The day after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, President Donald Trump wouldn’t even acknowledge gun control — leaving the topic out of his speech responding to the shooting, which killed 17 people, altogether.
A week after the shooting, though, Trump seems to have come around to some action on guns. On Tuesday, he tweeted, “Whether we are Republican or Democrat, we must now focus on strengthening Background Checks!” He now supports two specific policies:
The White House said Trump is also considering other measures, including raising the minimum age for buying assault weapons from 18 to 21. But it’s unclear if that means he will actually support those measures anytime soon.
The measures Trump publicly backs are improvements on current gun control laws, but they’re also fairly mild — they focus more on enforcing existing law rather than imposing brand new restrictions on firearms. So the policies could have possibly averted some tragedies, or potentially made them less deadly, but it’s not clear if they’ll do anything to significantly reduce gun violence in the US.
That’s in large part because America has such a big gun problem that milder measures can only go so far. To seriously confront its extraordinary levels of gun violence, the research suggests that America will need to do something to reduce the number of guns in circulation right now — as other countries have done in response to mass shootings. So measures that better enforce current gun laws, while welcome, simply won’t come close to addressing the full scope of the issue.
Background checks in the US are underresourced
The two measures that Trump now publicly supports likely would not have stopped the Florida shooting, given that the perpetrator seems to have legally passed a background check and did not use a bump stock. But the policies do make sense as responses to mass shootings more broadly and, specifically, two of the tragedies that occurred in the past year.
The Fix NICS Act came in response to reports that the gunman in last year’s Sutherland Springs, Texas, shooting, which killed 26, had been able to obtain a firearm because the Air Force failed to send criminal records to the background check system that could have stopped him from obtaining a gun. As ProPublica reported last year, this has been a problem in the military for a long time — going back to a 2015 Pentagon report — but the issues have persisted.
In general, the federal background check system is also notoriously underresourced, allowing red flags to slip through.
For example, although there are no waiting periods under federal law, a check that turns out inconclusive can be extended for three business days for further investigation. But these three days are a maximum for the government — and sometimes, the three days lapse without the FBI completing its check, and a buyer can, at that point, purchase a gun without the completed check.
The FBI admitted that something like this happened for Dylann Roof, who killed nine people at a predominantly black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015: Roof should have failed a background check for a handgun purchase after admitting to illegally possessing controlled substances in the past, but the FBI examiner did not obtain the shooter’s record in time.
The Fix NICS Act wouldn’t fully address this problem, but it could help — by improving reporting to the background check system from both federal agencies and states. The question now is if Congress will pass the bill.
Meanwhile, Trump’s other proposals could make this particular problem worse. As ABC News reported, Trump’s 2019 budget would actually cut federal grants “that help states improve the completeness of the records they report to the federal database” from $73 million to $61 million.
Bump stocks flout the spirit of federal law
Trump’s effort to potentially ban bump stocks also comes in response to a mass shooting. Last year, the Las Vegas shooter used a modified gun to kill 58 others and injure hundreds more. He might still have carried out the shooting without bump stocks, but the devices at least made the shooting much deadlier — by turning his semiautomatic weapons into guns that closely simulated automatics.
Automatic weapons are what many Americans think of as machine guns. They can continuously fire off a stream of bullets by simply holding down the trigger — making them very deadly. Semiautomatic weapons, by contrast, fire a single bullet per trigger pull. The difference between an automatic and a semiautomatic effectively translates to firing hundreds of rounds a minute versus dozens or so in the same time frame.
Under federal law, fully automatic weapons are technically legal only if made before 1986, when Congress passed the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act. So it’s illegal to manufacture new automatic weapons for civilian use.
Bump stocks, which are legal, offer a way around that, as the Associated Press explained shortly after the Las Vegas shooting:
There are other modifications that achieve a similar effect, including a crank that replaces the trigger and turns a gun into what a gun aficionado channel on YouTube called “a mini Gatling Gun.”
Trump’s memo calls on the Department of Justice to try to ban these devices.
