiautomatic weapons and weapons with high-capacity magazines are more dangerous than other weapons. One study on handgun attacks in New Jersey in the 1990s showed that gunfire incidents involving semiautomatic weapons wounded 15 percent more people than shootings with other weapons. A more recent study from Minneapolis found that shootings with more than 10 shots fired accounted for between 20 and 28 percent of gun victims in the city.

So how do we keep such dangerous weapons from being used in crimes? A ban on assault weapons might help, as data from a few cities during the 1994 ban suggest:

Assault weapons as a share

of guns recovered by police

at crime scenes

Before assault

weapons ban

After assault

weapons ban

Milwaukee

5.9%

4.9%

Milwaukee

Anchorage

3.6%

Miami 2.5%

2.1%

Anchorage

Boston 2.2%

Baltimore 1.9%

1.7% Miami

1.3% Baltimore

St. Louis 1.3%

0.9% St. Louis

0.6% Boston

Time periods for data for each city vary based

on when data was collected.

Source: Christopher Koper, 2004 National Institute

of Justice study

 

THE WASHINGTON POST

Assault weapons as a share of guns

recovered by police at crime scenes

Before assault

weapons ban

After assault

weapons ban

Milwaukee 5.9%

4.9%

Milwaukee

Anchorage 3.6%

Miami 2.5%

Boston 2.2%

2.1% Anchorage

Baltimore 1.9%

1.7% Miami

1.3% Baltimore

St. Louis 1.3%

0.9% St. Louis

0.6% Boston

Time periods for data for each city vary based

on when data was collected.

Source: Christopher Koper, 2004 National Institute

of Justice study

 

THE WASHINGTON POST

Assault weapons as a share of guns recovered

by police at crime scenes

Before assault

weapons ban

After assault

weapons ban

Milwaukee 5.9%

4.9% Milwaukee

Anchorage 3.6%

Miami 2.5%

Boston 2.2%

2.1% Anchorage

Baltimore 1.9%

1.7% Miami

1.3% Baltimore

St. Louis 1.3%

0.9% St. Louis

0.6% Boston

Time periods for data for each city vary based on when data was collected.

Source: Christopher Koper, 2004 National Institute of Justice study

 

THE WASHINGTON POST

But experts say focusing on reducing large-capacity magazines might be more effective. Simply put, gunmen are less deadly when they have to reload.

Such a ban might take time to have an effect, as a 2003 Post investigation showed. But it would be worth it. Alarmingly, crime data suggests that crimes committed with high-powered weapons have been on the rise since the 1994 ban ended.

Again, mass shootings account for a small fraction of gun deaths, so any ban on these weapons and magazines would result in marginal improvements, at best. But even if this step reduced shootings by 1 percent — far less than what the Minneapolis study suggests — that would mean 650 fewer people shot a year. Isn’t that worth it?

2

Keep guns away from kids

Occasionally, gun-reform advocates call for raising the federal age limit for purchasing semiautomatic weapons to 21, as is already required for handguns. But why stop there? Why not raise the age for all guns, including non-automatic rifles and shotguns?

This could make a real difference because young people are far more likely to commit homicide than older cohorts. One survey of prison inmates looked at those convicted of using a legally owned gun to commit a crime and found that a minimum age requirement of 21 would have prohibited gun possession in 17 percent of cases.

Of course, keeping guns out of the hands of young shooters would be difficult, because it’s so easy for people to obtain guns illegally. But age limits in general have proved to be effective in limiting bad behavior, so it’s worth trying.

There’s another reform that could be even more effective at keeping guns from kids: requiring gun owners to securely store firearms in a locked container or with a tamper-resistant mechanical lock.

Nearly 4.6 million minors in the United States live in homes where firearms are loaded and easy to access. One analysis from the federal government shows that 76 percent of school shooters obtain a gun from their homes or the homes of relatives. The same is true for more than 80 percent of teens who take their own lives with a firearm.

Safe-storage laws can help, especially with suicides. In Massachusetts, which has the strictest storage laws in the country, guns are used in just 12 percent of youth suicides, compared with 43 percent nationally. The suicide death rate among youth in the state is nearly half the national average.

