7 Meaningful Steps We Should Be Taking Toward Gun Reform in the U.S.

Gun control wasn't built in a day, but here's a start.
Publish date:
December 7, 2015
mass shooting, guns, gun control, gun violence

Last Wednesday's shooting in San Bernardino sparked the usual outpouring of rage, upset, and "thoughts and prayers" backed up by nothing in particular — the best response to that is probably summed up by the New York Daily News, of all places.


What the United States needs is gun control, pure and simple. We all know this, including the president and basically everyone who thinks that maybe people shouldn't be shot for going to the movies, attending holiday parties, seeking an education, or hitting up a political rally. The gun lobby has worked very, very hard to ensure that gun control doesn't happen, exerting considerable control (haha) to carve out special legal protections that make it very difficult to reduce the availability of guns in the United States.

Let me preface the following list of suggestions for taking meaningful steps towards gun reform in the United States with this: I am a gun owner. I am also fully aware that the design and function of a gun is to kill, whether we are talking about a Kalashnikov, antique pistol, or hunting rifle. While people use guns for activities like sport shooting, their purpose is to kill. And we need to live in awareness of that purpose when we talk about what America needs to do when it comes to actually achieving the goal of reducing the shocking number of gun deaths in the United States.

1) Accurately define mass shootings and mass killings

One of the reasons we have so much difficulty talking about gun violence with respect to mass shootings in particular is the complicated answer to a seemingly simple question: What is a mass shooting? We need an accurate and consistent definition so we can discuss these issues in the media and push the FBI to create a detailed database of mass shooting incidents.

Shooting Tracker, which is an extremely valuable resource for tracking mass shootings, treats a mass shooting as any incident in which four or more people are shot, but not necessarily killed. I would support this definition — if I were involved in an incident with a crowd of people who were shot but only one of us died, I would say that I had been in a mass shooting. Using this definition, over 350 mass shootings have occurred so far in 2015. (I'm reluctant to pin an exact number down given that another one will probably happen before this post goes live.)

Others define a mass shooting as an incident in which four or more people die. The FBI certainly takes this approach. This should more accurately be termed a mass killing. Under this more narrow definition, 41 incidents in the last year (per Shooting Tracker's compilation) would qualify. That is still rather a lot.

Defining these terms and using them consistently helps to clarify what's going on here.

2) Lift the ban on funding for gun research

The Dickey Amendment, passed in 1996, has effectively put a halt to federal research on gun violence for the last 20 years by freezing funding. On Wednesday morning, shortly before the San Bernardino shooting, a group of physicians from across the country, along with members of Congress, called for a repeal of the amendment.

Even Jay Dickey, the Congressman who originally slipped the amendment into an appropriations bill, thinks it was a terrible idea in retrospect. Just this October, Congress voted to reauthorize it — days after the Charleston massacre.

In an interview with NPR, Dickey said: "The thing that really brought this to my mind was watching as the little barricades were set up between the interstate to stop head-on collisions. The highway industry spent money in their scientific research to figure out what could be done, assuming that they were going to allow cars to continue to be on our highways. Enormous reduction of head-on collisions has been caused just by that little 2-and-a-half, 3-foot fence. We could do the same in the gun industry."

3) Refine and reauthorize the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban

Congressman David N. Cicilline took to the House floor yesterday morning to announce that he planned to push for the reauthorization of the assault weapons ban, which was allowed to lapse in 2004. Shortly after his remarks, gunfire erupted across the country in San Bernardino.

The ban is, at best, imperfect legislation. It was tucked into the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Control Act of 1994 in an attempt to address escalating gun violence. However, it suffered from the inability to define an "assault weapon" (technically any gun could be viewed as an assault weapon, ultimately) and was forced instead to rely on a narrowly outlined list of specific weapons and magazine types.

Thanks to the restrictions on gun violence research, and to the fact that it's difficult to control for social factors, it's hard to tell how much of an effect the ban had. We do know that gun violence dropped in the 1990s, but that's been attributed to several factors — and remember, the weapons banned under the law only make up some of those used in gun violence, even today. Mass shootings and mass killings definitely rose after the sunset clause went into effect, but again, they can't be blamed solely on the ban. Certainly reauthorizing the ban with some broader modifications to address changes in the weapons industry likely wouldn't make the situation any worse than it already is.

4) Improve background checks for weapons

Background checks and waiting periods are an extremely reliable way to reduce gun violence in general and mass shootings in particular. Many of the weapons used in mass shootings have been legally acquired — many in states where there are very limited restrictions on who can buy guns and in what circumstances. Specifically, closing the so-called "gun show loophole" will make a significant difference.

Keeping guns out of the hands of people known to have a history of violence is also key — people who have committed domestic violence, rape, and assault shouldn't be buying firearms.

