How to Stop Mass Shootings
A March 2016 study in the American Journal of Medicine found that Americans are 25x more likely to die from gun homicide than people in other wealthy countries. No other developed nation has such a high rate of gun violence. And more people have died or been injured in mass school shootings in the United States between 2000 and 2018 than in the entire 20th century. The 2022 killings of 19 children and 2 adults at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and the 2018 killings of 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, are not isolated occurrences but part of a larger epidemic in need of addressing. The death tolls are higher now than in shootings that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s. In addition to lives lost, mass shootings increasingly rob everyday Americans of quality of life and peace of mind.
But what can we do? Many people feel we can do nothing, for two (2) main reasons:
The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which seemingly guarantees the right of individual citizens to possess firearms.
The perception of mass shootings as random violence, i.e. the notion that mass shootings are unpredictable, unforeseeable, and therefore unstoppable.
Both of these are erroneous assumptions; neither prohibits proactive solutions to the problem of mass shootings. Things can be done to stop them. While I think Reload: Rethinking Violence in American Life is pretty good at identifying the problem, it’s not as strong at identifying solutions. It did an OK job of linking together some disparate causal factors, but it’s light on policy recommendations. However, since its publication, I’ve been able to evaluate a number of other possible solutions.
This post picks up where Reload leaves off, looking at specific recommendations, their efficacy, and their likelihood of implementation. These recommendations are not mine; that is, they are not my original ideas, nor do I necessarily agree with certain ones as best courses of action. Most have been discussed and debated elsewhere--by policymakers, politicians, academics, and others--and they have varying degrees of merit. Some have little to no chance of being implemented, while some have already been implemented, but all are ideas that have been suggested as ways to stop or at least curb mass shootings. Here they are:
Recommendation #1: Confiscate all guns. HIGH EFFICACY, VERY LOW CHANCE OF IMPLEMENTATION.
No guns, no gun violence, right?
Perhaps. But the right to bear arms is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, and there are upwards of 270 million privately owned guns in the United States.
Any sensible discussion about America’s gun violence problem must acknowledge that guns aren’t going away. Taking away all guns is no more an option than allowing everyone to have guns.
Recommendation #2: Treat gun violence like the public health emergency it is. HIGH EFFICACY, MEDIUM CHANCE OF IMPLEMENTATION.
Gun violence is a crisis, arguably the biggest existential threat facing this nation. Yet in the United States gun violence is consistently reduced to a partisan issue, one in which the only rights at stake are those of the gun owner. Horrific events that have rocked this nation have yet to bring about the changes needed to make our public spaces safer. If anything, we have moved in the direction of more legislation allowing more guns in shared spaces, from expanding concealed-carry permits to Stand Your Ground laws to armed officers in schools.
But treating gun violence as a health issue, rather than a political issue or a crime problem, promises to be more effective, allowing multiple interventions at different levels—no single magical solution but many solutions.
Other issues have responded well to this kind of paradigm shift. For example, the reduction in U.S. motor vehicle deaths over the past 50 years is one of the great triumphs of public-health intervention. Safer cars, stronger seat belt laws, and better driver education have helped reduce car fatalities, which dropped from 33.5 deaths per billion miles traveled in 1975 to 11.8 in 2016. As David Hemenway, Director of the Injury Control Research Center at Harvard’s School of Public Health, has pointed out, it is much easier to be a legal gun owner in the United States than it is to be a legal driver. Lawmakers can apply lessons learned from auto safety.
Gun violence is one of our leading causes of death and injury, and the implications of it are huge in terms of the safety and health of the overall population. Therefore, as Hemenway, Garen Wintemute at UC Davis, and others have argued, it ought to be treated like any other major health problem, with doctors and scientists and researchers asking: Where does it come from? How is it amplified? Who is at risk for developing this problem? Can we learn enough to create a treatment or prevention strategy?
Unfortunately, debates of guns and the gun culture in the United States tend to become mired in constitutional discussions about rights and freedoms. Treating gun violence as a public health issue, as many experts and policymakers already do, requires a realignment in perception and dialogue.
Recommendation #3: Fund research into gun violence. HIGH EFFICACY, MEDIUM CHANCE OF IMPLEMENTATION.
