The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

By on April 25, 2018

Twenty-three ideas to reduce gun violence and save lives

merica, overall, is a much less violent place than it used to be. The reported violent-crime rate is almost half what it was in 1991.

But mass shootings have become deadlier. 

In 2010, the World Health Organization found that the United States’s  gun-homicide rates were more than 25 times higher than in any other high-income country. 

And that was before Las Vegas or 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, reaching a 30-year high in 2016. More than half of those suicides were with firearms. 

After the Parkland shooting, middle and high school students are protesting and marching, demanding that something be done.

But what? 

We looked at 23 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 costs. Some are ineffective, doing little to nothing to combat gun violence. And some are just plain ugly, more likely to result in more death and injury, rather than less.


The Good: Proposals likely to reduce gun violence and save lives 

The Las Vegas shooter opened fire from a room in Mandalay Bay in October 2017. He killed 58 people and injured 851. (Håkan Dahlström)


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, including Wyoming, gun buyers can purchase guns from unlicensed dealers who aren’t required to run a background check at all. 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.


It’s the American way: If a product is killing an unbelievable number of people, the proper remedy is to sue the hell out of them.

But since 2005, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act made gun manufacturers and dealers essentially legally bulletproof. 

A victim can still sue if a gun, for example, malfunctions and explodes, but not if a teenager uses it to kill 14 of his classmates. Guns are meant to kill, the Republican argument went, so why should people be able to sue when the gun has done what it was built to do? 

Remove the shield, a recent op-ed in The New York Times pointed out, and that means gun manufacturers suddenly would have a financial incentive, like every other industry, to make their products safer, likely preventing more accidental shootings.


Gun violence is the least researched cause of death in relation to mortality rate. Deaths by falling are the only research funded less. 

The nonpartisan RAND Corporation looked at thousands of U.S. gun-control studies and found that, in many areas, there just wasn’t enough research to definitively show effects one way or another. The lack of research in certain areas muddles debates over policies, like some listed in this story.

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.” Former Arkansas Republican Rep. Jay Dickey, the amendment’s namesake, told NPR he never intended for the amendment to cut off federal gun research altogether, only gun-control advocacy, and regrets that the effect was to essentially halt research in the area. 

This March, President Donald Trump signed a spending bill that left the Dickey Amendment in place but clarifies that the CDC can research the causes of gun violence. It’s not clear yet if federal research will increase, though, as no funding for gun-violence research was included. 


It’s considered perhaps one of the most successful gun-control programs in history: Australia’s model of how dramatic gun control can make a nation safer. It’s also about as close to “taking your guns” as the mainstream gun-control movement gets. 

Here are the simple facts: There were 13 mass shootings in 18 years before Australia’s sweeping National Firearms Agreement in 1997. In the 20 years after, there’s been just one. While skeptics quibble with whether the law can be entirely credited, the country’s already-low firearm homicide rate fell further—and suicides absolutely plunged. 

The flashiest piece of the program featured a mandatory buyback program that gathered around 650,000 firearms—a full fifth of the country’s arsenal. However, today Australia has about as many guns as before the buyback.

Instead, the key, as the Science Vs. podcast explains, seemed to be the thicket of other laws that came with it, including a ban on semi-automatic and pump-action rifles and shotguns. You have to show a good reason to own a gun—and self-defense doesn’t count. You can only sell through a licensed dealer. You have to register your gun and report it if it’s stolen.

Much of the Australia program would also almost certainly be struck down by the Supreme Court, and the cultural and physical geography of the United States would create serious regulatory challenges. But even some pieces of Australia’s gun-control program, when combined, could seriously reduce deaths. 


Only a handful of states have laws regulating the purchase of ammunition. Federal law does not require ammo purchasers to submit to a background check.

This year, congressional Democrats introduced a bill that would establish a federal background check system for ammo. U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz–D, Florida, one of the sponsors of the bill, has said it would plug an “absurd loophole” that allows people to “amass hundreds of rounds of ammunition without so much as sharing their first name with a gun store clerk.”

While the NRA has opposed such proposals, a 2013 Fox News poll found 80 percent of respondents were in favor of ammunition background checks.

And a study in the journal Injury Prevention analyzing school shootings between 2013 and 2015 found that states with ammunition background checks (along with other factors) have lower rates of school shooting incidents. 


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.

High-capacity magazines and the weapons capable of bearing them, including handguns, were disproportionately recovered by police in connection with violent crimes in Baltimore, Minneapolis and Richmond. These same types of magazines were used in the 2017 Las Vegas shooting.


Before the Parkland shooting, Florida was such a pro-gun state that it actually passed a law restricting doctors’ abilities to ask their patients about gun ownership. (The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals struck it down last year.) 

That flies in the face of recommendations from the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, both of which recommend doctors discuss guns with their patients to prevent accidental shootings and suicides. So far, the research on the effectiveness of doctors talking with patients about guns is limited and mixed, but it does seem to improve patients’ use of safe storage devices, especially when doctors actually give out the devices. 


The horror of the Parkland shooting was compounded by the fact that so many people knew that the shooter was a danger. Why didn’t anyone take away his weapons? They legally couldn’t. All the red flags in the world can’t do much if the cops don’t have a legal right to act on them. 

It’s caused several states to enact “red flag” laws, giving cops the power to ask a court for a warrant to temporarily remove a person’s access to firearms if they’re an imminent danger to themselves or others. 

In the 14 years after Connecticut implemented such a law in 1999, police temporarily removed an average of seven firearms from each at-risk gun owner across 762 firearm-removal cases, one study found. Often, those gun owners were connected with mental health treatment they wouldn’t have received otherwise. Ultimately, more than 100 suicides may have been prevented, the study estimated. 