Teenager suicides by gun

Suicides per 100,000 teens (2015-2020)

2

4

6

8

10

States with storage laws

No data available for Hawaii and Rhode Island.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

THE WASHINGTON POST

Teenager suicides by gun

Suicides per 100,000 teens (2015-2020)

2

4

6

8

10

States with some form of safe storage law

No data available for Hawaii and Rhode Island.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

THE WASHINGTON POST

Teenager suicides by gun

Suicides per 100,000 teens (2015-2020)

States with some form

of safe storage law

2

4

6

8

10

NH

VT

WA

ME

MT

ND

OR

MN

WI

SD

ID

NY

MA

WY

MI

RI

CT

PA

IA

NJ

NV

NE

OH

IN

DE

UT

CA

IL

WV

MD

CO

VA

KY

KS

MO

NC

TN

OK

AZ

NM

SC

AR

MS

AL

GA

TX

LA

AK

FL

HI

No data available for Hawaii and Rhode Island.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

THE WASHINGTON POST

In fact, states requiring locks on handguns in at least some circumstances have 25 percent fewer suicides per capita and 48 percent fewer firearm suicides per capita than states without such laws.

Meanwhile, another safety innovation is being developed: smart guns. These are guns that use fingerprint recognition and other means so that only their owners can fire them. The technology is still relatively new, but it’s promising. One small study found that over seven years, 37 percent of gun deaths could have been prevented by smart guns. Lawmakers could encourage their use by incorporating them into laws regulating safe storage.

3

Stop the flow of guns

A general rule: The more guns there are, the more gun deaths there will be. It holds across countries (note how much the United States stands out):

Firearm deaths versus

gun ownership among

developed countries

15

United

States

12

Firearm-related

death rate

per 100K

population

per year

9

6

3

Australia

France

Japan

Canada

0

30

60

90

120

150

Firearms per

100 people

Sources: Institute for Health Metrics and

Evaluation (firearm mortality, 2019); Small Arms

Survey (guns per capita, 2018).

THE WASHINGTON POST

Firearm deaths versus

gun ownership

among developed countries

15

United States

12

Firearm-related

death rate

per 100K

population

per year

9

6

3

Australia

France

Japan

Canada

0

30

60

90

120

150

Firearms per 100 people

Sources: Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (firearm

mortality, 2019); Small Arms Survey (guns per capita, 2018).

THE WASHINGTON POST

Firearm deaths versus gun ownership

among developed countries

United States

15

12

Firearm-related

death rate

per 100K

population

per year

9

6

3

Australia

France

Japan

Canada

0

30

60

90

120

150

Firearms per 100 people

Sources: Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (firearm mortality, 2019);

Small Arms Survey (guns per capita, 2018).

THE WASHINGTON POST

And across states. One 2013 study from Boston University found that for every percentage point increase in gun ownership at the state level, there was a 0.9 percent rise in the firearm homicide rate.

So how do we reduce the steady flow of guns? Three ideas:

Institute a buyback program

In the 1990s, Australia spent $500 million to buy back almost 600,000 guns. Harvard University researchers found that the gun homicide rate dropped 42 percent in the seven years following the law and the gun suicide rate fell 58 percent.

An Australian study found that for every 3,500 guns withdrawn per 100,000 people, the country saw a 74 percent drop in gun suicides and a reduction in mass shootings. That doesn’t prove causation. But the likelihood the drop in mass shootings was due to chance? Roughly 1 in 20,000, according to a 2018 paper.

Of course, the United States is different from Australia. The Australian buyback was mandatory, which would probably run into constitutional problems here. Plus, we have way more guns per capita, so the United States would have to spend exponentially more to make a significant difference.

Still, given Australia’s experience, it’s worth at least experimentation. Perhaps the government can use buyback programs to target specific kinds of weapons, such as semiautomatic firearms and large-capacity magazines.

Limit the number of guns people can buy at one time

Federal gun enforcers have long warned that state laws allowing bulk purchases of guns enable crime. Older studies from what is now called the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives show that as many as 1 in 5 handguns recovered in a crime were originally purchased as part of a sale in which multiple guns were purchased.

