Here’s the good news: America, overall, is a much less violent place than it used to be. Our reported violent-crime rate is almost half what it was in 1991. But here’s the bad: Mass shootings haven’t decreased. In fact, they’ve become even deadlier.
In 2010, the World Health Organization found that the United States’ gun-homicide rates were more than 25 times higher than in any other high-income country.
And that was before Las Vegas. And before Parkland, Florida. We’ve witnessed 19 of the 30 deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history during the past decade.
It isn’t just about murders. The suicide rate has been skyrocketing as well, reaching a 30-year high in 2016. More than half of those suicides were with firearms.
After every mass shooting, we all agree: Something must be done.
We looked at 25 ideas to reduce gun violence, weighing the results of academic research and the analysis of experts.
Some ideas are good. They have a decent shot at saving lives. Some are messy, with the potential benefits weighed down by potential costs. Some are ineffective, doing little to nothing to combat gun violence.
But any or all would be more effective in saving lives than the ridiculous platitudes that have now become de rigueur.
1. PLUG HOLES IN THE BACKGROUND CHECK SYSTEM
Gaps in the federal background check system allow domestic abusers, convicted felons, and people with mental illness to purchase guns.
Roughly 20 percent of Americans purchase guns without a background check. A 2013 survey of prisoners locked up for gun violence found that more than 96 percent of offenders, who were legally prohibited from owning guns, purchased them without a background check.
Experts point to three major holes:
1. In most states, gun buyers are able to purchase guns from unlicensed dealers who aren’t required to run a background check at all.
2. If the FBI doesn’t complete a background check in three business days, licensed dealers are free to sell the gun anyway. FBI data indicates that authorities failed to meet the three-day deadline 1.1 million times between 2014 and 2017.
3. The federal definition of “domestic abuser” doesn’t include unmarried or childless couples. Many states, including Oregon this year, have closed the so-called “Boyfriend Loophole.”
Surveys and research show that strengthening the federal background check system is one of the most feasible and most effective measures to reduce gun violence. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that states that require universal background checks have lower gun-death rates. Surveys show overwhelming public support.
2. LET AMERICANS SUE GUN MANUFACTURERS AGAIN
It’s the American way: If a product is killing an unbelievable number of people, the proper remedy is to sue the hell out of them. But since 2005, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act has made gun manufacturers and dealers essentially legally bulletproof.
Remove the shield, a recent op-ed in the New York Times pointed out, and gun manufacturers suddenly would have a financial incentive, like every other industry, to make their products safer—likely preventing more accidental shootings. While Democrats have repeatedly tried to push legislation to disarm the gun industry’s special shield, it doesn’t have a chance while Republicans are in control.
3. LIFT THE BAN ON GUN-CONTROL RESEARCH
From 2004 to 2014, gun violence killed about as many people as a life-threatening infection known as sepsis, but funding for gun violence research was only about 0.7 percent of the amount spent to study sepsis, according to a 2017 research letter in the Journal of the American Medical Association. In fact, the researchers found that gun violence was the least researched cause of death, in relation to mortality rate, and only research into deaths by falling are funded less.
Part of what has stymied gun research in the U.S. is the 1996 “Dickey Amendment,” which prevents the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from spending money on activities that “advocate or promote gun control.” Former Arkansas Republican Rep. Jay Dickey, the amendment’s namesake, told NPR he never intended for the amendment to cut off federal gun research altogether, only gun-control advocacy, and he regrets that the effect was to essentially halt research in the area.
4. COPY THE AUSSIES
It’s considered perhaps one of the most successful gun-control programs in history. It’s also about as close to “taking your guns” as the mainstream gun-control movement gets.
Here are the simple facts: There were 13 mass shootings in 18 years before Australia’s sweeping National Firearms Agreement in 1997. In the 20 years after, there has been just one. While skeptics quibble with whether the law can be entirely credited, the country’s already-low firearm homicide rate fell further, and suicides absolutely plunged.
