We seem to be inching toward gun reforms. I wish I could be more optimistic that the proposals being discussed will work, but none of them hold up under scrutiny.
The good news is that contrary to the impression created by truly shocking mass-murder sprees, the number of mass shootings has not been increasing. The Gun Violence Archive database counted 383 such incidents in 2016, 346 in 2017, a drop of 10 percent.
Each of these incidents involved four or more shooting victims, not including the shooter, and not always resulting in death. That’s the standard definition of a mass shooting. The overwhelming majority of mass shootings were private events – family slaughters – or gang killings. The deeply troubling public incidents, such as the indiscriminate school shootings, occur on average four or five times a year. Preventing these will be difficult.
Let’s start with banning assault weapons. We had such a ban in place from 1994 to 2004. It wasn’t effective. A study by Mother Jones magazine found that assault weapons were involved in 4 of the 18 (22%) public mass murders before the law, 4 of 16 (25%) when the law was applicable, and 9 of 38 (26%) since. There simply are too many loopholes for such a ban to work. Thousands of assault weapons are already in private possession. Millions of alternative weapons, such as semi-automatic handguns, would be outside the ban, and are, in fact, more popular with mass killers.
President Trump’s proposal to prohibit bump stocks – devices to convert a semi-automatic weapon (each trigger pull fires a bullet without significant reload time) to an automatic (each trigger pull repeatedly fires bullets) – is sensible. After all, automatic weapons are already banned, so devices to effectively create them should be too. But this won’t reduce public mass shootings because a range of semi-automatic weapons remains widely available and perfectly legal.
What if they were illegal? They’d be obtained anyway – by theft, straw purchasers, black market sales, loans from family and friends, and other backdoor methods. The same caveat applies to raising the purchase age, as recommended by Florida Governor Rick Scott.
We would have to change the gun culture in America for policies like this to be really effective. Such culture change isn’t impossible, just unlikely. The gun culture has already died out in our big cities (among those not in youth gangs), but not in the South, Midwest, and Southwest, where recreational shooting and economic activities such as ranching and farming depend on firearms.
A second option is to do more to prevent irresponsible users – especially young males with mental disorders – from acquiring weapons. This too is easier said than done. It is true that a disproportionate number of mass public shootings are carried out by psychotics (studies estimate roughly 12 to 15 percent), as evidenced by the indiscriminate nature of many such killings. Nevertheless, over 99 percent of seriously mentally ill people never do such horrible things, and most psychotics are not violent at all. Our problem is the lack of predictive capability. Mental health experts can identify the disorders and prescribe treatments but they usually cannot predict extreme behavior.
Moreover, if we widen the net and compel mental health providers to report a larger number of patients it might compromise the necessary trust between therapist and patient. Increased reporting requirements might even discourage those who need help from seeking it — especially if they want to buy a firearm.
Certainly there should be better information sharing between local and state authorities and the FBI’s background check system (NICS). The feds should have a complete list of people who are not supposed to purchase weapons because of mental infirmities or criminal convictions. We could even expand the list to misdemeanants convicted of more than one gun offense, violent crime, or drunk driving offense. Though not per se violent, felony drug offenders are often associated with violence and also should be proscribed.
While a NICS fix is sensible it too will not close the backdoor channels to weapons. Friends, family and black marketers will fill the void.
Finally, we could hire more armed school guards, or as the Trump administration has suggested, train teachers in firearm use. But with semi-automatic weapons and the element of complete surprise in their favor shooters can kill and maim well before these on-the-scene responders can react. Plus, the responders will be hesitant to fire at an intruder surrounded by schoolchildren.
While the effectiveness of the proposed reforms remains a question mark, the situation is not hopeless. Let’s not forget that there are still 1.2 million violent firearm crimes a year in addition to those four or five horrific mass shootings, even as overall gun violence has declined dramatically over the last quarter century.
Most “ordinary” gun crime is precipitated by quarrels, involving either gang or family members. Members of big-city gangs usually obtain handguns illegally through black markets. This is an urban policing issue and gun buybacks and interdiction strategies might take a bite out of these activities. As for domestic cases: here is an area where culture change – greater sensitivity to abuse of women – may actually be working. Reports of serious domestic violence declined by 21 percent from 2004 to 2016.
So while there are few hopeful signs that mass public shootings will be curtailed any time soon, we may be getting our other gun crime problem – resulting in 124 times as many deaths – under control.
Barry Latzer is Professor Emeritus of Criminal Justice, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY. His most recent book is The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America.