What would have been a hot, slow week in late summer turned deadly when Gilroy, California; Dayton, Ohio; and El Paso, Texas became sites of mass shootings. To date, 34 people have been killed and 65 injured this year.
These flashes of violence have intensified the gun control debate. But two new studies, which are the most comprehensive comparing U.S. gun laws to date, show that we already know which firearm restrictions actually work. Both demonstrate that controlling who has access to guns is more effective at reducing gun-related homicides than controlling what guns people can buy.
The studies show that one category of laws, in particular, can lead to a 35 percent lower firearm homicide rate.
"Research shows that controlling who has access to guns is more effective at reducing gun-related homicides than controlling what guns people can buy.
The research offers a road map towards reducing gun violence that bridges the gun control divide. “The rhetoric that the NRA has put out there that has scared everyone is that we have a choice: We either have to protect gun safety or we have to protect gun rights,” Michael Siegel, M.D., lead author on the studies and public health researcher at Boston University, tells Inverse. “People are either on one side or the other.”
But the studies, published in July in the Journal of Rural Health and in March in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, together with an accompanying policy brief, offer evidence-based strategies to reduce gun violence that should satisfy people on both sides of the debate.
“That’s the lesson of our research: that divide is completely artificial. There is no divide,” Siegel says. “You don’t have to choose between them. The options that are effective for preventing gun violence are the exact options that best protect gun rights.”
"We don’t have to make a decision between honoring the Second Amendment and trying to prevent gun violence.
“We don’t have to make a decision between honoring the Second Amendment and trying to prevent gun violence,” he says. “They’re not mutually exclusive.”
Smart, Targeted Gun Regulation
While gun control is continually debated, the fact that America has a gun violence problem is indisputable. A 2016 study in the American Journal of Medicine found that Americans are 25 times more likely to die from gun homicide than people in other wealthy countries.
Causes for rampant gun violence include the rise of white supremacy and racism, gang violence, mental health issues, and simply too many guns. Any proposed policy changes are controversial and are often based on limited data.
But Siegel’s new research suggests we have what it takes to make policy changes with measurable outcomes that satisfy people on both sides of the debate.
"The focus needs to be on the idea of keeping guns out of the hands of people in the most high-risk situations.
“We can have a dramatic impact on firearm violence and we know how to do it; the focus needs to be on the idea of keeping guns out of the hands of people in the most high-risk situations,” Siegel says. “And we know that the greatest risk for violence is a history of violence.”
His research shows policy should focus on people who have either committed violence or threatened violence and not let them fall through the cracks.
Such policies would be likely to catch mass shooters like Connor Betts, who opened fire in downtown Dayton. Years before the shooting, Betts made “hit lists” and “rape lists” that led to a schoolwide shutdown, according to the Associated Press. With the laws that Siegel’s work proposes, Betts may not have been able to buy the AR-15-style rifle he used to wage his attack.
To determine which legislation makes a meaningful difference, Siegel and his colleagues turned to the numbers. They used the State Firearm Law Database and data from the FBI and the US Census to look at gun data from 48 states from 1991 to 2016. Over the 26 year time period, they compared firearm homicide rates on both the city and state levels with firearm regulations.
The studies examined the effect of eight major types of state firearm laws on firearm-related homicide rates, dividing the laws into one of four categories:
- Laws regulating who may purchase or possess a firearm: universal background checks; prohibition of gun possession by people convicted of a violent crime; and “may issue” laws, which give police discretion in issuing concealed carry permits.
- Laws regulating what types of firearms and ammunition are allowed and how many guns may be purchased (assault weapon bans, bans on large capacity ammunition magazines, and bans on the purchase of more than one gun per month).
- Laws regulating when firearms may be used (stand your ground laws).
- Laws regulating why firearms may be purchased (bans on gun trafficking).
Their analysis revealed that changing the first category of laws was most effective: universal background checks, permit requirements, “may issue” laws (where local authorities can decide who is approved to carry a concealed weapon), and laws banning people convicted of violent misdemeanors from possessing firearms are, individually and collectively, significantly able to reduce gun-related deaths.