The key, as the Science Vs. podcast explains, seemed to be the thicket of other laws that came with it, including a ban on semi-automatic and pump-action rifles and shotguns. You have to show a good reason to own a gun—and self-defense doesn’t count. You can only sell through a licensed dealer. You have to register your gun and report it if it’s stolen.
Much of the Australia program would also almost certainly be struck down by the Supreme Court, and the cultural and physical geography of the United States would create serious regulatory challenges. But even some pieces of Australia’s gun-control program, when combined, could seriously reduce deaths here in the U.S.
5. TRACK GUNS—AND MANDATE REPORTING IF THEY’RE STOLEN
One of the most effective parts of Australia’s gun-control strategy was simply creating a gun registry—and then enforcing it. In the United States, gun-rights activists fear registries are only the first step to confiscation, and research on their effectiveness in the U.S. is limited.
Yet the potential benefits are clear, particularly when combined with a requirement that lost or stolen guns are reported: It’s a way to close the loophole of “straw purchasers,” where a person illegally buys a gun for somebody else who is ineligible to purchase one. It hands law enforcement officers the ability to actually identify which guns are stolen, cracking down on illicit arms traders and allowing cops to get convictions for thieves. And it encourages gun owners to do a better job of safely securing their weapons.
A 2002 report from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms concluded that about 85 percent of criminal gun owners were not the original purchasers of their guns.
6. INSTITUTE BACKGROUND CHECKS AND TRACKING FOR AMMUNITION
Only a handful of states currently have laws regulating the purchase of ammunition. Federal law does not currently require ammo purchasers to submit to a background check.
This year, congressional Democrats introduced a bill that would establish a federal background check system for ammo. U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Florida), one of the sponsors of the bill, has said it would plug an “absurd loophole” that allows people to “amass hundreds of rounds of ammunition without so much as sharing their first name with a gun store clerk.”
Starting in 2019, California will require ammo vendors to report bullet sales to the state’s Department of Justice and conduct background checks on ammunition customers. New York and New Jersey have similar laws.
A study in the journal Injury Prevention analyzing school shootings between 2013 and 2015 found that states with ammunition background checks (along with other factors) have lower rates of school shooting incidents.
7. BAN HIGH-CAPACITY MAGAZINES
To trained hands, reloading a weapon is second nature, like wiping your brow or cracking your knuckles. The rounds run out, the bolt slams forward, the magazine drops with a simple push of a finger, and a new magazine is inserted. It only takes a few seconds.
But in a mass shooting, those seconds can buy people time to get to safety—or disarm the shooter. At Seattle Pacific University in 2014, an unarmed student used pepper spray to subdue a shooter while he was reloading.
And as advocates of high-capacity magazine bans point out, you wouldn’t need more than 10 rounds before reloading to kill a deer.
High-capacity magazines and the weapons capable of employing them, including handguns, were disproportionately recovered by police in connection with violent crimes in Baltimore, Minneapolis, and Richmond. These same types of magazines were used in the 2017 Las Vegas shooting. Ultimately, reducing the number of rounds that can be shot from any weapon will reduce its lethality.
8. MAKE FIREARM OWNERS LOCK ’EM UP
More than two-thirds of school shooters got their guns from their own homes or homes of relatives.
Massachusetts legally requires guns to be either kept in locked containers or protected with a trigger lock that prevents them from being fired. Gun-rights advocates strenuously objected, arguing that locking up their firearms made it nearly impossible to ward off a home invader.
But a 2015 Harvard University analysis found that victims using guns to ward off criminals were more likely to be injured than people who just tried to run away. By contrast, other studies have found that safe storage practices significantly reduce the risk of suicide and accidental gun deaths. Not only that, it makes it harder for thieves to steal them during a burglary.
9. PUSH DOCTORS TO TALK TO PATIENTS ABOUT GUNS
Before the Parkland shooting, Florida was such a pro-gun state that it actually passed a law restricting doctors’ abilities to ask their patients about gun ownership. (The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals struck it down last year.)
That flies in the face of recommendations from the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, both of which recommend doctors discuss guns with their patients to prevent accidental shootings and suicides.
