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Opinion The gun violence scourge can’t be scrubbed out with one or two changes

Flowers placed outside City Hall in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Tuesday. AP Photo/Aaron Kehoe)
4 min

Gun violence is so regular an occurrence in the United States that no incident, however tragic, comes as a surprise. But events in recent days deserve special attention all the same, as they underscore a core truth about responding to gun violence: changing just one or two rules would not be enough.

Early this month, a 6-year-old boy shot and wounded an elementary school teacher in Newport News, Va. This, according to authorities, was no accident: The first-grader pulled out a handgun and fired a bullet through his instructor’s outstretched hand and into her chest. His family says he has an “acute disability”; The Post reports that administrators brushed off concerns about the boy after he threw furniture in class, barricaded the doors to a room and threatened to light a teacher on fire and watch her die. The day of the shooting, his backpack was searched after a tip that he may have had a weapon.

Across the country and over the weekend, a 72-year-old man killed 11 people inside a dance hall in the Los Angeles suburb Monterey Park. The attack came shortly after the Lunar New Year celebration in the majority-Asian American city. The 11 killed were in their 50s, 60s and 70s. They were dancing guangchang wu, a public square dance popular among middle-aged and older patrons, when the carnage began. Only two days later, a gunman killed seven people at two plant nurseries in Half Moon Bay, near San Francisco.

The Newport News case and the California cases should be considered together not because they are so similar, but because they are so different. The 72-year-old in Monterey Park is the oldest person in U.S. history accused of perpetrating a mass killing in public. The 6-year-old in Newport News is one of the youngest believed to be responsible for intentional gun violence. None of these people fits the mold of the stereotypical alienated young man who has become the face of mass shootings in this country.

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The Gun Violence Archive has counted 39 mass shootings so far in 2023. Congressional intransigence on gun reform often pushes politicians to choose individual solutions on which to place their legislative focus, usually geared to what may have helped prevent the most recent tragedy: One year, red-flag laws are on every lawmaker’s lips; the next, the “boyfriend loophole.” Yet instances of gun violence are so varied that the right approach isn’t either-or but all-of-the-above.

At least one of the guns implicated in the Monterey Park shooting, a semiautomatic pistol equipped with a large-capacity magazine, might have been illegal to purchase in California. Yet the state’s prohibitions on many semiautos and magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition don’t apply to purchases made when the bans weren’t in effect. And while a new state law that aims to block the possession of such magazines was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, last year lower courts were instructed to reconsider it after another reckless pro-gun Supreme Court ruling.

This is worrying. The five highest-casualty mass shootings in modern American history all involved weapons that allowed shooters to let loose on crowds without having to reload. That restrictions are federal is important, too. Regardless of whether guns like the one used in Monterey Park are illegal to purchase in California, it’s easy enough for a California resident to buy one across state lines.

These interventions wouldn’t have prevented the 6-year-old in Newport News from shooting his teacher. That case involves a host of other issues, from proper supervision and security in schools, especially in response to warning signs, to safe gun storage. The public is likely to learn more about the trigger lock that the family’s lawyer says was installed on the weapon in question. But measures that require secure, tamper-resistant storage can keep kids from getting their hands on guns. And where a gun is stored (in the Newport News case, supposedly on the top shelf of a bedroom closet) matters, too.

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Changes that could have stopped other headline-making shootings in recent years, from better background checks to waiting periods before purchase to red-flag laws, and programs such as government gun buybacks and gun licensing are essential, as is prosecuting dealers who allow their supply to flow to illegal markets. It is not yet clear whether any of these efforts would have saved lives in Monterey Park or Half Moon Bay — but they would have saved lives elsewhere at other times.

As President Biden and the rest of country try, again, to confront the gun violence epidemic, policymakers should understand that no single solution will scrub out this scourge. Doing one thing is better than doing nothing at all — but to pretend the work ends there would be irresponsible.

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Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).