"In other words, keeping guns out of the hands of people who are at the greatest risk of violence is the most effective way to reduce gun violence.
In states that require universal background checks, permits for firearms (which facilitate the background check process), and laws that prohibit gun possession by people with a history of violence, the firearm homicide rates are 35 percent lower, Siegel says.
Meanwhile, the team also showed that laws regulating the type of firearms people have access to—such as assault weapon bans and large capacity ammunition magazine bans—and “stand your ground” laws have no effect on the rate of firearm-related homicide.
Closing Two Loopholes
The laws in the first category, implemented on either a state or federal level, would close two major loopholes in gun control regulation as it stands, says Siegel.
The first loophole is that federal law only prohibits firearm possession by people who have committed a felony. That rule is broken, says Siegel, because most violent crimes are not prosecuted as felonies but as misdemeanors.
“So if somebody’s committed a violent assault, even an aggravated assault, and that crime is not prosecuted as a felony, then that person is perfectly free to carry a firearm in most states.”
The second major loophole is that most states don’t check for violent histories, felonies, or misdemeanors. Only 13 states actually require background checks to check for criminal history, and in most states, police can’t deny a concealed-carry permit to a person with a violent criminal history if they have not actually committed a felony.
“So the police can actually know for a fact that somebody has committed a violent misdemeanor and they are literally powerless to prevent that person from carrying a firearm. Their hands are tied,” Siegel says.
The research shows that the overwhelming majority of states have not just one of these loopholes, but both.
Mental Health Isn’t the Problem — It’s Guns
In the days following a mass shooting, the public and experts alike are left questioning the motive of the shooter. Often, they’re cast as social misfits, outcasts, or deranged people with mental health problems, perpetuating the idea that gun violence is tied to mental health. But mental health experts, as well as Siegel, disagree.
Since 2012, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has advocated for a national mental health registry to identify and remove guns from “unfit” gun owners. After three back-to-back shootings this week, President Trump echoed this idea, suggesting America alter its mental health laws to “better identify mentally disturbed individuals who may commit acts of violence.”
“Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun,” he said.
But psychological health professionals caution that blaming gun violence on mental health is “unfounded and stigmatizing,” as the American Psychological Association argued in a statement on August 4. The APA maintains that the cause of gun violence is “combination of easy access to assault weapons and hateful rhetoric.”
What’s ironic, Siegel says, is that establishing a national mental health registry would not only be ineffective but actually threaten gun rights far more than gun laws.
“The great irony is it’s precisely those people that are talking about background checks interfering with gun rights that are proposing to essentially violate gun rights on a most extreme level,” he says.
“Establishing a gun registry for mental health would violate the Second Amendment and would take away guns from hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people who are perfectly law abiding.”
A Plan Forward
The laws that Siegel’s research proposes are more targeted than some of the other proposed legislation, like assault weapons bans or “stand your ground” laws. Their specificity may help them appeal to people resistant to stricter gun regulation.
“The good news from our research is that the approach that seems to be most effective in reducing gun violence on a population level is precisely an approach that will best protect the rights of law abiding gun owners to have guns,” Siegel says.
The population that would be most affected by universal background checks, permit requirements, and violent misdemeanor laws are people with violent histories, who even the NRA says shouldn’t have guns. On August 5, it released a statement saying: “It has been the NRA’s long-standing position that those who have been adjudicated as a danger to themselves or others should not have access to firearms and should be admitted for treatment.”
Siegel’s policy recommendations would help determine who those high-risk individuals are, and intervene before violence erupts.
“If you don’t have a criminal history and you don’t have a history of threatened violence, then you’re free to own a gun and you’re not going to be burdened by all sorts of other requirements that really have nothing to do with your actual risk.”
Ultimately, we don’t have to remain polarized around the issue of guns, he says. We can protect people’s gun rights while protecting people’s lives.
“There are principles that everybody agrees with, even the NRA, that if we implemented into law and enforced stringently will likely be very effective in reducing homicide,” he says.
“You can probably do a better job of protecting people’s gun rights ironically than the NRA is doing, yet reduce gun violence at the same time.”