Between 2019 and 2020, the number of homicides in America grew by more than 5,000. The number of homicides with victims aged 12 and under rose by about 80. Sporadic calls for gun control were made in response, but nothing like what we’re hearing now.
Mass shootings tend to do that, especially when, horrifyingly, they involve children. No matter how statistically rare, they concentrate violence in a single shocking, public, indiscriminate event, focusing the entire country on the problem and bringing unfortunate fame to the perpetrators. They keep parents awake at night far from the place where they occurred, no matter how much more logical it would be to worry about, say, car accidents.
As someone who has covered and participated in the gun debate since the mid-2000s, I can offer a brief overview of the options for addressing mass shootings and interpersonal gun violence in general. I’ll stick to policies that have some chance of being enacted—no gun bans coupled with confiscation, for example—and discuss them in order of political plausibility.
I’ll start by noting a discouraging fact: many of these policies have been tried at the state or even federal level before, and researchers have had a hard time pinning down their effects on homicides and mass shootings. (See this RAND Corporation report for a thorough, and scientifically exacting, review.) This doesn’t mean that there are no effects—only that we should expect improvements to be marginal and hard to measure, not transformative and obvious.
Work to identify threatening individuals ahead of time and address their problems. There are two broad ideas here, stemming from the fact that many mass shooters leave a long trail of warning signs before they attack. One is the “red-flag law,” which allows family members, school officials, or law enforcement to seek a temporary court order barring an individual from owning guns (and requiring the surrender of any guns already owned). The other, the subject of a recent book by Mark Follman of Mother Jones, is “threat assessment,” in which law enforcement and institutions such as schools identify individuals showing troubling behavior and then intervene by monitoring these (usually) men, encouraging them to seek treatment or counseling and working with their families.
Both of these approaches raise due-process concerns, because they target people who, despite their troubling behavior, may not yet have done anything illegal. But with the proper guardrails, they can stop (and help) menacing individuals without infringing on the liberties of others.
Step up security in public places, including schools. A security guard or police officer is no guarantee that a shooting can’t take place, and hiring new employees is expensive. But many mass shootings end when armed professionals show up and confront the gunman, and in many locations, extra security can have benefits beyond mass shootings. Some states have taken to letting teachers have guns as well, with training.
Owing to massive cultural differences within the United States, districts will vary in terms of how willing they are to take these steps, especially arming teachers. But stepping up professionally trained security, at least, would be a reasonably middle-ground idea.
More tightly restrict how guns are sold and transferred. “Universal background checks” have been a mainstay of the gun debate. Under current law, people who repeatedly buy and sell guns for profit have to get a federal license and conduct background checks on their buyers, but private individuals who sell from their personal collections do not. These individuals can’t knowingly sell a gun to a felon or other prohibited individual, but they also don’t have to do anything to investigate the buyer.
Most mass shooters buy their guns legally and can pass background checks, but the same isn’t true of criminals in general. In theory, at least, tighter restrictions on private gun transfers could stop some guns from entering the illegal market and make it easier to prosecute people who give guns to criminals—in return for some inconvenience imposed on legal buyers and sellers. Important questions would remain about which types of transfers would be exempt from checks, what records would be generated and stored, and how to enforce the requirement, given that these are transfers between private individuals. So this is an idea with promise but many complexities as well.
Some states go one step further, requiring a “permit to purchase” a gun and allowing local police significant discretion to deny permits—though that brings us back to due-process issues.
Restrict certain types of guns. Any semiautomatic gun with a removable magazine can fire a lot of rounds very quickly—as quickly as the shooter can pull the trigger, and as needed, swap the magazine, which takes just a second or two. These weapons include the standard modern handguns that Americans routinely buy for self-defense (I own two myself), as well as many hunting rifles.
Those seeking to ban “assault weapons” tend to target features like magazine size or tactical accoutrements (such as pistol grips on long guns). These may matter in some instances, but they don’t make a drastic difference to a gun’s lethality, especially against unarmed, helpless victims. Between the debate about which features make a gun an assault weapon, the existing stock of these firearms, and the ease of adjusting gun designs to avoid or restore banned features, assault-weapon bans are also difficult to put into practice. Many shootings involving guns that could plausibly be called assault weapons have occurred in jurisdictions with bans in place: Columbine happened during the period of the federal assault-weapons ban; Connecticut had such a ban at the time of Sandy Hook (and expanded it after the massacre); the Buffalo shooter bought his rifle legally in New York and illegally modified it to hold more rounds.
Assault-weapon bans poll well, so a new one is politically feasible. But it’s an idea with limited potential: most gun murders—and most mass shootings, too—involve normal handguns, not assault weapons, and the differences in lethality between an “assault weapon” and other semiautomatic guns are not so great, practically speaking.
Perhaps a better idea would be both broader, in terms of the guns it applied to, and narrower, in terms of the individuals targeted. America already has a separate policy for long guns, which individuals can purchase at age 18, and handguns, which are restricted until age 21, given their greater concealability and use in violence. Moving some long guns—perhaps even all semiautomatics—to the age 21 category is an idea worth considering. Ross Douthat once proposed an even more staggered approach: “Let 18-year-olds own hunting rifles. Make revolvers available at 21. Semiautomatic pistols, at 25. And semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 could be sold to 30-year-olds but no one younger.”
Thirty years old is too high for any cutoff, both politically and constitutionally speaking. But “18 is too young to buy an AR-15” is a far less controversial notion.
There are hundreds of millions of guns in America, and our Constitution protects gun rights. We’re also a violent country in general, with elevated rates of non-gun homicide to go along with all the shootings. Despite most American homicides’ being committed with guns, we kill one another without guns at a rate of about 1.5 per 100,000 (per data from the Centers for Disease Control)—exceeding the total homicide rates in much of Northern and Western Europe. And regardless of whether an aggressive gun ban would greatly reduce homicides, it’s simply not on the table.
Numerous options remain, however. Many could help to some degree, but none will completely solve the problem or satisfy those horrified and disgusted by it.
Photo by ALLISON DINNER/AFP via Getty Images