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Gun control after Uvalde: What could work, what won’t work, and what we can learn from the world

Polling indicates Americans favor gun reforms like “red flag” laws and assault weapons bans, but the reality is much more complicated.

Published |Updated
Maggie Severns, Steve Reilly, Jason Paladino, Anya van Wagtendonk, Dan Vergano, Benjamin Powers, Jonathan Lambert, Lili Pike and Morgan Richardson

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Gun Control 360 OVERVIEW

Hear more from Maggie Severns about this story:

“This time we must actually do something,” President Joe Biden said in a speech Thursday night. “How much more carnage are we willing to accept? How many more innocent American lives must be taken before we say ‘enough’?”

Biden proposed a list of gun reforms in his speech, many of which are part of negotiations among a bipartisan group of eight senators in Congress: banning assault-style rifles and raising the minimum age of purchase to 21, establishing a national “red flag” law, expanding background checks for gun purchases, creating new gun storage standards, repealing liability protections for gun manufactures and investing in mental health services.

Gun control is complex: There are few strategies that are politically viable in the U.S. today and no guarantee that implementing a certain gun control measure will stop the next mass shooting.

“This is an incredibly frustrating issue because usually, whenever we have public safety crises, we act proactively. After 9/11, we did a number of things to try to be proactive to stop terrorist attacks from happening. I’m not sure why we don’t look at these mass shooting events and see what we can do to prevent it,” said Cole Wist, a former Republican state legislator in Colorado who broke from his party to sponsor a red flag bill in the state legislature. Colorado passed a red flag law a year later, but Wist lost his reelection bid amid fierce opposition from a pro-gun group.

Gun control has often been a nonstarter in Congress. Polls have found some of these strategies — like raising the minimum age required to purchase a gun — are popular among voters in both parties. But talks about gun control often stall out in the weeks following a mass shooting.

And even if gun control could pass Congress, the Supreme Court is increasingly leaning in the direction of strengthening the Second Amendment — commonly known as the “right to bear arms.” This means any legislation faces an uncertain future in the courts.

Gun Control 360 THESIS


There are many potential ways to prevent future gun deaths, like tightening background checks or raising the minimum age requirement for buying a gun. Polling has found that some of these strategies, like red flag laws and raising the minimum age to purchase guns, have support from a majority of voters in both parties. But in America, strong polling isn’t enough. There’s going to need to be a fundamental rethinking of the debate.

Policies Lens

Commonly proposed policies, and what the evidence says about them

By Steve Reilly - Investigative Reporter, Jason Paladino - Investigative Reporter, Anya van Wagtendonk - Misinformation Reporter, Dan Vergano - Science Reporter

Raising the Minimum Age to Purchase a Gun

Under federal law, the minimum age to purchase a handgun is 18. A handful of states — California, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Vermont and Washington — currently prohibit sales of semi-automatic rifles to people younger than 21.

Proponents of increasing the age at which semi-automatic rifles may be purchased nationwide cite the fact that attackers in mass casualty shootings — including attacks in Buffalo and Uvalde as well as El Paso, Texas, and Parkland, Florida, among other cities — have used rifles they legally purchased before they turned 21. They also point to scientific research that has found teenagers are more likely to engage in violent and criminal activity.

Assault Weapons Ban

In 1994, Congress passed and then-President Bill Clinton signed a 10-year “ban” on certain semi-automatic firearms and ammunition magazines. The move was prompted by a series of mass shootings, including a 1989 school shooting that injured 32 children and killed five.

The federal ban made it illegal to own, sell or manufacture certain semi-automatic firearms named in the legislation, as well as any guns possessing certain features, like folding or telescoping stocks, bayonet mounts, or threaded barrels for attaching flash hiders or suppressors. There were some exceptions for law enforcement and a grandfather clause that allowed such weapons to be transferred legally before the date of enactment.

The ban also applied to “large-capacity ammunition feeding devices,” known by gun control advocates as “high-capacity” magazines. It defined them as storing more than 10 rounds of ammunition. Since the ban expired in 2004, such magazines are widely available and cheap, often less than $10. They can also be made using 3D printers.

Universal background checks

Since the passage of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993, federal law has required any person seeking to buy a gun from a licensed dealer to undergo a background check. Potential buyers are disqualified from purchasing a firearm if they have certain offenses on their records, such as a felony conviction or a restraining order.

Moreover, they argue that a federal universal background check law would cut down on weapons trafficking overall because states would have uniform laws so that traffickers couldn’t as easily move arms from states with looser laws to states with tighter laws.

Red Flag Laws

So-called red flag laws allow a family member, law enforcement official or medical professional to initiate a court proceeding to require that a person, if deemed a danger to themselves or others, temporarily turn in their guns. They also temporarily bar them from buying guns.

“Smart Guns” to reduce accidental shootings

Almost 500 people a year die in unintentional shootings, often children or people cleaning guns. And there has been an alarming increase in gun deaths among children and teens in the last decade, about 32 percent of them suicides. Gun thefts are rampant across the country, with an estimated 1.8 million stolen from 2012 to 2017. Smart guns offer one answer to those problems.

“Guns aren’t going anywhere. But we can use technology to help to keep them out of the wrong hands,” said Margot Hirsch, president of the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation, which promotes gun safety innovations.

