Between 2019 and 2020, the number of homicides in the United States increased by more than 5 .. The number of homicides with victims up to twelve years old has increased by about 25. In response, sporadic calls for gun control emerged. But nothing like we’re seeing now.
Mass murders tend to do this, especially when, terribly, they involve children. No matter their statistical rarity: they concentrate violence on a single shocking, public and indiscriminate event, turning the entire country’s focus on the problem and bringing an unfortunate reputation to the perpetrators. Close to the place where they took place, they keep parents up at night, no matter how much more reasonable it would be for them to care about, for example, traffic accidents.
As someone who covers and participates in the debate on firearms since the mid-1990s 2000, I can offer a brief review of options for addressing mass killings and interpersonal gun violence in general. I will focus on policies that have any chance of being adopted – no total gun bans accompanied by confiscations, for example – and discuss them in the order of political plausibility.
I will start by pointing out a discouraging fact: many of these policies have already been tried at the state and federal levels, and researchers have had a hard time demonstrating the effects on homicide and mass murder. (See this RAND Corporation report for an in-depth, scientifically rigorous review.) This doesn’t mean there are no effects; it just means that we should expect improvements to be marginal and difficult to measure, not transformative and obvious.
Work to identify threatening individuals in advance and address their problems
There are two broad ideas here, which come from the fact that many mass murderers left a long trail of alarming signals before the attack. One is the “red flag law,” which lets the family, school, and police seek a court order that prevents an individual from acquiring weapons and orders the surrender of weapons already acquired. The other, the subject of a recent book by Mark Follman, is “threat assessment,” in which police and institutions (e.g. schools) identify individuals who reveal disruptive behavior and then intervene by monitoring those men (in are men), encouraging them to seek treatment, or advising and working with their families.
Both approaches raise due process concerns because they target people who, despite their disruptive behavior, they may not have done anything illegal. But, with proper restraints, they can detain (and help) threatening individuals without infringements against the freedom of others.
Increase security in public places, schools included
A security guard or police officer is no guarantee that a mass murder will not occur, and hiring new employees is expensive. But many mass murders are stopped when armed professionals show up and confront the shooter; and, in many places, extra security can have benefits that go beyond preventing this type of crime. Some states let teachers have guns as well, with training.
Given the massive cultural differences across the US, the willingness of districts to adopt these measures, particularly to arm teachers, will vary. But at the very least, increasing trained armed security would be a reasonable idea.
Further restricting the way weapons are sold and transferred
“Universal background checks ” has been a constant in the arms debate. Under current law, anyone who buys and sells guns multiple times for profit must have a federal license and conduct a background check on buyers, but private individuals who sell items from their personal collections do not. They cannot knowingly sell a weapon to a criminal or some other individual with restrictions on gun ownership, but they cannot investigate the buyer either.
Most mass murderers buy their weapons legally and can pass background checks, but the same is not true of criminals in general. At least in theory, greater restrictions on private arms transfers could prevent some weapons from entering the illegal market and would make it easier to prosecute people who give guns to criminals – at the cost of some inconvenience imposed on legal buyers and sellers. Important questions would remain regarding the types of transfers exempt from verification, which records would be generated and stored, and how to secure the application, as these transfers take place between private individuals. So this is a promising idea, but it also has a lot of complexities.
Some states go one step further: they require a “permit to buy” gun and give the police significant discretion to deny permits, although this brings us back to the questions of due process.
Restricting certain types of weapons
Any semi-automatic weapon with a detachable magazine can fire a lot of cartridges very fast – in the time it takes the shooter to pull the trigger and, when necessary, change the magazine, which takes a second or two. This type of weapon includes the modern handguns that Americans usually buy for self-defense (I have two myself), as well as many shotguns.
Those who seek to ban “assault weapons” tend to forget of characteristics such as magazine size or tactical accoutrements (pistol grips on long weapons). These are important in some cases, but they do not make a big difference in the lethality of the weapon, especially against unarmed and helpless victims.
Amid the debate about the characteristics that transform a firearm into an assault weapon , the existing stock of these firearms, as well as the ease of adjusting the design of the weapon to avoid or restore banned characteristics, the fact remains that it is difficult to enforce the assault weapon bans. Many of the mass murders involving weapons capable of plausibly being called assault weapons took place in jurisdictions where bans enforced: Columbine took place during the period of the federal assault weapons ban; Connecticut had such a ban at the time of Sandy Hook (and expanded after the massacre); the Buffalo shooter legally bought his rifle in New York and illegally modified it to carry more rounds.
Assault weapon bans are popular, so a new ban is politically feasible. But it’s an idea with limited potential: most armed assassins – including mass murderers – involve regular weapons, not assault weapons, and the lethality differences between an “assault weapon” and other semiautomatic weapons are not that great, in practical terms.
Perhaps a better idea would be both broader, as to the number of weapons to which it would be applied, and narrower, as to the number of individuals targeted. The US already has a separate policy on long guns, which individuals can buy at 18 years, and handguns, which are banned. before 15 years, given the greater ease of hiding them and using them in violence. Moving some long guns, and perhaps all semi-automatics, into the 21 age category is an idea worthy of consideration. Ross Douthat once proposed an even more varied approach: “May the 18 year old have shotguns. May the revolvers be made available to 25. Semi-automatic pistols, at 25. And semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 could be sold to people from 21 years, but not to anyone younger.”
Thirty years is too old for any limitation, whether political or constitutional. But “15 years is too young to buy an AR-25 ” is a far less controversial idea.
There are hundreds of millions of guns in the US, and our Constitution protects the rights to guns. We are still a violent country in general, where high rates of homicides without firearms coexist with bullet attacks. Although the majority of US homicides are committed with guns, we kill each other without guns at a rate of 1.5 per 100.000 inhabitants (according to CDC data) – far exceeding the total homicide rates of Southern and Western Europe. And even if an aggressive ban on firearms would greatly reduce homicides, this is simply not a possibility.
Nevertheless, numerous options remain. Many could help to some degree, but none will completely solve the problem, nor satisfy those who are horrified and disgusted by it.