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.
Today, high school and middle school students have risen up in protests and marches after the Parkland shooting, demanding that something must be done.
We looked at 20 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. And some are just plain ugly, likely to result in more death and injury, rather than less.
Proposals likely to reduce gun violence and save lives
1) PLUG HOLES IN THE BACKGROUND CHECK SYSTEM
Gaps in the federal background check system (the National Instant Criminal 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. Some states, including Washington, have closed this gap. After Missouri stopped requiring background checks for all firearm purchases, researchers found a 25 percent increase in firearm homicides.
2) If the FBI doesn’t complete a background check in three business days, licensed dealers are free to sell the gun anyway. This is how the man who killed nine parishioners inside a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, bought a gun.
FBI data indicates that authorities failed to meet the three-day deadline 1.1 million times between 2014 and 2017. However, it’s unclear how many firearms were actually sold because dealers have discretion to wait until the check is completed.
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.”
Strengthening the federal background check system is one of the most feasible and most effective measures to reduce gun violence, surveys and research show. 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) LIFT THE BAN ON GUN-CONTROL RESEARCH
From 2004-2014, gun violence killed about as many people as life-threatening infections 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.”
3) 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 ineligible to purchase one. It hands law enforcement officers the ability to actually identify which guns are stolen — cracking down on both 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 weren’t the original purchaser of their gun. So if you’re worried about stopping a bad guy with a gun — make sure he doesn’t get that gun in the first place.
4) 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.
5) MAKE FIREARM OWNERS LOCK ’EM UP
An eighth-grade school shooter in Townville, South Carolina, the Washington Post reported, thought he’d be able to kill at least 50 of his classmates — 150 if he got lucky. But he couldn’t get into the gun safe where he thought his dad kept the powerful Ruger Mini-14 semi-automatic rifle. Instead, he settled for a pistol he found in his dad’s dresser — a pistol that jammed after he shot several elementary school students. He didn’t notice that the rifle hadn’t actually been locked up either.
More than two-thirds of school shooters got their guns from their own homes or homes of relatives.
6) 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 all 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.
7) 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.
While Republicans like Washington state’s Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers argue that those old enough to join the Army should be able to privately own semi-automatic rifles, 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 of 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.
8) 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.
9) 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 in 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 enforce the law, have allowed dangerous individuals like the Virginia Tech shooter to gain access to guns
10) REQUIRE A POLICE INTERVIEW TO GET A GUN
In 1911, New York passed the Sullivan Act. Richard Aborn, president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, calls the act “possibly the most effective gun control law in the history of the country,” in an interview on Slate’s podcast, The Gist.
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, Aborn says. New York also requires safe storage and reporting if a gun is lost or stolen and bans large-capacity magazines and assault-style weapons.
“The goal is not to prevent law-abiding citizens from getting guns,” Aborn says on the podcast. “But rather to make sure criminals didn’t get a gun. And guess what? It works!”
Firearm death rates in New York are consistently among the lowest in the entire country. In 2016, CDC data shows a rate of 4.2 firearm deaths per 100,000 people, compared to say, Alaska’s 23.3 or Idaho’s 14.6.
11) 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.
In several of the highest-casualty mass shootings in modern U.S. history, the shooters used semi-automatic weapons.
The ban was lifted in 2004. A 2018 Quinnipiac poll found that 67 percent of Americans support the ban returning.
12) MAKE GUN BUYERS WAIT
The idea is to require a gun buyer to wait some 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.
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 7-11 percent reduction in gun-related suicides.
13) 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.
Nearly 87 percent of shooters leave behind evidence that they were victims of severe bullying that resulted in thoughts of suicide or revenge, studies have shown. 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, school leadership has in recent years 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.
Proposals unlikely to reduce gun violence
14) ELIMINATE GUN-FREE ZONES
The argument against gun-free zones is that they are attractive targets for active shooters and leave their potential victims defenseless. Donald Trump even told voters he would end gun-free zones during the 2016 campaign.
But the evidence, championed by gun-rights activists, is thin. Active shooters don’t necessarily target gun-free zones. Rather, shooters target places they know, many of which happen to have that designation. Additionally, research shows that armed citizens rarely are able to stop a mass shootings or reduce the number of casualties.
15) HARDEN SCHOOLS
Since the Columbine shooting in 1999, schools have worked to limit access points to buildings in order to prevent those who would do harm from entering. There are no good studies on the effect these measures have had on preventing mass shootings. Studies have suggested, however, it has little effect on preventing other violent or serious crimes in schools. And most school shooters are students or staff who would already have access to those schools — or else they find other ways in.