Smart guns pair their owner to the weapon with either a radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip — often embedded in a ring — or a biomimetic fingerprint reader. No one else can fire the gun. These technologies were first proposed as way to prevent cops being shot by their own weapons during arrests, blamed in the ‘90s for about 1 in 6 police deaths.

But so far, personalized guns are far from gun store shelves. Edmund sees smart gun sales at least two years away, their upstart prospects still dicey. Established gun makers that tried to introduce them in the last two decades faced boycotts that led to layoffs, factories closing and death threats against gun store owners. The NRA and the wider gun community saw smart guns as a pretext for eventual bans on older, less-secured guns.

“The technology is there, and it’s pretty basic, standard,” said Marissa Edmund, a gun violence analyst at the Center for American Progress. “To not have it implemented is kind of mind-boggling.”

Firearms Lens

What kinds of guns are out there?

By Jason Paladino - Investigative Reporter

The AR-15, named for ArmaLite, the manufacturer that created the original design, has become the gun of choice for many of the deadliest mass shooters, as well as one of the most popular guns in America overall. Far more powerful and destructive types of firearms are widely available and legal.

An AR-15-style rifle can cost anywhere from $500 to over $3,000. Semi-automatic pistols, like the Glock 17 9mm, are in high circulation as the most commonly used law enforcement weapon and can be less than $500. The Glock 17 has a magazine capacity of 17 rounds, but can also be purchased with a 10 or 15 round magazine to comply with some state laws. A Glock 17 was one of the guns used in the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting that left 49 dead. The other gun was a Sig Sauer MCX .223, an AR-15-patterned weapon.

Technologies like “bump stocks,” which allow a semi-automatic weapon to perform like an automatic weapon, were banned in 2019. A bump stock was used in the 2017 Las Vegas shooting that killed 58 people. After the Vegas shooting, where the bump stock allowed the shooter to fire over 1,000 rounds in quick succession, Congress attempted to ban bump stocks, but efforts stalled. The Trump administration announced a ban through regulations on Dec. 18, 2018. Though the deadline to turn in or destroy bump stocks was March 26, 2019, very few were surrendered of the estimated 520,000 in circulation.

A 1994-style ban would be somewhat obsolete with the introduction of “additive manufacturing,” known as 3D printing. For less than $500, a device that bonds small layers of material, usually plastics or composites, can allow a person to download a file and manufacture various gun parts at home.

Since 2004, gun manufacturers have produced millions of weapons and magazines that would have been illegal under the ban. A patchwork of state laws has allowed an industry of state-compliant modifications to flourish, and a healthy aftermarket means millions of guns will be in circulation regardless of regulation.

Public Health Lens

Viewing gun-related injury and death as a public health crisis

By Jonathan Lambert - Public Health Reporter

“How can it not be a public health issue when it’s the most likely reason your child will die in this country?” said Chethan Sathya, a pediatric surgeon and director of the Center for Gun Violence Prevention at Northwell Health. Sathya and others argue that a more comprehensive public health approach could succeed where a singular focus on political solutions has failed.

This approach isn’t focused on confiscation or outright bans, said Megan Ranney, an emergency room physician and academic dean at the School of Public Health at Brown University. “It’s about a more nuanced understanding of the steps needed to reduce the risk of firearm injury while also recognizing that 40 percent of households have a firearm.”

Compiling such basic data can inform the development and implementation of harm-reduction strategies, which must be tailored to different populations depending on their risks. Some physicians are already taking action by discussing guns with patients like they discuss exercise or sugar intake. “We’re asking every patient questions around firearm injury risk,” Sathya said, and making relevant safety recommendations.

Scaling up effective interventions will take buy-in from the gun-owning community, which can be difficult with such a polarizing issue, said Christopher Barsotti, a physician and co-founder of the American Foundation for Firearm Injury Reduction in Medicine. “When you take a health approach and stay away from policy, you’ll find that there’s a lot of consensus on safety and risk.”

Global Lens

Lessons from the world on how mass shootings have catalyzed gun reform

By Lili Pike - China Reporter

Australia’s sweeping gun reforms in the wake of the Port Arthur shooting in 1996 can be instructive in how other countries around the world have acted swiftly to restrict the availability of guns after facing their own atrocities.

In Europe, where owning a gun is a “privilege, not a right,” the U.S. resistance to reform is also difficult to comprehend, said Katharina Krüsselmann, a doctoral student at Leiden University who studies gun violence.

“The biggest thing that is discussed in European media with regards to U.S. mass shootings is how could it not be possible to ban assault rifles? Even if we try to understand that everyone has the right to own a firearm, why an assault rifle that really has no other function other than killing someone?”

Gun Control 360 CONCLUSION

Many discussions of “what can be done about America’s gun violence problem” often end in pessimism. It’s easy to think of this as a debate between “ban all guns” and “do nothing,” but there is a huge chasm between these two options. Many new lines of inquiry within gun violence research may help America bridge this divide between pro-gun and gun control advocates.

Given that the lessons learned from other countries that have successfully reshaped the parameters of gun ownership in the years following mass casualty shootings often hinged on creating unlikely coalitions of former opponents, these spaces of alignment may be a clue as to what next steps are likely to save the most lives.

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