There’s a big question, however, whether this would be possible. The Justice Department and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) already initiated the rule-making process for potentially banning bump stocks late last year. But they concluded at the time that federal law likely does not allow them to ban bump stocks and other similar devices by themselves — meaning they would likely need Congress to pass a new law to act.
If this holds up, Trump’s memo will essentially have no effect — since federal agencies simply won’t be able to ban bump stocks.
America needs to go much further than these two policies
Even if both of Trump’s efforts are successful — so Congress passes the Fix NICS Act and federal agencies ban bump stocks and similar devices — it’s questionable just how much of an effect this would all have, because the measures simply wouldn’t have much of an impact on overall gun violence.
The US is unique in two key — and related — ways when it comes to guns: It has way more gun deaths than other developed nations, and it has far more guns than any other country in the world.
The US has nearly six times the gun homicide rate as Canada, more than seven times as Sweden, and nearly 16 times as Germany, according to UN data compiled by the Guardian. (These gun deaths are a big reason America has a much higher overall homicide rate, which includes non-gun deaths, than other developed nations.)
Mass shootings actually make up a small fraction of America’s gun deaths, constituting less than 2 percent of such deaths in 2013. But America does see a lot of these horrific events: According to CNN, “The US makes up less than 5% of the world’s population, but holds 31% of global mass shooters.”
The US also has by far the highest number of privately owned guns in the world. Estimated in 2007, the number of civilian-owned firearms in the US was 88.8 guns per 100 people, meaning there was almost one privately owned gun per American and more than one per American adult. The world’s second-ranked country was Yemen, a quasi-failed state torn by civil war, where there were 54.8 guns per 100 people.
Another way of looking at that: Americans make up less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet own roughly 42 percent of all the world’s privately held firearms.
These two facts — on gun deaths and firearm ownership — are related. The research, compiled by the Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center, is pretty clear: After controlling for variables such as socioeconomic factors and other crime, places with more guns have more gun deaths.
“Within the United States, a wide array of empirical evidence indicates that more guns in a community leads to more homicide,” David Hemenway, the Injury Control Research Center’s director, wrote in Private Guns, Public Health.
This chart, from researcher Josh Tewksbury, shows the correlation between the number of guns and gun deaths among wealthier nations:
Guns are not the only contributor to violence. (Other factors include, for example, poverty, urbanization, and alcohol consumption.) But when researchers control for other confounding variables, they have found time and time again that America’s high levels of gun ownership are a major reason the US is so much worse in terms of gun violence than its developed peers.
This is in many ways intuitive: People of every country get into arguments and fights with friends, family, and peers. But in the US, it’s much more likely that someone will get angry at an argument and be able to pull out a gun and kill someone.
Gun control measures can help address this by reducing the amount of people who own guns, whether over time or immediately.
And the research supports gun control: A 2016 review of 130 studies in 10 countries, published in Epidemiologic Reviews, found that new legal restrictions on owning and purchasing guns tended to be followed by a drop in gun violence — a strong indicator that restricting access to guns can save lives.
But not all gun control is made equal. Consider the specifics of the US: If the key problem is that America has too many guns, then it needs to do something to reduce the number of guns in circulation quickly — something akin to Australia’s response to a mass shooting in the late 1990s, when the country passed sweeping restrictions on firearms and enacted what was effectively a gun confiscation program for certain types of weapons. That policy not only cut the amount of guns in circulation, but, based on the research, cut the firearm homicide and suicide rates too.
The policies Trump has backed wouldn’t do anything close to that. They target specific circumstances and modifications, rather than the supply of firearms in general. In fact, this is typical in US policy responses to guns: After the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in which a gunman killed 26 others, the bill that came out of it wouldn’t have even implemented universal background checks.
Now, some states have had success with smaller changes. Connecticut’s law requiring gun purchasers to first obtain a license, for example, was followed by a 40-percent drop in gun homicides and 15-percent reduction in suicides. Similar gains were seen in Missouri. It’s difficult to separate these improvements from long-term trends (since gun homicides have generally been on the decline for decades now), but some of the decreases are likely linked to new restrictions on guns — and that means these measures truly saved lives.
But if America wants to get to the levels of gun deaths that its European peers report, it will likely need to go much further.