To combat this behavior, some states have instituted “one handgun a month” policies, as Virginia did in 1993. At the time, Virginia was the top supplier of guns seized in the Northeast; three years later, the state dropped to eighth place. The law also led to a 35 percent reduction in guns recovered anywhere in the United States that were traced back to Virginia.

Such a policy isn’t going to solve gun trafficking. The Virginia law didn’t prevent “straw purchases” in which traffickers pay people to buy guns legally so they can be sold elsewhere. But experts say one-gun-a-month laws make it more costly for criminals to traffic guns. And given the success in the past, such policies are worth promoting.

Hold gun dealers accountable

Research has shown that in some cities, guns used to commit crimes often come from a small set of gun dealers. So how do we stop the flow of those guns? Hold dealers accountable.

In 1999, the federal government published a report identifying gun shops connected with crime guns, including a single dealer in Milwaukee that was linked to a majority of the guns used in the city’s crimes. In response to negative publicity, that dealer changed its sales practices. Afterward, the city saw a 76 percent reduction in the flow of new guns from that shop to criminals and a 44 percent reduction in new crime guns overall. But in 2003, Congress passed a law prohibiting the government from publishing such data, after which the rate of new gun sales from that dealer to criminals shot up 200 percent.

Studies show that regulation of licensed dealers — such as record-keeping requirements or inspection mandates — can also reduce interstate trafficking. So can litigation against gun dealers that allow their guns to enter criminal markets. One sting operation conducted by New York City reduced the probability of guns from the targeted dealers ending up in the hands of criminals by 84 percent.

4

Strengthen background checks

Federal law requires background checks to obtain a gun, but those checks are extremely porous.

Under federal law, only licensed gun dealers have to perform these checks; private individuals and many online retailers don’t. It’s hard to pin down exactly how many guns are legally acquired without a background check, but some surveys put it upward of 22 percent.

Some states go beyond federal law and require background checks for all gun sales. But since it’s so easy for guns to travel across state lines, it’s hard to judge the effectiveness of these policies on gun deaths.

Firearm deaths

Death rate per 100,000 people (2020)

5

10

15

20

25

States with some form of expanded

background checks

Source: Centers for Disease Control and

Prevention (death rates); Giffords Law Center

(expanded background checks).

THE WASHINGTON POST

Firearm deaths

Death rate per 100,000 people (2020)

5

10

15

20

25

States with some form of expanded

background checks

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (death

rates); Giffords Law Center (expanded background checks).

THE WASHINGTON POST

Firearm deaths

Death rate per 100,000 people (2020)

States with some form of

expanded background checks

5

10

15

20

25

NH

VT

WA

ME

MT

ND

OR

MN

WI

SD

ID

NY

MA

WY

MI

RI

CT

PA

IA

NJ

NV

NE

OH

IN

DE

UT

CA

IL

WV

MD

CO

VA

KY

KS

MO

NC

TN

OK

AZ

NM

SC

AR

MS

AL

GA

TX

LA

AK

FL

HI

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (death rates);

Giffords Law Center (expanded background checks).

THE WASHINGTON POST

Still, there’s evidence that such expanded background checks can help limit the flow of guns into illegal markets. We also know that most gun offenders obtain their weapons through unlicensed sellers. One survey of state prison inmates convicted of offenses committed with guns in 13 states found that only 13 percent obtained their guns from a seller that had to conduct a background check. Nearly all those who were supposed to be prohibited from possessing a firearm got theirs from suppliers that didn’t have to conduct a background check. Closing that loophole federally might help.

What else can we do to strengthen background checks? Four possibilities:

Close the “Charleston Loophole”

Most gun background checks are instant. But some — around 9 percent — take more time, and federal law says if a check takes more than three business days, the sale can proceed. As a result, thousands of people who are not supposed have access to guns ended up getting them, as the Government Accountability Office reported.

Among the people who benefited from this loophole? Dylann Roof, who killed nine people in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. Ending this practice would save lives.

Close the “Boyfriend Gap”

An estimated 70 women each month are killed with guns by spouses or dating partners, according to a 2019 analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data by Everytown for Gun Safety.

