Mass shootings have shattered Americans’ sense of safety in schools, places of worship, restaurants, office buildings, parking lots, concerts, shopping malls — basically every arena of public life. After each attack, the nation mourns. An outraged public agrees that something must be done. What they don’t agree on is what to do about it.
When it comes to passing laws designed to prevent the next mass shooting, Congress is deadlocked. Lawmakers have offered 110 gun bills this session that run the gamut from banning certain weapons and magazines to easing restrictions on openly carrying guns. With an absence of a national consensus on the issue, states have stepped up. The PBS NewsHour looked into what policies have gained traction at the state level.
“Red flag” laws and regulating firearms
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have passed extreme risk protection orders, or so-called red flag laws, to prevent gun violence. These are the kinds of restrictions President Donald Trump highlighted Monday in his televised address on the latest mass shootings.
Depending on the state, “red flag” laws allow law enforcement, loved ones, lawyers, educators, mental health or medical providers to petition to remove a firearm from a person’s possession if they feel that individual is a threat to themselves or others. In most states, the orders last for 14 days or up to a year.
Garen Wintemute, chair of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis said if used aggressively, these laws might help prevent some mass shootings. Most of the time, “people who commit mass shootings somehow signal intent in advance,” he said. “Their friends, family, social network, social media network know that something is up.”
For example, before the Feb. 14, 2018, school shooting in Parkland, Florida, an acquaintance of the gunman warned the FBI of a planned shooting. No action was taken. Weeks later, “he shot up a school,” killing 17 people, Wintemute said.
By March 2018, Gov. Rick Scott signed Florida’s extreme risk protection order into law. Less than four months later, a high school student threatened to kill himself over a romantic relationship, the Pensacola News Journal reported. School officials submitted sworn affidavits, and within three days, a judge ordered the removal of an AR-15 rifle from the student’s bedroom under the state’s new law. In court, the student’s mother told the paper she no longer worried about coming home to find him dead.
However, there are weaknesses to the system. While these checks may help identify someone who poses a danger to themselves or others, Wintemute said the databases where this information is kept is often incomplete. Why? Agencies don’t always update information. That was the case with the gunmen responsible for mass shootings in Sutherland, Texas; Charleston, South Carolina; and at Virginia Tech.
And a lack of federal data-gathering has muddled efforts to determine whether the policy works. I
Since the Federal Assault Weapons Ban expired in 2004, a handful of states have passed laws to regulate guns and ammunition more strictly. Nine states restrict high-capacity magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds, and seven states restrict or ban assault weapons, according to Ari Freilich of the Giffords Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Two states — Minnesota and Virginia — require background checks before a person can purchase an assault weapon.
Do these laws save lives?
The fact is, we don’t know. In 1996, Congress passed the Dickey Amendment that prohibited federal funds from being used to conduct research that could inform anti-gun advocacy. The chilling effect on data and any broader understanding of how to counter gun-related deaths continues. This year, the House of Representatives passed legislation to fund federal gun violence research. That effort has stalled in the Senate.
As for mass shootings, no one even agrees on how often they occur. The Gun Violence Archive counts a mass shooting as a single event where at least four people were shot and wounded. That organization says 255 have occurred this year alone. The Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University have maintained a database since 2006 that tracks U.S. mass killings in which four people or more are killed, excluding the offender. They use the FBI’s definition of mass murder, but the list is not limited to gun violence. Their total for 2019 is 23.
While mass shootings instantly capture national attention, they amount to less than 1 percent of overall gun-related deaths in the U.S., Wintemute said, adding that “our policies need to have a broader focus.”
From 2005 to 2017, those deaths nationwide rose slightly from 10.3 firearm fatalities per 100,000 to 12 per 100,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At the state level, Alaska had the highest rate of firearm mortality nationwide with 24.5 people per 100,000 deaths in 2017, followed closely by Alabama and Montana. Hawaii had the lowest rate with 2.5 per 100,000 deaths.
Gun violence distinguishes the U.S. globally. According to a 2018 study, the U.S. comes in second only to Brazil in the number of people killed by guns.
What else can be done?
Raising video games and mental health as a response poses “one of the biggest issues and barriers to making progress to pass effective gun policy,” said Cassandra Crifasi, an injury epidemiologist who studies firearm policy and violence prevention at Johns Hopkins University. People in countries where gun violence is rare also play violent video games and live with mental illness, she said.
“We don’t have more violent video games. We don’t have more mental health issues,” she said. “What it comes down to is we have access to more guns that we can shoot more.”
Some advocates — and 2020 Democratic presidential candidates — have called for purchaser licensing. Under this system, someone who wants to buy a gun would have to apply for a license and enter their name, birthdate and fingerprints into a database.
But these systems are also hamstrung by incomplete data, Crifasi noted, and the federal system only asks for names and birthdates. Records can be destroyed, and there’s no obligation to keep records that may prove a seller checked out a potential buyer.
In the end, without a federal law, the U.S.’s patchwork of gun laws make restrictions easy to circumvent. “You’re only as safe as the closest state with weak gun laws,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, a gun reform lobby founded after the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting.
When Matthew Larosiere with the Firearms Policy Center, a gun advocacy group, weighs potential gun laws after a mass shooting, he suggests people ask one question: “If this was in place the week before, would anything be different? If the answer is no, that means it’s not an appropriate response.”
Background checks are riddled with incomplete or inaccurate data and protection order laws can ensnare people without proper cause, he said.
Larosiere suggests that the media should never report the names of suspects after mass shootings, implying the attention inadvertently glorifies the act. Larosiere added that more should be done to improve opportunities for people who felt left out of the nation’s economic gains.
He rejected extreme risk protection orders, saying they deny people due process.
“It’s called due process because you are due that legal process before the government takes something from you,” Larosiere said.
For decades, the constitutionality of gun reform has been raised by pro-gun advocates, including the National Rifle Association. The NRA did not respond to the PBS NewsHour’s request for comment.
Taking the opposite tack, some states have loosened gun restrictions. For example, in 2011, Virginia repealed its law that a person could only buy one handgun every 30 days. In 2017, Arkansas and Georgia passed legislation so students and faculty could carry concealed weapons on school campuses.
In 2007, Missouri repealed its long-term handgun licensing, which Crifasi said created the conditions for a “natural experiment,” Crifasi said. In 2014, she and her colleagues at Johns Hopkins published a study in the Journal of Urban Health that sought to better understand the outcomes of Missouri’s decision.
According to the study, there was a 16-percent increase in the annual murder rate statewide, to 0.93 firearm-linked homicides per 100,000 deaths. “We immediately saw increases in firearm homicides,” she said.
And until there’s new federal guidance or more data, states will be left on their own to feel around in the dark for solutions.