Mass Shootings, a Supreme Court Ruling, Bipartisan Legislation: How America Reached This Moment on Guns

A still from the 2020 documentary "NRA Under Fire." Along with 2015's "Gunned Down," the film offers background on the NRA's role in America's ongoing debate over gun rights and gun control.

A still from the 2020 documentary "NRA Under Fire." Along with 2015's "Gunned Down," the film offers background on the NRA's role in America's ongoing debate over gun rights and gun control.

June 29, 2022

It has been a consequential six weeks in developments involving gun violence, gun rights and gun legislation in America.

Since mid-May, the U.S. has seen multiple mass shootings, including the racist massacre of 10 Black people in a Buffalo, New York, grocery store and the slaughter of 19 schoolchildren and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. Those tragedies were followed by a ruling bolstering gun rights from the U.S. Supreme Court and the passage of the first significant federal gun-safety legislation in decades.

Signed into law by President Joe Biden on June 25 after passing 65-33 in the Senate and 234-193 in the House, the multipronged Bipartisan Safer Communities Act does not ban assault weapons or raise their legal purchase age, measures for which Biden had advocated.

It does strengthen background checks for gun buyers younger than 21, mandating review of their mental health and juvenile records, and it provides federal aid in support of state red-flag laws, which allow authorities to temporarily take away guns from individuals who are deemed dangerous by a judge. Among other measures, the legislation also expands who is covered by a federal law that bars people convicted of domestic violence from owning guns, and it increases spending on mental health, school safety and violence prevention programs and trainings.

“This bill includes important targeted reforms, complete with robust due process protections that I believe will keep our children and our communities safe while respecting Second Amendment rights,” read a statement from Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who helped lead negotiations with a bipartisan group of senators in developing the historic bill. “Will it save lives? I believe the answer to that is yes, and that makes this worth doing.”

“This bill is a compromise. It doesn’t do everything I want,” read a statement from Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who helped lead negotiations along with Cornyn. “But what we are doing will save thousands of lives – without violating anyone’s Second Amendment rights.”

On June 23, the same day the act passed the Senate, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 6-3 ruling in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen. The majority opinion, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, struck down a New York law that required people seeking licenses to carry handguns in public to have a “special need for self-protection.” In issuing its decision, the court established for the first time in its history that people have a constitutional right “to carry a handgun for self-defense outside the home.”

For years, FRONTLINE has been chronicling America’s dialogue on guns, including the role of the National Rifle Association, which applauded the Bruen ruling and opposed the new legislation. Revisit our past reporting, collected below, for context on recent developments.

The Gun Lobby

NRA Under Fire (2020)

The 2020 documentary NRA Under Fire investigated how the NRA, which has long mobilized its base around fear of guns being taken away, came to be challenged by a group of students passionate about a cause of their own. After a 2018 gun massacre killed 14 of their classmates, students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, embarked on a sustained gun-control campaign that helped motivate a groundswell of politicians to take on the NRA. From Gabrielle Schonder, Michael Kirk, Mike Wiser and Jim Gilmore, the documentary traced how the Parkland students helped usher in a new era, in which the NRA saw new challenges to its power.

Gunned Down (2015)

NRA Under Fire built on reporting from an earlier documentary. In 2015’s Gunned Down, FRONTLINE examined how the NRA wielded its political power to dominate America’s gun debate, overpowering calls for change that followed mass shootings from Columbine to Newtown. From Michael Kirk, Jim Gilmore and Mike Wiser, the documentary tracked how the NRA reinvented itself, from a group of gun enthusiasts and sportspeople with minimal engagement in politics to a powerful lobbying force, under longtime NRA leader Wayne LaPierre, that opposed any perceived limitations on the right to bear arms. Gunned Down also covered President Barack Obama tasking then-Vice President Joe Biden with leading a national gun-control effort in the wake of the Newtown shooting that ultimately failed in the Senate.

Biden on Guns

Interview: Joe Biden on School Shootings (2014)

In the days after the May 24, 2022, Uvalde school shooting, FRONTLINE published for the first time an extended interview with then-Vice President Biden, conducted by FRONTLINE’s Jim Gilmore in November 2014 for the making of Gunned Down. In the interview, which offered insight into the future president’s positions, Biden talked about his history of trying to pass “common sense gun laws”; took FRONTLINE back to the days immediately after the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Connecticut; and described how a bipartisan bill to expand federal background checks was defeated amid pushback by the NRA and other gun-rights groups.

An Earlier Texas Shooting

Targeting El Paso (2020)

Less than three years before the Uvalde school massacre, another mass shooting in Texas stunned the nation: A gunman entered a bustling Walmart near the U.S.–Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, and killed 22 people, many of them Mexican Americans, after posting a racist screed online. The 2020 documentary Targeting El Paso, from Marcela Gaviria and Martin Smith, examined how that city became the Trump administration’s testing ground for immigration policy and then the target of a white supremacist, and how Texas Governor Greg Abbott responded to the mass shooting.

The Supreme Court

Supreme Revenge: Battle for the Court (2020)

With Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court days before the 2020 presidential election, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) solidified the conservative court majority he had been seeking for decades — and the chance to shape American life and policy, including on guns and abortion, for a generation. Michael Kirk, Mike Wiser, Jim Gilmore, Gabrielle Schonder and Philip Bennett told the inside story of McConnell’s hard-fought effort to transform the nation’s highest court in Supreme Revenge: Battle for the Court, an updated version of their 2019 film.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Senior Digital Writer, FRONTLINE



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