Sunday, June 5, 2022

Gun Safety Reforms Could Save Lives

 President Biden spoke for most Americans last week [June 2] when he pleaded with Congress to pass a short list of specific gun safety proposals to try to prevent mass shootings and to limit the number of deaths from any such episodes. Predictably, however, Biden’s plea fell on deaf ears as Republicans in Congress and gun rights advocacy groups warned that he was tampering with the sacrosanct Second Amendment and that the proposed reforms were likely to be ineffective in any event.

The New York Times answered those doubts with a thoroughly documented analysis published three days later (June 5) under this headline: “4 Laws Might Have Saved Lives in 35 Mass Shootings.” Biden’s most specific proposal was to urge Congress to re-institute the federal ban on assault weapons that Congress enacted in 1994 and that Congress allowed to lapse in 2004. Weapons covered by the ban were used in nearly one-third of the 35 mass shootings since the Columbine massacre in 1999, according to the Times’ compilation, including the most recent of the tragedies in Uvalde, Texas.

The Times’ analysis also concluded that three other measures -- universal background checks, stronger gun storage laws, and a ban on high-capacity magazines -- could have changed the course of at least 35 mass shootings that killed, in all, 466 people.

Biden also called in his speech for banning high-capacity magazines, which were used in twenty of the thirty-five mass shootings that the Times analyzed, including the mass shooting at a Buffalo, N.Y., grocery store on May 14 and the Uvalde episode on May 24.

Biden also called for raising the minimum age to purchase assault weapons if Congress declined to impose a ban. The Uvalde shooter, Salvador Ramos, marked his eighteenth birthday by purchasing the AR15 that he used to kill nineteen youngsters and two teachers. Texas’s relatively lax gun laws set the minimum age to purchase an assault rifle at eighteen. Several other states set the minimum age at twenty-one. With the Uvalde episode fresh in mind, the New York legislature raised the minimum age to purchase an assault rifle in the Empire State last week to twenty-one.

In addition to the Uvalde shooting, the Times identified three other episodes perpetrated by attackers who purchased their weapons before the age of 21: the February 2018 shooting at Parkland High School in Florida; the April 2021 shooting at the FedEx Warehouse in Indianapolis; and the May 2022 shooting at the Buffalo grocery store.

Raising the minimum age for purchase of firearms has gained support from experts who study gun violence and developmental psychology. Federal law currently limits the ability of juveniles under age 21 to purchase handguns but allows those age 18 or over to purchase so-called assault rifles. The House of Representatives is expected to pass a Democratic-backed measure this week [week of June 6] to raise the minimum gun-purchasing age to 21 for more weapons, but not all.

A RAND study published in April 2020 noted that firearm homicides and violent crimes disproportionately involve individuals under age 21, both as perpetrators and as victims. On that basis, the study concluded that minimum age laws could, in theory, reduce rates of firearm crime perpetrated by juveniles. Psychologists who study juvenile offenders emphasize that young people develop impulse control only slowly after age eighteen. The RAND study also noted that nearly half of suicides among people aged 16 to 21 involved the use of a firearm.

The Times’ analysis, written by Quoctrung Bui, Alicia Parlapiano, and Margot Sanger-Katz, also concluded that extending background checks to cover private sales could help reduce mass shootings. The Times counted four attackers who purchased a weapon from a private seller in a state where background checks were not required for such sales. The newspaper noted that the House has passed a bill to make background checks more universal and give investigators more time to complete a check.

The newspaper also called for encouraging safe gun storage and punishing people who fail to secure guns from children and criminals. The newspaper counted seven mass shootings perpetrated by attackers who stole a gun, including as one example the May 2018 shooting at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas, that left ten people killed and thirteen others injured.

Biden squarely challenged Senate Republicans to support what he described as sensible steps to reduce gun violence by noting that no gun safety reforms can pass the 50-50 Senate without support from at least ten Republicans. But as long as the Republican Party remains beholden to the National Rifle Association, the needed votes are unlikely to materialize.

Worse than the obstructionism from Senate Republicans is the danger that the Republican-majority Supreme Court is about to create a presumptive constitutional right to carry firearms in public by striking down a New York law that requires an applicant for a gun permit to demonstrate good cause for needing to be armed in public. The case, New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen was argued on November 3, 2021; and a majority of the justices appeared to be skeptical of the New York law.

The Court could announce its decision in the New York gun case any day now, presumably before the end of the month. The conservative justices, it appears, are ready to take major steps to reshape American law to suit their political agendas – judging by the draft decision in the Mississippi abortion case. They may decide to aim for the fences in the gun case as well.  

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