What We Can Do about Gun Violence

AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

A Barett M107A1 rifle, left, is for sale at a gun show hosted by Florida Gun Shows, Saturday, January 9, 2016, in Miami. 

This article appears in the Winter 2016 issue of The American Prospect magazineSubscribe here

Although recent rampage shootings have put gun violence back in the national spotlight, many people are convinced no practical measures can be taken. The poisonous politics of guns pose one set of obstacles. The sheer number of guns in private hands—310 million—creates another. Throw in current Supreme Court interpretation of the Second Amendment, and it’s easy to be pessimistic about the possibilities for making America safer. As great as immediate obstacles are, however, we do have the basis for a practical, medium-term agenda for limiting gun violence.

I want to suggest three elements of such an agenda: controls of military-style weapons, regulations of gun purchases by people under age 25, and stronger penalties for illegal gun carrying. 

A fundamental question for gun policy is whether to focus on the most dangerous weapons or on the people who present the greatest risk. In different ways, we should do both.

Rampage shootings and ordinary gun violence are distinct challenges, in part because they typically involve different weapons. Semi-automatic rifles such as the AR-15 are often used in the mass shootings that cause headlines and horror, though they account for a small proportion of gun deaths. Jihadists, other fanatics, and the dangerously mentally ill are drawn to these weapons and to tactical gear such as suppressors and body armor available from websites with names like outlawtacticalarms.com. In contrast, most routine gun violence and the vast majority of gun homicides involve handguns.

Common sense has long argued for stringent controls over the purchase of military-style weapons and gear. Politically, this is an issue that places the National Rifle Association and its allies on the defensive. Moreover, the Supreme Court appears receptive to well-grounded regulation of assault weapons.

Current laws bar some predictably dangerous people—such as convicted felons and those involuntarily committed to psychiatric institutions—from acquiring guns. These laws are helpful and can be strengthened. Yet many dangerous people cannot be identified before they injure or kill others. I know of nothing in the background of Robert Dear, the Planned Parenthood shooter, or of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the San Bernardino killers, that would have legally barred them from buying guns. Severe mental illness accounts for only about 4 percent of community violence. In contrast, an estimated 8.9 percent of American adults experience impulsive anger symptoms and have guns in their homes. Few of these people are legally prohibited from possessing a gun, have ever been involuntarily committed, or would be diagnosed with severe mental illness. Because dangerous people are hard to identify, we should restrict general civilian access to the most dangerous weapons that cause the greatest harm.

We could also tighten regulations for groups at elevated risk who are not wholly barred from gun possession. It is especially hard to identify young adults who are experiencing dangerous mental health challenges but have yet to accumulate the explicit paper trail that would bar them from possessing a gun. Following the example of rental-car companies, we might consider more stringent restrictions and more careful checks on gun purchases by adults younger than age 25.

Gun violence restraining orders (GVROs) may also be helpful in monitoring and helping obviously troubled young men such as Elliot Rodger, who committed a rampage killing in Santa Barbara in 2014. The proposed GVRO process would restrict access to weapons by people who show signs that they pose at least temporary danger to themselves or to others.

Gun regulations could be especially effective in limiting gun crime by teenagers and young adults. Phil Cook, Susan Parker, and I analyzed interviews with 99 gun offenders in Chicago, a city with relatively stringent gun laws. Our research, and the work of others, yields one ironically hopeful finding. Most gun offenders don’t know much about guns or underground gun markets. A young adult who can’t legally buy a gun typically obtains one through a relative, friend, or gang associate. If he has no relationship of trust with someone willing to help, he’ll often fail in this effort. This is good news. It suggests that basic measures to deter straw purchases, illegal gun transfers, or interstate trafficking could make a real difference.

By itself, no city or state can properly prevent or deter the acquisition of guns by people legally barred from possessing them. Low-regulation states export guns, and therefore gun crime, to other localities. Even without national laws, however, swifter and more certain local penalties to deter illegal gun carrying would help. Many offenders carry guns because they are scared of their frightened peers who are doing the same thing. Stronger gun-specific deterrence could alter this risk-benefit calculation and cool the arms race in many localities.

Other incremental changes could also prevent many deaths. Improved background checks, which came close to being enacted after Newtown in the Toomey-Manchin bill, provide one obvious opportunity. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Mark Kirk are now sponsoring a bill to strengthen federal penalties for gun trafficking. 

Unfortunately, some of the best evidence for the impact of incremental change comes from states that weakened good gun policies. In 2007, Missouri repealed its permit-to-purchase handgun law. That legal change was associated with a 25 percent increase in Missouri gun homicides. We must take seriously the measures that can move us incrementally in the opposite direction. We don’t have to live in fear of gun violence.

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