Not only that, but one 2000 American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry study found that after counseling from a psychiatrist, a third of the parents of suicidal teens removed firearms from their homes. With suicide, by far, the leading cause of deaths is from firearms. That’s a big deal.
10. BAN BUMP STOCKS
When a mass shooter fires into a crowd with a semi-automatic rifle, how fast he can pull the trigger becomes a life-or-death question. In the Las Vegas shooting last October, the gunman in the Mandalay Bay Hotel room was able to fire nine rounds per second. That’s thanks to a rifle modification called a bump stock, which harnesses the recoil of a weapon to allow a shooter to fire at speeds comparable to already-illegal automatic weapons.
After Las Vegas, banning bump stocks has become a rare gun-control measure even Republicans in Congress say they support—though not, so far, enough to actually pass federal legislation to ban them.
But the impact would likely be small. While fewer people may have died in Las Vegas if bump stocks were banned, the devices have rarely, if ever, been used in prior shootings.
11. RAISE THE FIREARM PURCHASING AGE
Check out this absurdity: You can’t buy a handgun from a licensed dealer if you’re under 21. But if you’re 18, you can still buy an AR-15.
After the Parkland shooting, even gun-rights-loving Florida passed a bill that hiked the age to 21. The reform is unlikely to have a dramatic impact on mass shootings, however. Out of the 156 mass shootings since 2009, a Vox piece explained, only one was committed by a gunman under age 21 with a legally purchased semi-automatic rifle.
So gun-control advocates suggest going further: Raise the legal age for unlicensed dealers as well, barring informal gun sellers—dealers at gun shows, for instance—and online stores from selling handguns and rifles. Heck, raise it to 25. Treat guns as seriously as rental cars. FBI data shows that more than half of firearm-homicide offenders from 2005 to 2015 were under 25.
12. GIVE COPS THE POWER TO RESPOND TO RED FLAGS
The horror of the Parkland shooting was compounded by the fact that so many people knew that the shooter was a danger. Why didn’t anyone take away his weapons? Because they legally couldn’t. All the red flags in the world can’t do much if the cops don’t have a legal right to act on them.
It’s caused a number of states to enact “red flag” laws, giving cops the power to ask a court for a warrant to temporarily remove a person’s access to firearms if they’re an imminent danger to themselves or others.
In the 14 years after Connecticut implemented such a law in 1999, police temporarily removed an average of seven firearms from each at-risk gun owner across 762 firearm-removal cases, one study found. Often, those gun owners were connected with mental-health treatment they wouldn’t have received otherwise. Ultimately, more than 100 suicides may have been prevented, the study estimated.
13. LET FAMILY MEMBERS PETITION FOR GUN REMOVALS
The profile of mass shooters can vary radically, but a few things keep popping up: They’re almost always men. And they very often have a history of domestic violence. In fact, more than half of the shootings from 2009 to 2016 tallied by Everytown for Gun Safety involved domestic or family violence.
It’s scary as hell to be a woman trapped in a violent relationship—it’s even scarier if he can kill you with the click of a trigger. It’s why some states have adopted the use of Gun Violence Restraining Orders.
Red-flag laws in states such as California and Washington let family members, friends, and employers—not just a police officer—ask a court to temporarily take away a person’s firearm access.
14. ALERT THE COPS WHEN SOMEONE FAILS A GUN BACKGROUND CHECK
Here’s a policy both Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and his counterpart Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson support: It requires federal officials to notify local authorities within 24 hours whenever someone tries to buy a gun but fails the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
Last year, Washington state passed a similar bill, requiring gun dealers to report a failed background check. A KING 5 report found that there were almost 4,000 instances of failed background checks per year in Washington state, but police were doing little to follow up to find out why ineligible buyers were trying to purchase weapons. It’s a minor fix, but since authorities often miss multiple red flags before mass shootings, this would at least make the red flags more noticeable.
