The State of Gun Control after Orlando

… and San Bernardino and Sandy Hook

Following the Orlando nightclub shooting, America’s deadliest mass shooting and deadliest terror attack since 9–11, media, coverage has focused on relaying breaking news, victims stories, and the shooter’s motives. Amid this coverage was a small but telling reaction; in the initial aftermath, many journalists did not write new stories about gun control. They simply republished the stories they wrote following San Bernardino this past fall (for example The New York Times and The Washington Post).

Orlando is the latest in a string of high profile mass shootings over the last ten years. In this time the names of cities, universities, and schools have become shorthand for gun-related terror: San Bernadino, Charleston, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Virginia Tech. The numbers are stark; more than 50 percent of all mass shooting fatalities and injuries since 1981 have occurred within the last 10 years. Four of the ten deadliest attacks in American history happened within the last five years. So far during his two terms, President Obama has addressed the nation 16 times following violent shootings. In those most recent addresses, especially following Sandy Hook, the president has pleaded with Congress to consider what he calls “common sense” gun control measures. And despite the growing list of deadly mass shootings, efforts by President Obama and Congressional leaders, increasing concerns over domestic terrorism post 9–11, and voter support for gun control legislation, sweeping reforms have been virtually non-existent.

The last time Congress passed gun control legislation was 22 years ago.

Mass shootings victims by weapon type

Between 1981 and 2013, over 80% of all victims were involved in mass shootings where at least one semiautomatic handgun was used.

Note: If a shooter used multiple weapons victim counts are repeated in multiple categories. Source: Mother Jones, US Mass Shootings, 1981–2013. Mass shootings are defined as shootings perpetrated by a lone shooter who takes the lives of at least four people in a public place. If the shooter dies, he is not included in the count. Crimes primarily related to gang activity, armed robbery, or domestic violence in homes are not included. For more details see here.

Congress hasn’t passed major gun control legislation since the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban in response to the Columbine shootings. The ban prohibited the manufacture of semi-automatic weapons and large capacity magazines for 10 years. However, due to the limited definition of semi-automatic weapons and large capacity magazines, gun manufacturers were able to make small changes to existing assault weapons to make them technically legal but just as deadly as banned firearms. In addition, the ban did nothing to address America’s 1.5 million existing assault weapons and 25–50 million existing large-capacity magazines.

According to a 2003 report issued by the Department of Justice and FactCheck.org, the results of the ban have been mixed:

“Although the ban has been successful in reducing crimes with AWs [Assault Weapons], any benefits from this reduction are likely to have been outweighed by steady or rising use of non-banned semiautomatics with LCMs [large-capacity magazines], which are used in crime much more frequently than AWs. Therefore, we cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation’s recent drop in gun violence… there has been no discernible reduction in the lethality and injuriousness of gun violence” — Christopher S. Koper

In other words, the loophole allowing the manufacture of modified semiautomatic weapons and the prevalence of existing large-capacity magazines nullified any benefits from the ban. As a result, Koper argues that the previous ban on assault rifles did little to combat overall gun violence, though whether there would have been a different outcome if the bill included a broader definition of assault weapons is up for debate. Regardless, it is clear that Federal Assault Weapons Ban was a flawed implementation of federal gun control.

Two thirds of states have failing gun control grades

Gun law grades by state

Source: Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence 2015 Gun Law State Scorecard

Gun control laws vary tremendously state by state and in some cases are actually more permissive than federal laws. While violators of federal gun laws can be prosecuted, state and local law enforcement are not legally compelled to enforce those laws. To evaluate state laws, the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence created the Gun Law State Scorecard, which assigns a letter grade A (most strict) through F (least strict) to each state. States lost points for laws that weakened public safety, such as not requiring universal background checks, and gained points for effective laws, such as preventing domestic violence offenders from purchasing firearms. In 2015, more than half of all states received a score of ‘F’ and only a third passed.

Guns in America Today

In 2014, there were enough firearms in America for every man, woman, and child to own a gun. Gun ownership has become more concentrated in fewer households over the past four decades, with only 32% of households owning guns, down from a high of 50% in 1977. Gun purchases are only increasing; according to a recent analysis by the New York Times, gun purchase rates increase with the threat of gun control legislation, after mass shootings and terrorist attacks, and even after the lifting of gun control regulations and the election of President Obama.

There are enough firearms in America for every man, woman, and child to own a gun.

Firearms deaths

One square represents 100 deaths. Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Number of deaths, death rates, and age-adjusted death rates for injury deaths, by mechanism and intent of death: United States, 2013. Mass shootings deaths from Mother Jones (see figure above for definitions).

Perhaps the most surprising statistic to come out of this research is how few gun-related deaths are the result of mass shootings. The majority of gun-related deaths (63% in 2013) are suicides. Even amongst homicides, mass shootings are rare, constituting less than 1% of all firearm homicides in 2013. Fourteen times as many people died of unintentional firearm deaths than of mass shootings.

Mass shootings are devastating for the nation, our communities, and for victims’ loved ones. But gun violence happens every day, not just when it’s in the national spotlight or when more than four people are killed at once. Gun violence kills more than three people per hour. Gun violence costs America $229 billion or $700 per person annually, more than Medicaid or obesity. But gun violence is typically receives media coverage only when the event is particularly deadly, disturbing, or close by.

Will there be next steps?

Many Americans thought that Sandy Hook would change everything; following the deaths of 26 people, 20 of whom were kindergarteners, many assumed substantive gun control reform would finally happen. Connecticut and a few other states successfully passed gun control legislation, but a proposed federal ban on assault weapons, similar to the 1994 ban, failed to pass in the Senate. Despite bipartisan support for greater gun control measures, there has been no new gun control legislation in the six months following the San Bernardino massacre, and given this Congress’ tract record, there likely won’t be any before the end of the year.

Unlike other developed nations, such as Australia, America has not taken decisive steps towards preventing future massacres, like the one in Orlando, or trying combat the larger problem of gun violence. The lobbying power of gun rights entities such as the National Rifle Association has only increased and largely as a result, since 1996 there has been no substantive study of gun violence at the federal level. Given the lackluster results following the Federal Automatic Weapons ban and the fact that states with strong gun control laws (such as California) still experience mass shootings, it begs the question: what is the right response to combat mass shootings and the larger issue of gun violence?

If nothing else, perhaps Orlando will convince Congress that more research is needed to craft solutions that can substantively combat gun violence. Whether you believe gun control is the answer to gun violence or not, nothing will change if we close our eyes and ears to these peoples’ deaths. Research will not prevent tomorrow’s shootings but perhaps it can prevent shootings ten years from now. And maybe next time this happens, journalists will be able to return to their previous gun control pieces and add something new.