We don’t know much about what works to prevent gun violence because of federal and state restrictions on collecting data about it.
In 1996, Congress restricted the Centers for Disease Control from funding any research that may be construed as promoting gun control. In 2012, that prohibition was extended to the National Institutes of Health.
Without funding, academics are dissuaded from doing the necessary research to learn which measures are effective and which aren’t.
Recommendation #4: Make buyers responsible for their firearms for the life of the gun. HIGH EFFICACY, MEDIUM CHANCE OF IMPLEMENTATION.
Approximately 400,000 guns are stolen every year from homes and cars in the United States, keeping criminals stocked with the latest weaponry. Unsecured (but legally purchased) firearms have been used in virtually all school shootings involving teenaged shooters.
Passing buyer responsibility laws makes gun owners responsible not only for safekeeping but also for selling their firearms to others.
A 2004 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association has shown that laws that hold adults criminally liable for unsafe storage of firearms around children can reduce adolescent suicides.
Recommendation #5: Background checks. UNCLEAR EFFICACY, MEDIUM-HIGH CHANCE OF IMPLEMENTATION. This issue has BIPARTISAN SUPPORT.
Background checks prevent firearm purchases by felons, people convicted of certain violent misdemeanors, and others who are at increased risk for violent behavior. Universal background checks would require background checks for all firearms transfers.
Using background checks to prevent such persons from acquiring firearms is associated with a reduction of at least 25% in their incidence of arrest for a firearm-related or other violent crime. Approximately 1/5 of all firearm transfers in the U.S. do not involve a background check, according to a 2017 study; another study found the number to be closer to ¼. These sales take place online, at gun shows, or are brokered through “friend of a friend” exchanges. More than 90% of the population supports universal background checks, including more than 80% of gun owners and more than 70% of self-identified members of the National Rifle Association. A 2016 study found that school shootings are half as likely to occur in states with background checks—yet only fourteen (14) states had such a law in 2013.
Recommendation #6: Raise the age to purchase firearms. LOW EFFICACY, MEDIUM-HIGH CHANCE OF IMPLEMENTATION.
Both President Trump and Senator Rick Scott [R-FL] called for raising the minimum age to buy rifles used in the Parkland attack from 18 to 21 years old, the same age as for handgun purchases through licensed dealers. Senator Jeff Flake [R-AZ] introduced such legislation in 2018.
A more effective policy would require every buyer, of any age, to obtain a license that includes a registration of all purchases and at least a modest training program. Only seven states require a permit to possess a gun of any kind, but these so-called “permit-to-purchase” may prove to be quite effective.
Recommendation #7: Ban assault weapons. HIGH EFFICACY, MEDIUM-LOW CHANCE OF IMPLEMENTATION.
The kind of weapons used in mass shootings matters. Since the 2012 movie theatre shooting in Aurora, Colorado, a particular kind of assault rifle has been used in practically every major mass shooting.
AR-15s, which the NRA has promoted as “America’s rifle,” and AR-15 clones were the weapons of choice in the Aurora, Colorado movie theatre shooting in June 2012; at Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012, in which 28 people were killed, mostly young children; in San Bernardino, California in December 2015; at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas in November 2017; at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in February 2018; and in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in October 2018. The shooter in the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting used a Sig Sauer MCX, a comparable rifle.
Restricting these military-grade weapons, with their high-capacity magazines and infrequent need to reload, would reduce the damage done in mass shootings. Such weapons have been restricted in the past, most notably during the 10-year ban begun in 1994 under the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, a subsection of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.
However, these firearms are currently quite popular, and while these rifles may dominate the political debate after mass shootings, they account for less than 5% of homicides overall and they are only part of the larger problem of gun violence.
According to FBI reports, handguns were responsible for 90% of homicides in 2016. Therefore, any forward-thinking effort would address handguns in addition to assault rifles.
Recommendation #8: Ban bump stocks. HIGH EFFICACY, VERY HIGH CHANCE OF IMPLEMENTATION.