15. REQUIRE STATES TO SHARE MENTAL-HEALTH RECORDS WITH THE FEDS
Technically, federal law already prohibits people with a history of some mental-health conditions from possessing guns. But the FBI’s federal background check system relies on states voluntarily reporting that information, and participation is spotty. A New York Times report in 2016 found that Pennsylvania had entered over 718,000 mental records into the federal background check system, for example, while Montana had entered a grand total of four.
There are legitimate debates about which mental-health conditions should exclude a person from gun ownership; the vast majority of people with mental-health conditions, after all, are not violent. But as it stands, some states failing to share their information or properly enforcing the law have allowed dangerous individuals such as the Virginia Tech shooter to gain access to guns.
16. LET GUN OWNERS IN CRISIS TEMPORARILY SURRENDER THEIR WEAPONS
This legislative session, Washington state passed a first-of-its-kind law intended to prevent suicides. Citizens can now voluntarily waive their rights to own a gun by having their name added to a list of prohibited purchasers in the national background check database.
The new law outlines a process to make sure identities aren’t falsely added to the prohibited list and, it includes a way for people to restore their gun rights later.
Other means of voluntary gun surrender vary. Most law enforcement agencies and gun sellers are willing to temporarily store guns for people who are concerned their loved one is suicidal or worried about their gun being safely stored while they are away from home or have visitors over, according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health in October 2017. About 75 percent of the 448 law enforcement agencies in the eight states surveyed in the study already provide some form of temporary storage.
17. REQUIRE A POLICE INTERVIEW TO GET A GUN
In New York, it generally takes about six months to get a gun after the applications, background check, safety training, and an interview with a uniformed NYPD officer. New York also requires safe storage and reporting if a gun is lost or stolen, and it bans large-capacity magazines and assault-style weapons.
Firearm death rates in New York are consistently among the lowest in the entire country. In 2016, CDC data showed a rate of 4.2 firearm deaths per 100,000 people, compared to, say, Alaska’s 23.3 or Idaho’s 14.6.
18. REQUIRE FIREARM OWNERS TO TAKE GUN-SAFETY CLASSES
About 61 percent of U.S. gun owners have gotten some type of training, which typically included information about safe handling, storage, and prevention of accidents, according to a 2015 University of Washington study. But the study identified gaps in training: Only 15 percent of owners said they were trained about suicide prevention, and only 14 percent of those who lived with gun owners had received any safety training.
In countries that require some type of safety course (often coupled with other strict rules around gun ownership) such as Japan, the U.K., and India, the rate of gun deaths is significantly lower than in the U.S.
And according to a new Johns Hopkins study, those who said a gun-safety course influenced their storage practices were more than twice as likely to store all their weapons in a locked manner compared to the general population.
19. LET COPS DESTROY SEIZED GUNS
More than a dozen weapons confiscated by Washington state law enforcement since 2010 later ended up as evidence in new crimes, according to an extensive Associated Press investigation.
Research shows that as gun ownership increases, so do gun homicides. With that in mind, the state law requiring the Washington State Patrol to sell or trade back to the public most of the guns it confiscates seems counterproductive. In fact, this legislative session, WSP supported a bill that would have given them the option to destroy confiscated firearms. It didn’t pass.
While some police chiefs wince at the idea of recirculating guns back to the public, others, such as Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl, contend that the firearms sales are an essential source of income.
20. MANUFACTURE AND SELL SMART GUNS
Smart guns are designed to restrict who can fire them. Some require an authorized fingerprint; others use a radio-controlled watch or other device that must be within a certain distance of the gun in order to fire. There are also trigger guards that require a fingerprint to unlock.
A small 2003 study of 117 unintentional and undetermined firearm-related deaths found that personalized firearms technology was among the most effective at reducing accidental deaths.
While the National Institute of Justice issued baseline requirements for smart guns at Obama’s direction, so far, a relative lack of funding along with backlash from gun-rights proponents, including the NRA, has stifled smart guns’ popularity. An NRA-led boycott of Smith & Wesson almost put the gunmaker out of business after it pledged to research smart guns among other reforms.
