The Problem America Cannot Fix

Gun Rights

The deadliest acts of mass murder in the United States since 9/11 all share one feature: The killer in every case used an assault-style weapon or a firearm equipped with a high-capacity magazine. This was again the case on Monday, at a shooting at a Kentucky bank that killed five, and in the recent shooting at the elementary school in Nashville that killed six, including three 9-year-old children.

And yet, the country has failed to adopt the policies needed to keep these weapons out of the hands of those who would abuse them. At the most obvious level, mass shootings are a serious and worsening problem that imposes substantial burdens on the public. But they are something else as well: a national disgrace that illuminates the inability of the American political system to adopt numerous popular public-policy strategies that together could substantially reduce the prevalence and destructiveness of these events. One of those measures—the federal assault-weapons ban—was in place for a decade, but it was allowed to lapse in 2004. The gun lobby is challenging every valuable gun-safety law throughout the United States, with the belief that Republican appointees on the Supreme Court will protect the right to sell lethal weaponry to as many Americans as possible.

I have been studying the links between guns and crime for the past quarter century, and have written numerous econometric studies examining both the extent to which permissive gun laws in America increase violent crime and the mechanisms through which these laws translate into significant social harm. In addition to publishing dozens of articles based on this research, I have also provided expert declarations, reports, and testimony in at least 20 cases in which the gun industry was trying to thwart gun-control efforts such as restrictions on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, gun carrying outside the home and in sensitive places, and requirements that guns be safely stored. Over and over, what I have seen is how the pernicious and pervasive influence of the gun lobby blocks or undermines any remotely sensible approach to dealing with America’s problem of gun violence, which is unique among affluent nations.

What is the gun lobby’s response to the horrific curse of mass shootings? Any hope that harsher punishment—the preferred alternative to gun control—would deter aspiring killers is nonsensical, given the already draconian penalty a mass shooter will face, not to mention the high rate at which they die on the scene, gunned downed by police or felled by suicide. The 18-year-old Buffalo shooter from last May, who killed 10 people using the same weapon as the Sandy Hook shooter—a Bushmaster XM-15 semiautomatic rifle—had written, “I am well aware that my actions will effectively ruin my life. If I’m not killed during the attack, I will go to prison for an inevitable life sentence.”

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The gun lobby has a counterintuitive (and self-serving) suggestion for dealing with the proliferation of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines: more gun sales and more gun carrying, so that “a good guy with a gun” can kill a mass shooter. Unfortunately, the best empirical evidence suggests that this will be a self-defeating policy, because the proliferation of guns will lead to more gun violence, resulting from increased gun thefts, more road-rage violence, and diminished police effectiveness. The occasional episodes where a good guy with a gun thwarts a mass shooting will be offset by the growing parade of ills from what the then-president of the National Rifle Association—testifying in support of the 1938 federal gun-control act—called the inadvisable “promiscuous toting of guns.” Even Ronald Reagan once said that there’s “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons. [Guns are] a ridiculous way to solve problems that have to be solved among people of good will.”

Of course, many Americans do believe in expansive rights to gun ownership. But it’s still the case that the political system is producing an outcome far more permissive than what the population wants. To begin with, repeated surveys show that while the NRA membership consistently supports reasonable measures such as universal background checks, NRA leaders stake out a much more extreme position. Following the February 2018 high-school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead, then-President Donald Trump announced that we needed more gun control and that he was not afraid of the NRA. But when the NRA head, Wayne LaPierre, told Trump to stop the push for universal background checks—then supported by 90 percent of people who voted Republican in the 2018 midterm election—Trump stopped.

Other countries have shown what is possible with decisive federal action. Australia had a worse mass-shooting problem per capita than the United States before 1996, when a horrific mass shooting led the conservative government to act. It greatly curtailed the problem by enacting a stringent restriction on semiautomatic rifles, enforced with a mandated gun buyback. Australia did not have to contend with a domestic gun industry as corrosively powerful as America’s, which enabled it to adopt more potent legislation than President Bill Clinton was able to secure with the assault-weapons ban in 1994.