Bump stocks, which allow rapid cycling of a semi-automatic weapon’s action, were used in the October 2017 Las Vegas concert shooting, allowing the gunman to fire hundreds of rounds into a crowd at a country music festival at a very high rate of fire, killing 58 people.
After Vegas, lawmakers in both parties agreed that bump stocks violate the spirit of existing bans on automatic weapons and expressed interest in banning the devices, which have no sporting application.
The ban took effect in March 2019. Anyone selling or owning bump stocks now faces up to 10 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000 for each violation.
Recommendation #9: Restrict high-capacity magazines. VERY HIGH EFFICACY, MEDIUM-HIGH CHANCE OF IMPLEMENTATION.
Truly a no-brainer. High-capacity magazines allow rapid rates of fire without frequent reloading for shooters intending on doing maximum harm.
Recommendation #10: Buy-back programs. UNCLEAR EFFICACY, HIGH CHANCE OF IMPLEMENTATION.
Most reports show success, particularly in other nations. Such a program was implemented in 2019 in New Zealand in response to the deadly mosque attacks in Christchurch. New Zealand simultaneously banned most semi-automatic firearms--as well as parts that convert firearms into semi-automatics, magazines over a certain capacity, and some shotguns.
However, according to a 2013 report from the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council, buy-back programs that encourage gun owners to trade in their firearms for cash have not greatly reduced firearms deaths.
Recommendation #11: Increase educational initiatives and school-based interventions like the NRA’s Eddie Eagle GunSafe Program. LOW EFFICACY, HIGH CHANCE OF IMPLEMENTATION.
The same 2013 report found that school-based interventions are largely ineffective, though the NRA proudly touts its program that teaches children in pre-K through third grade four important steps to take if they find a gun (1-Stop! 2-Don’t Touch. 3-Run Away. 4-Tell A Grown-Up.).
Recommendation #12: Arm teachers. LOW EFFICACY, MEDIUM CHANCE OF IMPLEMENTATION.
On May 2, 2019, Florida’s House of Representatives passed a controversial bill that would permit classroom teachers to carry guns in schools. The bill was already approved by the Senate; it went before Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, who signed a week later. The law takes effect October 1. This solution is highly questionable. Whatever deterrent or protection against mass shootings this measure might provide may be offset by accidental shootings in the classroom, creating a classroom environment that’s even more unhealthy and unsafe.
Recommendation #13: Beef up security at schools and workplaces. UNCLEAR EFFICACY, VERY HIGH CHANCE OF IMPLEMENTATION.
School districts across the nation have spent and continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to “harden” security systems and tighten safety measures. Lockdown drills have become the new normal in America’s schools. According to a recent survey from the Children’s Defense Fund, fear of a school shooting is the second most common worry after bullying for kids between the ages of 6 and 17, and the third most common worry for parents.
However, research has shown that boosting school security with armed officers, metal detectors, and reduced access to buildings has little to no effect on the likelihood of a school shooting when compared to more preventative and early intervention measures.
Recommendation #14: Improve mental health care. UNCLEAR EFFICACY, MEDIUM-HIGH CHANCE OF IMPLEMENTATION.
Better mental health care should be done for its own sake, but not in the name of reducing mass shootings. Why? Because people with mental illness are for more likely to use guns to harm themselves than others.
Furthermore, viewing gun violence solely through the lens of mental illness, as many Second Amendment absolutists tend to do, is bad public policy which not only minimizes impact but also demonizes those with poor mental health as crazy, volatile, or dangerous. Criminalizing poor mental health is not the answer.
That said, firearm-related suicides account for most U.S. gun deaths, and improved mental health care would benefit not only people with severe mental illness but also those with immediate, intense psychological crises who have access to firearms and might harm themselves.
Recommendation #15: Pass “red flag” laws. HIGH EFFICACY, HIGH CHANCE OF IMPLEMENTATION. This issue has BIPARTISAN SUPPORT.
Red flag laws allow for gun-violence restraining orders for persons believed to be at high and imminent risk of doing harm who have access to firearms.
The laws allow law enforcement or family members to go to a judge and present evidence as they would in any other court preceding; the judge can then issue an order that authorizes law enforcement to recover firearms from the individual for a defined period of time, usually measured in weeks.