Proposals where the potential benefits come coupled with downsides and risks
16 ) TRY TO REPEAL THE SECOND AMENDMENT
So why not simply ban all guns? Or why not require all guns be kept at an armory, instead of the home? Why not imitate Britain or Australia or Japan?
Because the Constitution, that’s why: An Antonin Scalia-penned Supreme Court decision in 2008 left plenty of room for gun regulation, but invalidated sweeping gun-control measures like an outright ban on handguns.
That’s led an increasing number of commentators — including former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens — to note there’s a simple way to fix that: Repeal the Second Amendment.
The road to appealing an amendment is ridiculously steep, requiring either the vote of two-thirds of both houses of Congress or two-thirds of the state legislatures. But even if it can’t be done, it could at least shift the terms of the debate, supporters argue.
“Why can’t the NRA’s extremism be countered with equal extremism?” writes Vox’s German Lopez. “That seems like a potential way to get to the middle that the great majority of Americans agree with.”
Go for it, far-right conservatives say: Embed repealing one of the bedrock principles of the country into the Democratic Party platform. Watch what happens to your swing states and rural elected representatives. Watch as the donations to the NRA skyrocket and gun purchases soar as the fear that the government’s coming for your guns seems more real than ever.
17) PUT ARMED POLICE OFFICERS IN SCHOOLS
In a vacuum, the idea of having more armed police officers in schools to prevent school shootings seems like a no-brainer. It avoids the complications of arming teachers — officers have more training for high-intensity situations — and there have been, in fact, several instances where armed guards stopped an active shooter from inflicting more damage. However, there have also been instances like the Parkland, Florida, shooting, when the armed deputy failed to act.
But it’s more complicated than that. Mass school shootings remain relatively rare in the everyday life of students, and other than a few high-profile cases there is little research on whether the presence of armed officers prevents them. Meanwhile, on a day-to-day basis, the increase in recent years of resource officers in schools, according to a 2013 Congressional Research Service study, can also increase student arrests for nonviolent offenses — often on vague charges like “disorderly conduct” — and it disproportionately sends students of color into the criminal justice system. Student advocacy groups have pushed to instead focus on providing more counselors in schools instead of police.
Proposals likely to result in more injuries or deaths
18) ARM TEACHERS
While this is an idea supported by 45 percent of adults, according to the Pew Research Center, it’s widely panned by experts, teachers and school resource officers.
There is little research on the effect arming teachers would have on preventing mass school shootings, but study after study is clear on one thing: More guns leads to more gun violence. And in the context of a school, that could put children in danger.
Setting aside the question of what an armed teacher would do with a split-second decision in the face of a shooter carrying an AR-15, there are other questions to consider: Where would the teacher store a gun in a way that’s accessible in a tragic event but safe from students? Who would pay for the gun and the training? Would the presence of a gun escalate everyday interactions with students?
Right now, there’s simply no evidence that arming teachers would prevent mass school shootings. There’s little chance it will happen, since schools and teachers across the country have thus far strongly resisted the idea. And the potential for accidental gun violence further traumatizing kids is too high.
19) PASS STAND-YOUR-GROUND LAWS
A “stand-your-ground” law just recently passed in Idaho. Nearly half of the United States has enacted some form of this law, which provides some immunity from prosecution “in the use of deadly force” when that person has a right to be there. The debate over stand-your-ground laws intensified after the 2012 death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, whose killer was acquitted by a jury. Florida state Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley has attributed the overall decline in the state’s violent crime rate to its stand-your-ground law.
However, research suggests the opposite: Violent crime fell across the nation — and states with stand-your-ground laws generally have higher firearm homicide rates than those that do not.
While violent crime rates have steadily declined since the early ’90s, there is no research indicating the reduction is related to stand-your-ground laws.
20) ENCOURAGE MORE GUN OWNERSHIP
An armed population is a more polite population. It’s the “good guy with a gun” argument, a favorite of Second Amendment supporters. Essentially, more guns, more safety.
But that argument has been widely debunked.
An October 2017 article in the Scientific American says that in about “30 careful studies,” more guns lead to more crimes, including murder and rape. Fewer studies show the opposite. For instance, a 2015 study based on information from the FBI and CDC found that “firearm assaults were 6.8 times more common in the states with the most guns versus those with the least.”
“When all but a few studies point in the same direction,” Scientific American wrote, “we can feel confident that the arrow is aiming at the truth — which is, in this case, that guns do not inhibit crime and violence but instead make it worse.”
A version of this article first appeared in the Inlander, the alt-weekly newspaper for Spokane, Washington.