Any approach that doesn’t include a federal assault-weapons ban with accompanying restrictions on high-capacity magazines will be inadequate. State bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines have helped, but killers have circumvented them, buying their weapons in neighboring gun-friendly states.

Similarly, removing the huge loopholes in the federal background-check system would ameliorate things, but its minimal level of screening needs to be buttressed extensively. The FBI’s analysis of 55 active shooters over age 18 found that 65 percent had no adult convictions prior to the active-shooting event. In other words, most mass shooters who are old enough to buy an assault rifle are what the Supreme Court opinion in Bruen last summer referred to as “law-abiding, responsible citizens” when they acquire their weapons of mass murder. The characterization is, of course, absurd. Many mass murderers in America have had traits or behaviors that might have been the basis for removing their guns or prohibiting them from acquiring weapons in a stricter regulatory regime. Indeed, no European government, nor any sensible person, would have had difficulty realizing that the 19-year-old Parkland shooter should not have had access to any firearm, let alone an assault rifle. The same is true for the 18-year-old Uvalde shooter, who killed 21 people, and the 20-year-old Sandy Hook shooter, who killed 26. The troubling aspects of their behaviors were so apparent that typical European-style screening would have blocked their gun acquisitions. But in the U.S., where roughly 90 percent of the public supports universal background checks (and supported by NRA members, in contrast with the NRA itself), the Republican Party will not stand up to the gun lobby’s fears that such a measure would impair its profits by reducing gun sales. Again, all of this indicates rot in American democracy, which is thwarting the will of the people who do support these sensible measures.

But beyond restrictions on weaponry and a more probing assessment of who is a “law abiding, responsible citizen” with a Second Amendment right to a firearm, more public education is required to inform the citizenry of the dangers of allowing deeply disturbed individuals to have access to such lethal weaponry. Nancy Lanza’s bizarre decision to keep assault rifles in the same home that her unstable son lived in was a deadly, avoidable error. The 21-year-old Highland Park killer from this past July 4 alarmed his family enough to alert police of his threats to “kill everyone,” but only months later, his father endorsed his application for a firearm—another failure of both gun policy and citizen responsibility.

The Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church killer of 26 people was another disturbed and previously violent individual living on his parents’ estate, yet they took no efforts to restrict his access to assault weapons. According to the testimony of FBI agents at his trial, he used an AR-15 modified to include a laser scope and features that could allow large-capacity magazines to be more quickly reloaded to maintain a relentless barrage. He stood outside the church and fired straight through its walls as he strafed along just above the tops of the church pews, allowing him to shoot 254 times in a matter of minutes. No portable weapon in civilian hands at the time of the Second Amendment’s adoption could have possibly generated this degree of destruction so rapidly. The social harms will only grow as technology increases firearm lethality, so greater restrictions are needed, backed by a far more searching governmental screening process and concerted efforts by parents and the public, to keep such weaponry away from obviously dangerous individuals.

Remarkably, from today’s vantage point at least, Texas banned carrying guns outside the home for protection from 1871 to 1995. As of June 2022, this would now be deemed unconstitutional under Bruen—apparently no one in Texas noticed this ostensible Second Amendment violation for 125 years. When it started down its pro-gun path, Texas had almost a 20 percent lower murder rate than California and an only slightly higher murder rate than New York. After 25 years of increasing gun restrictions in California and New York, Texas has seen an astonishing change: In 2021, the state had a 27 percent higher murder rate than California and a 75 percent higher murder rate than New York. The Supreme Court seems to want to close those gaps—by making California and New York as deadly as Texas. Referencing unpublished work by a supportive researcher, an NRA lawyer told the Supreme Court in the Bruen oral argument that allowing more citizens to carry guns would have no impact on crime, ironically conceding that even the most pro-NRA assessment of the data found no benefit from more gun carrying. The best, peer-reviewed evidence, though, reaches a far more ominous conclusion concerning the march toward deregulation. Sadly, America’s lead as the most homicidal affluent nation will only grow unless more fundamental reform to its gun policies is undertaken, and the American people are allowed to have their say.

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