On an April Sunday in 1996, a young man named Martin Bryant went to the popular tourist site of Port Arthur in Australia, and using a pair of semi-automatic rifles, undertook a massacre that spread over several locations and killed 35 people. The crime was so horrific that previously pro-gun politicians changed their positions, and less than two weeks later the government announced sweeping changes to the country's gun laws, outlawing automatic and semi-automatic weapons, instituting lengthy waiting periods and background checks for gun purchases, and creating a gun buyback program that eventually resulted in a fifth of the country's firearms being destroyed. In the years since, the country's rates of gun homicide and suicide have fallen dramatically, and Australia has not had another mass shooting.
What happened in Australia—a terrible tragedy galvanizing public sentiment and leading to a significant change in policy—is something many Americans fervently wish would happen here in the wake of last month's shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Details are now emerging on the legal solutions that the White House and its congressional allies will be pushing in the coming days. But anyone hoping for a transformation in America's relationship with guns would do well to be skeptical.
According to Sunday's Washington Post, "A working group led by Vice President Biden is seriously considering measures backed by key law enforcement leaders that would require universal background checks for firearm buyers, track the movement and sale of weapons through a national database, strengthen mental health checks, and stiffen penalties for carrying guns near schools or giving them to minors." That would of course be in addition to a renewal of a ban on "assault weapons" and on high-capacity magazines. Let's look at these in turn to see what effect they might have on our nation's death toll from guns.
The first item on that list closes the "gun show loophole," which might be better known as the "private sale loophole." Only sales through federally licensed dealers—which make up about 60 percent of all sales—require an FBI background check today. Mandating background checks for all sales might mean that if you wanted to sell one of your guns to your neighbor, you'd both have to go down to a local dealer to use their background check system and probably pay a small fee. Gun owners would decry the inconvenience, but realistically, it would mean a gun sale would take half an hour instead of five minutes. Since there are around 130,000 federally licensed gun dealers in the country, about half of which are gun stores or pawn shops (the rest are collectors), no matter where you are there's almost certainly one close by.
The second proposal, creating a database to track sales, could be a useful tool for law enforcement, particularly since gun records are so spotty. And this would be a major change. Today, if you go to a gun store to buy an AR-15, the store runs an instant background check on you. But the store doesn't tell the FBI what kind of gun (or guns) you're buying, just that you're making a purchase. Not only that, the law, written by the NRA's friends in Congress, mandates that the record of the background check is destroyed within 24 hours. A federal database tracking all gun sales would be something new and significant, and you can bet that pro-gun legislators will fight it with all the energy they can muster.
As for "strengthening mental health checks," it's unclear what that might mean. Would it mean creating a database of everyone who had been admitted to any medical facility for mental health services and forbidding them from buying a gun? You might be able to do that, but the fact is that our gun problem isn't people with mental illnesses, even if the perpetrators of some of our frequent mass shootings were mentally ill. Our real gun problem, the one that produces 30,000 American deaths every year, is the arguments that end in a shooting instead of pushing and shoving, the suicides that become all too easy when a gun is in the home, all the bad situations that in other countries don't end in fatalities but do in a country with nearly 300 million guns.
Finally, the White House is considering stiffer penalties for bringing a gun near a school or giving one to a minor. This is the kind of measure that is perfectly laudable, infringes on almost no one's rights, but will likely have no impact on the sum total of American gun carnage.
And what about banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines? The problem there is that there wouldn't be a "ban," in the sense of them becoming illegal. We'd be talking about a ban on future manufacture, importation, and sale, meaning you can keep the ones you have. And you can bet that the gun lobby's friends in Congress would insist on a nice lengthy period before the law takes effect, to make sure everybody gets the chance to stock up. Nevertheless, the bill being proposed by Senator Dianne Feinstein would not only be tougher for the gun manufacturers to elude than the assault weapons ban passed in 1994, it would require that existing owners register their guns in a national database and pass a background check. That universal registration would be another dramatic change.
Does something like that have a hope of passage? It's hard to see how, given the fact that fealty to the NRA has become almost universal among Republicans in Congress, and they control the House. At the same time, there has already been progress since Sandy Hook; Democrats have discovered their spines on the gun issue, and a few Republicans have even begun distancing themselves from the NRA. The fact that we're even talking about such proposals after a silence on gun issues that lasted nearly two decades signifies that a cultural shift may be underway.
So what would America look like if these proposals became law? It would be harder to get certain kinds of military-style weapons, and gun owners would have to jump through a few more hoops. We might even avert some mass shootings, or reduce the body count on some that do occur. But we'd still be a society drowning in guns, with levels of gun violence far, far beyond what exists in any other highly developed country. In Australia in 2009, 30 people were murdered with guns; in their population of around 22 million, that means one Australian in 730,000 was murdered with a gun. In the United Kingdom, which outlawed nearly all private gun ownership after a school shooting in Dunblane, Scotland that occurred just a few weeks before the Port Arthur massacre, there were only 41 gun murders in 2009, with a population almost three times that of Australia's. That year, over 10,000 Americans were murdered with guns, or one out of every 30,000 of us (these data can be found here).
But the kind of restrictions on gun ownership enacted in Australia after Port Arthur and in the U.K. after Dunblane aren't being suggested by the Obama administration, or even by those who have long fought for more restrictions on gun proliferation. The proposals currently on offer are worthwhile, and could help move us in the right direction. But even if they can pass Congress—an uphill battle at best—we'd be naïve to think they'll take us to a place where, like our friends in other western democracies, we don't count thousands of our citizens cut down by guns every year. The bare fact is that we have so many gun deaths in America because we have so many guns. Until that changes, the bodies will keep piling up.