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GunsGuns: 15 mass shootings that changed the law

15 shootings that changed the law: why America is the exception

In the immediate aftermath of mass shootings in Germany, Britain, Australia and Finland, swift, decisive and popular political action led to the passage and implementation of more stringent gun laws. The conversation in the aftermath of shootings in those countries was not whether guns should be regulated, but rather how guns should be regulated. By contrast, in the U.S., similar reforms in the wake of mass shootings have tended to be smaller and more inconsistent.

In the U.S., the daily drumbeat of shootings nationwide paint a picture of a country deeply involved with firearms.  The U.S. accounts for 5% of the world’s population, but roughly 35-50% of the world’s civilian-owned guns, an estimated rate (both licit and illicit) of 101.05 firearms per 100 people. The high rate of American firearms ownership correlates with a high degree of gun violence: the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that nearly 67% of homicides in the country are gun-related.

Not every massacre outside the U.S. led to legislative change, but the number and intensity of American mass shootings which did not prompt any change is striking. This sad category includes the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, which occurred the morning of April 26, 2007. Seung-Hui Cho, a 23-year old student, systematically shot and killed 30 students and two professors and injured 23 people at the campus of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute before killing himself. Provisions laid down in both federal and state law banned the gunman from purchasing firearms due to a long history of mental illness as he was seeking outpatient psychological counseling. [1] Under federal law, a firearm may only be transferred to a person upon approval by the National Criminal Background Check system (NCIS) which exempts individuals who have been adjudicated as mental defective from purchasing firearms.[2] Nevertheless, the gunman was able to slip through the net and purchase the two pistols – a Walther P22 and a Glock 19 – with which he carried out the massacre. The post-massacre debate took a familiar form: gun control advocates took the position that the wide availability of weapons diminished public safety by facilitating violent crimes and accidental shootings; gun control opponents claimed that such availability enhances public safety by enabling potential crime victims to ward off violent predation.

Ultimately, the efforts by gun control advocates did not bear fruit. The debate resulted in soft measures such as the amendment of the Brady Act by the NICS Improvement Acts of 2007 (NICSIA) which incentivised states to transfer information to the NCIS Index through financial rewards.[3] The Virginia Tech Review Panel recommended gun control measures requiring background checks to be expanded to all private firearms sales. However, the bill was defeated in the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.

But the history of U.S. responses to mass shootings is not merely defined by inaction. The U.S. has also been singularly taken with the idea that armed civilians can stop a mass shooting. Early cases include the UT Tower shooting in 1966, which saw armed civilians turning up at the scene and firing at the shooter. Later, in the wake of the Luby’s massacre in 1991, a strong push to allow private citizens to carry concealed weapons led Texas to pass a shall-issue concealed-carry law, which became the model for numerous similar laws nationwide.

There is a central question of fact which dominates these debates: do more firearms make a society more or less safe?[4] Quantifying the consequences of liberal gun legislation is not difficult. Research has clearly shown that higher gun ownership correlates to increased gun-related death. While correlation is not necessary causation, it is strongly suggestive. Furthermore, the argument that armed civilians could deter or stop a mass shooting is based on counterfactuals. Mother Jones analysed 62 mass shootings in the U.S. and noted not a single case where the killing was stopped by a civilian using a gun. And in other recent (but less lethal) rampages in which armed civilians attempted to intervene, those civilians not only failed to stop the shooter but were gravely wounded or killed.

Yet data collected by Research Center of the People and the Press illustrates: mass shootings such as Aurora, Tucson and Virginia Tech do not fundamentally shift public views on gun control. Currently, 47% say it is more important to control gun ownership, while 46% say it is more important to protect the rights of Americans to own guns. This is virtually unchanged from a survey conducted a year ago, when 45% prioritized gun control and 49% gun rights. In other words, major mass shootings had little effect on public opinion about gun laws.

There is wide public agreement in the U.S. that background checks for firearms purchasers should be strengthened. But even these limited changes have not been successfully advanced through Congress. And focusing on the mental health of the perpetrator after a mass shooting highlights the common tendency to divert discussion towards mental illness as the underlying or even sole root cause and risk factor for gun violence.

The focus on background checks represents a largely unquestioned political calculation on the part of gun control advocates, taking into account the legislative, judicial and popular resistance to more stringent measures. The shift towards other control mechanisms such as background checks might not be ideal from a mass shooting prevention standpoint, but it does have a potentially salutary effect by making it more difficult for those with criminal backgrounds to acquire firearms.

But when political and legal discussions are shifted to focus on mass shootings, it distracts from wider issues of gun violence. It creates the fallacy that shootings are universally perpetrated by mentally ‘insane’ people, when the vast majority of those who commit crimes with firearms have never been adjudicated as such. Emphasising the hundreds of annual deaths and thousands of injuries from firearms in a city such as Chicago must be part of the conversation as well. That violence takes place under different circumstances, and neither the individual incidents nor the overall phenomenon garners the same type of attention as a mass shooting. But the victims and their families suffer just as much, and the second- and third-order effects are just as terrible.

There is one commonality between mass shootings and that type of gun violence, and that is the easy availability of weapons. Until that is addressed, both types of violence will likely remain a regular feature in U.S. headlines.

[2] Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act 1993, Section 102; Section 103. Full text: http://usgovinfo.about.com/library/bills/blbradyact.htm.

[3] Pub. L. No. 110-180, §§ 102, 104, 121 Stat. 2559 (2008), see: http://smartgunlaws.org/mental-health-reporting-policy-summary/.

[4]  Donald Braman & Dan M. Kahan, ‘More Statistics, Less Persuasion: A Cultural Theory of Gun-Risk Perceptions’, 151 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1291 (2003), p. 2.