Red flag laws and/or licensing would not have uncovered criminal wrongdoing with the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter who killed 11 people at the Tree of Life on October 27, 2018, or the incel who killed two and injured five at a Tallahassee yoga studio five days later on November 2, 2018, or the man who killed 12 people in a bar in Thousand Oaks, California, five days after that on November 7, 2018—but, they would have revealed clear patterns of behavior showing that all three individuals were unworthy of firearm possession.
79% of Americans support such laws, without much difference between firearms owners and non-owners. Such laws have proven very effective in curbing domestic violence. According to Amnesty International, in the United States women are 5x more likely to be killed if their abusers own a firearm.
They also help with suicides. A 2017 study in the journal Law & Contemporary Problems estimated that in Connecticut every 10 to 20 temporary seizures averted a suicide.
Recommendation #16: Invest in smart gun technology. MEDIUM EFFICACY, MEDIUM-LOW CHANCE OF IMPLEMENTATION.
A smart gun is a personalized firearm, biometrically customized to allow use only by its registered owner.
In January 2013, President Barack Obama asked, “If we can set it up so you can’t unlock your phone unless you’ve got the right fingerprint, why can’t we do the same thing for our guns?” It’s a good question.
Eight years and too many tragedies later, guns are not much smarter than they were at the time of the Sandy Hook massacre. In fact, no truly smart guns are on the market in the United States.
Smart guns may not prevent mass shootings with firearms purchased legally. But they can prevent crimes or suicides with weapons owned by somebody else, and they can also cut down on accidental shootings (according to the CDC, an average of 500 people are shot to death unintentionally every year).
These are sixteen (16) policy recommendations that could be implemented right now with the intent of averting future tragedies.
Finally, in addition to the things we can and should do, there are also things we shouldn’t do. There are two (2) main things we shouldn’t do, two non-options that definitely won’t work:
Nothing. The only thing we know for sure that doesn’t work is what we’re currently doing. If we continue to do nothing, then it is guaranteed that mass shootings will continue, as they did in the twelve years since I published Reload, and in the eight years since Sandy Hook, and in the six years since the Pulse shooting in Orlando, and in the five years since Las Vegas… and so on. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Our current response to mass shootings is insane.
Thoughts and prayers. Let me be clear: I’m not denigrating the power of prayer. I pray every day that our society finds the will and the way to end gun violence. Rather, I’m saying that prayer alone is not enough, and that faith without works is dead. Think about and pray for the victims. Pray for change. Pray for wisdom and guidance—and then figure out how to fix what’s wrong. Feel with your heart and think with your head.
As Soren Kierkegaard said, “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” As John Wesley said, “Prayer is where the action is.”
We must also ask—no, demand—more of our elected officials. Congress has repeatedly worked against sensible reform, rather than for it. We must eliminate funding restrictions on gun violence research via legislation, and we must end legal immunity for gun manufacturers.
Finally, I should note that any solution involving more guns is not an effective solution. Researchers have found links between right-to-carry laws, which require governments to issue concealed-carry permits to citizens who meet certain minimal requirements, and spikes in firearms crime; for example, a 2017 National Bureau of Economic Research working paper estimates that ten years after the adoption of right-to-carry laws, violent crime is 13% to 15% higher than it would have been without those policies. More guns equal more gun violence, whether deliberate or accidental.
In sum, it's all pretty complicated... but it's also quite simple. The best way to stop mass shooters is to prevent them from having guns in the first place. There are no mass shootings without guns. If disarmament cannot be achieved, the next best thing is to limit the deadliness of shooters’ weaponry. Anyone who’s not kidding themselves knows that it’s impossible to address mass shootings by talking about anything and everything (security, mental health, moral laxity, etc.) besides guns themselves. All of these issues and more play a role. Sensible, commonsensical measures are a starting point—not an end point. We must increase efforts to ensure that those who act violently and abuse firearms are quickly prosecuted and stripped of their weapons, and those with information relevant to triggering red-flag laws must act with urgency to effectuate protections. Without these efforts, most mass shooters will appear to be law-abiding citizens free to purchase and possess guns legally—right up until they kill.