In some countries, the checklist of what people need in order to buy a gun includes a requirement to take a gun-safety course and pass a test, demonstrate gun knowledge or get a membership at a shooting club or range. 

In the United States, about 61 percent of gun owners have gotten some type of training, which typically included information about safe handling, storage and preventing accidents, according to a 2015 University of Washington study. But the study identified gaps in training: Only 15 percent of owners said they were trained about suicide prevention, and only 14 percent of those who lived with gun owners had received any safety training. 

In countries that require some type of safety course (often coupled with other strict rules around gun ownership) such as Japan, the U.K. and India, the rate of gun deaths are significantly lower than those in the U.S. 


Perhaps the most popular example of this is Boston’s “Operation Ceasefire” in the 1990s, which is credited with a 63 percent reduction in youth homicide. The program that brings together community members, social service workers and police with victims and perpetrators of gun violence has shown success, particularly in cities with a small group of readily identifiable offenders.

The idea is for community members (clergy, victims, reformed offenders) to invite those responsible for gun violence to a face-to-face meeting. There, they send a clear message that the violence must stop and offer services (education, housing support, substance abuse and mental health treatment, tattoo removal).

Several cities plagued by gun violence have shown reductions in gun-related homicides and gang-related violence. 


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. 

A federally funded study found the effect on overall violence to be minimal, in part because assault weapons are used in so few incidents (though high-capacity magazines were more common), and in part because the ban’s narrow definition of “assault weapon” hinges on military-style features such as a pistol grip or a folding stock.

Although semi-automatic rifles are rarely used to commit crimes, when they are, the potential devastation is terrifying. The purpose of the ban in 1994 was to reduce the lethality of mass shootings: Mass shootings have become much more lethal since the ban expired. 


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.

At least nine states and the District of Columbia have some sort of waiting period (typically between two and seven days). There is no federally mandated waiting period to purchase firearms.

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 percent to 11 percent reduction in gun-related suicides. 


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. 


After each mass shooting, experts call for the media not to name the shooter, arguing that glorifying and obsessing over shooters only gives them infamy and creates copycats. And after each shooting, while some members of the media comply, most news organizations publish the shooter’s name and details.

Many school shooters say they studied those before them to learn how to make their shooting more memorable. And research shows there is some contagion effect — a 2015 study by an Arizona State University researcher found that mass shootings are often inspired by other shootings weeks earlier. 

The problem with never naming a shooter is the public will find out anyway. Plus, naming a shooter can prevent misinformation, like the wrong person being blamed for a shooting, says Kelly McBride, vice president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. Details of a shooter—their motivation, access to weapons, clues that were missed—can give information that may help prevent future tragedies.


After the Parkland shooting, corporations started speaking out. Walmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Kroger raised restrictions on the minimum age required to buy firearms. CitiGroup banned their business partners from selling firearms to those under 21 and from selling high-capacity magazines or bump stocks at all. 

Major investment firm BlackRock announced they’d offer customers the ability to invest in funds that did not include gun manufacturers. Companies like Enterprise-Rent-A-Car, Symantec, Metlife, Delta and United all announced they’d be ending their discount programs for NRA members. 

The Ineffective: Proposals unlikely to reduce gun violence 


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. 


Since the Columbine shooting in 1999, schools have worked to limit access points to buildings 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. 

A few schools have used metal detectors to prevent guns from entering schools. This is costly, but they have been proven to keep guns out of schools in neighborhoods with high crime. Experts, however, say metal detectors are unlikely to stop a gunman who wants to commit a mass shooting. And metal detectors are likely to increase students’ perception of fear and disorder within a school. 

Some of the low-cost measures like limiting access points, or locking classroom doors from the inside, may be worth it. And metal detectors may prove useful in some schools. But none are likely to be a major deterrent for a potential shooter.


Sin taxes have long been used as effective ways to discourage negative behavior. Want fewer people to smoke? Tax the hell out of cigarettes. 

Local governments such as those in Seattle and Cook County, Illinois, have levied fees on the purchase of guns and ammunition, with the intent of using the money raised to combat gun violence. But does it work as a method of gun control? 

So far, it’s doubtful. Gun violence actually went up in Seattle the next year after the tax was implemented. The tax did generate about $200,000 for gun research. But that was less than anticipated — and a pittance compared with Seattle’s $6 billion operating budget. And if the dealer that sells 80 percent of guns in Seattle leaves the city, as it has threatened to, Seattle’s tax will raise even less than that. 

The trouble is, guns aren’t like cigarettes, the Los Angeles Times editorial board points out: “A criminal who needs a gun as a primary tool of his trade would hardly be put off by a slightly higher price.” 

The Messy: Proposals where the potential benefits come coupled with downsides and risks

On the 19th anniversary of the Columbine high school shooting, students from Jackson high schools marched to town hall demanding change. (Anushka Olvera)


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 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.


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. Other than a few high-profile cases, there is little research on whether the presence of armed officers prevents mass shooting. 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 and it disproportionately sends students of color into the criminal justice system.

The Ugly: Proposals likely to result in more injuries or deaths



Wyoming’s Park County School District No. 6 voted last week to arm teachers and staff after a training period. While this is an idea supported by 45 percent of adults, according to the Pew Research Center, it’s widely unpopular among 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?


A “Stand Your Ground Law” recently passed in Wyoming and 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.


An armed population is a politer 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 said 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.” 

A version of this article first appeared in the Inlander, a weekly based in Spokane, Washington.


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