5) Pass comprehensive federal reform that supercedes state-by-state laws

One problem with gun control in the U.S. is that each state has its own laws, and it's easy to carry guns back and forth across state borders. In California, which has some of the toughest gun laws in the country, a large number of guns considered legal in other states are banned — so they can be purchased elsewhere and carried back. Similarly, some states have conceal carry laws while others do not, some have tougher background check requirements than others, and so forth.

Creating a clear federal framework for gun control may infuriate the right, which leans heavily on states' rights doctrine, but it's critical for public safety. There are certainly numerous precedents to illustrate that times, it is in fact the federal government's right and responsibility to pass comprehensive legislation. Should states want to pass tougher gun laws, they would be more than welcome to, but all need to adhere to a uniform minimum standard.

6) Accurately define the function of the Second Amendment

The Second Amendment is one of the most hotly debated, thanks to dispute over what a "well regulated militia" really is, and a body of Supreme Court rulings and legal discussions have complicated matters even further — The Nation notes that the Roberts court played a key role in undermining gun control legislation and effectively redefining the Second Amendment. What we do know about the amendment was this: It was passed in an era when the United States was still recovering from the Revolutionary War, and when weapons were considerably less sophisticated than they are now.

Arming the U.S. military for the right of self-defense against other nations is generally agreed to be legally protected, as is arming select law enforcement agencies (something that should be perhaps taken up for debate again given that many U.S. police forces have extreme difficulties when it comes to not shooting civilians). Arming individuals is more questionable — how many belong to "well regulated militias" designed to provide protection and defense for their communities? Individuals are not militias, and the "right to keep and bear arms" is a bit vague.

People who do belong to militias and are also armed are perhaps precisely the people we do not want to own guns, as many of those self-identified militias are also hate groups. While individual rights and freedoms are treasured in the United States, as is the right to oppose a tyrannical government, it's clear that the right to own personal weapons is not necessarily protected and likely wasn't protected in the eyes of the Founders (who certainly would have and did oppose the ownership of guns by women, slaves, and Native Americans, picking and choosing their righteous rebellions).

The definition of "tyranny" is also up for considerable debate, as right-wing extremists already argue that the existing government is a tyranny, but I'm not entirely sure I want them fighting for my "freedom."

7) Stop blaming gun violence on mental illness or Islam

In the wake of mass shootings, two things happen: If the shooters are white, they are assumed to be mentally ill, and if they are not, they are assumed to be Muslim terrorists. Both assumptions are offensive and typically incorrect.

Between 2001 and 2013, 406,000 people died from gun violence in the United States. Over the same period, 3,380 died from terrorist attacks, and that includes the death toll from September 11. Even had all those attacks been committed by Muslims (which they were not), those deaths pale in comparison with gun deaths overall (these attacks include things like the Boston Bombing, which didn't involve guns, and of course September 11, which utilized aircraft as weapons).

The vast majority of mass shootings in the United States have had nothing to do with Muslim ideology, and when religion is a factor, it's usually conservative Christianity, as for example in the case of the Planned Parenthood shooting that occurred last week.

As many as seven million Muslims live in America. Most want to mind their own business and have absolutely no interest in shooting people. Among those who do, their acts of rampage violence are not usually related to religion. Domestic violence — as in the case of the UNC Chapel Hill shooting — is a much bigger factor than radicalization. Yet, American Muslims are ordered to drop everything and abjectly apologize in the wake of rampage violence of any kind.

Of the 406,000 people who died by gun between 2001 and 2013, it's hard to say how many people at the other end of the barrel were mentally ill, because no one is keeping those statistics. Some are trying to specifically chart mass shootings and/or mass killings that involve mental illness, but their efforts are hampered by armchair diagnoses and other complex factors. Thus, I can't provide you with neat statistics on mass shootings and mental illness, though I do note that:

1) The vast majority of mass shootings and a fair number of mass killings are domestic violence-related, they rarely make the news, and the mental health status of their perpetrators is almost never reported or discussed.

2) The high-profile shootings and killings that do make the news can indeed involve mentally ill people, and that is very much played up.

But there's something very important about gun violence and mental illness that is not being addressed. Aside from the fact that mentally ill people are more likely to be victims of violence, not perpetrators, they are less likely to commit violence than people who are not mentally ill. Between three and five percent of crimes in the United States are committed by mentally ill people — who make up roughly 20 percent of the population. The 2015 study in the American Journal of Public Health linked above says: "The percentages of crimes [committed by mentally ill people] that involve guns are lower than the national average for persons not diagnosed with mental illness."

If you want to stop mass killings, you need to make sure you're targeting the right groups when you discuss risk factors. Muslims and mentally ill people aren't those groups.

These are seven steps in the right direction, and they're not the only things the United States needs to be doing to address gun violence, but they're a start. Now go tell your representative why gun control matters to you, and what you expect to see in Congress in the coming months.

Image: Flickr/CC