Federal law prevents anyone with domestic violence misdemeanors from having a gun, but that law is defined narrowly and doesn’t include all domestic violence perpetrators — for example, boyfriends. More specifically, the law doesn’t keep guns from abusers who are not married, do not live with their partner or do not share a child with them.

Some states have expanded on federal law — and it works. One study found that rates of domestic-violence-related homicide decline 7 percent after a state passes such laws.

Implement waiting periods

The evidence that waiting periods to acquire guns reduce violent crime is limited. But there’s more evidence that they prevent suicides.

Research shows that people who buy handguns are at higher risk of suicide within a week of the purchase, and that waiting periods can keep them from using guns to harm themselves. In fact, one study found that when South Dakota repealed its 48-hour waiting period in 2012, suicides jumped 7.6 percent in the following year.

Improve reporting on mental health

Mental illness is associated with a relatively small portion (around 5 percent) of gun homicides. Federal law already prohibits anyone committed to a mental-health facility or deemed dangerous or lacking all mental capacities through a legal proceeding from having a gun.

But mental-health records are notoriously spotty. There’s limited evidence that improved reporting at the state level might reduce violent crimes. Connecticut started reporting mental-health data to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System in 2007, and one study found that violent crimes committed by people with mental illness there significantly decreased.

We can also make it easier for family members to seek court orders to disarm relatives who might do harm to themselves. In Connecticut, which has allowed this since 1999, one study estimated that the law averted 72 suicide attempts through 2013 from being fatal.

5

Strengthen red-flag laws

As much as strengthened background checks might prevent someone from purchasing new firearms, the problem remains that many guns are already in the hands of people who pose a threat to themselves or others.

How to address that? One solution: red-flag laws.

Such laws, which have repeatedly been held constitutional, allow people to petition a court to temporarily confiscate firearms from people who pose a threat to themselves or others. And they work.

California has one of the most expansive red-flag laws in the country, allowing anyone to petition for a court order to take guns from a high-risk individual. There is concrete data to show it is effective: One case study from 2019 found that the law averted at least 21 potential mass shootings, based on credible threats.

And it’s not just mass shootings. Studies have consistently found that these laws help avert suicides. One study from Indiana found that for every 10 to 20 gun-removal orders, one suicide was averted. Another study found Indiana saw a 7.5 percent reduction in its firearm suicides rate in the 10 years after its red-flag law became took effect. Connecticut, in the same study, saw its rate fall 14 percent.

These laws won’t catch every mass shooter or prevent every suicide. They are fundamentally limited by how many people know to use them. But implemented properly, they could do some real good. A 2019 analysis from the U.S. Secret Service found that in 77 percent of school shootings, at least one person knew of the perpetrator’s troubling behavior before the attack.

6

Treat guns like we treat cars

Consider two data points: first in Connecticut, then in Missouri.

In Connecticut, state lawmakers required people to get a license and safety training for a gun, just as we do for cars. In the decade after, it saw a drop in both gun homicides and suicides — at faster rates than other states without similar laws. And at the same time, Connecticut saw no significant drop in homicides not related to guns.

In Missouri, the state legislature repealed its licensing requirements in 2007.

A study found that the law change was associated with an additional 55 to 63 homicides in each of the five years following the repeal — even as homicides committed without guns dropped.

In both cases, it’s hard to prove a connection. But these experiences do strongly suggest something we learned in our decades-long efforts to reduce vehicle-related deaths: Regulation saves lives.

It can also deter crime. Research from the advocacy group Mayors Against Illegal Guns has found that guns sold in states with licensing laws — which are sometimes paired with mandatory registration of guns with local police — end up being exported for criminal activity at one-third the rate of states without the laws.

Why? Because it’s much harder to feed guns into illegal markets if police can trace them to their legal gun owners. After Missouri repealed its licensing laws, police in Iowa and Illinois started reporting an increase in Missouri guns showing up at crime scenes.

None of these reforms alone will stop our gun epidemic. But together, they can make a serious impact that will save lives. The only thing stopping that from happening is a lack of political will.

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