21. ALLOW LOCAL GOVERNMENTS THE POWER TO REGULATE GUNS
Most states have laws broadly preventing local governments from regulating guns. Since the 1980s, prompted by the NRA and other gun-rights groups, at least 43 states have passed “preemption” laws, which advocates argue prevent a burdensome patchwork of local rules.
In states without preemption, such as California, cities have the flexibility to impose local gun-control policies. San Francisco requires safe storage in a locked container when the owner isn’t carrying his gun, which studies show can prevent accidental shootings, a leading cause of death for children.
Still, local rules come with inherent limitations. High-crime cities such as Chicago show that even strict local laws can’t stop guns from crossing state and local borders.
22. BAN “ASSAULT-STYLE” WEAPONS
In 1994, the United States banned the manufacture and sale of certain semi-automatic weapons with military-style features and large-capacity magazines. The idea was to limit the number of crimes committed using weapons that could fire a large number of bullets rapidly.
The ban was lifted in 2004. A 2018 Quinnipiac University poll found that 67 percent of Americans support the ban returning.
A federally funded study found the effect on overall violence to be minimal, in part because assault weapons are used in so few incidents (though high-capacity magazines were more common) and in part because the ban’s narrow definition of “assault weapon” hinges on military-style features such as a pistol grip or a folding stock.
Although semi-automatic rifles are rarely used to commit crimes, when they are, the potential devastation is terrifying. The purpose of the ban in 1994 was to reduce the lethality of mass shootings. Mass shootings have become much more lethal since the ban expired.
23. MAKE GUN BUYERS WAIT
The idea is to require a gun buyer to wait a period of time between the purchase and when he or she actually takes possession of the gun. Waiting periods would give authorities more time to complete background checks, advocates say. Research strongly suggests waiting periods can create a “cooling-off” period and reduce impulsive violence and suicides.
The American Medical Association has voiced support of waiting periods, and a Quinnipiac University poll found 79 percent of voters support such a mandate.
At least nine states and the District of Columbia have some sort of waiting period, typically between two and seven days. A 2017 study in the National Academy of Sciences journal using data on waiting-period laws from 1970 to 2014 found that the laws are associated with a 17 percent reduction in gun homicides and a 7 percent to 11 percent reduction in gun-related suicides.
24. ADD MORE MENTAL-HEALTH COUNSELING TO SCHOOLS
Mental-health counselors in schools can play a critical role in identifying at-risk students and referring them to appropriate treatment. That can prevent students, including would-be school shooters, from harming themselves or others.
Studies have shown that nearly 87 percent of shooters leave behind evidence that they were victims of severe bullying that resulted in thoughts of suicide or revenge. Though most bullied children do not decide to open fire on fellow students as revenge, providing resources to these students could prevent harm. While schools typically lack the number of school psychologists recommended by the National Association of School Psychologists, in recent years school leadership has been more open to adding mental-health resources and threat-assessment teams in schools.
The drawbacks to this are minimal. Even if the increased mental-health counselors don’t prevent any school shootings, they’re sure to provide easy access to much-needed support for troubled students.
25. HARNESS THE MIGHTY POWER OF CORPORATIONS
One sign the response to recent shootings has been different? Corporations started speaking out. Walmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and Kroger raised restrictions on the minimum age required to buy firearms. CitiGroup banned their business partners from selling firearms to those under 21—and from selling high-capacity magazines or bump stocks at all.
Major investment firm BlackRock announced they’d offer customers the ability to invest in funds that did not include gun manufacturers. Companies such as Enterprise-Rent-A-Car, Symantec, MetLife, Delta, and United all announced they’d be ending their discount programs for NRA members.
It’s uncertain whether many companies will be willing to infuriate major chunks of their customers by championing regulation of their gun rights. But we’ve already seen what sort of massive power corporations wield when they get into politics. As an example, look at how they beat back trans-bathroom bills in Texas and North Carolina.
Article contributors: Mitch Ryals, Daniel Walters, Samantha Wohlfeil, Wilson Criscione, and Quinn Welsch.
A version of this article first appeared in the Inlander, a weekly based in Spokane, Washington.