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After a string of mass shootings, including those in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, last year, I wrote a story with this headline: Why the president, Congress and the Supreme Court can’t – or won’t – stop mass shootings.
There have been some key developments in national gun policy in the intervening months:
- Congress actually did come together last June to pass the first new, major national gun legislation in decades, encouraging states to pass red flag laws – which through court orders can temporarily prevent individuals in crisis from accessing firearms – along with other measures tied to mental health and firearms.
- That same month, the Supreme Court invalidated a decades-old New York law governing gun licenses, pulling the rug out from under gun restrictions enacted in states and setting off a scramble to challenge these state laws.
- Following the midterm election, Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in January, ensuring no new gun restrictions are likely to be considered at the national level.
Despite that action by the previous Congress, and due to the action by the Supreme Court, the basic thrust of that story from last year holds as the US grapples with the aftermath of Monday’s Nashville, Tennessee, elementary school shooting in which three 9-year-old children and three adults were killed.
There’s little more the president can do about mass shootings. There’s nothing the new GOP-controlled Congress is likely to do to prevent mass shootings. And there’s reason to think state gun control laws could be in jeopardy.
That means this cycle of gun violence remains sad, predictable and permanent.
There have already been 16 shootings at US schools in the first months of 2023, and 405 kids have been killed by guns in America. The total number of child gun deaths was 1,680 in 2022, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
Most states, including Tennessee, still don’t have a red flag (also known as extreme risk) law, according to a database maintained by the activist group Everytown for Gun Safety.
Even if Tennessee did have a red flag law, it seems unlikely that it would have stopped the Nashville shooter.
The shooter in Nashville, Audrey Hale, legally bought seven firearms from five different gun stores in the city in recent years. Hale was under a doctor’s care for an emotional disorder, according to Metropolitan Nashville Police Chief John Drake, who added that Hale’s parents thought the one firearm they knew the shooter bought had eventually been sold.
“Had it been reported that she was suicidal or that she was going to kill someone and had been made known to us, then we would have tried to get those weapons. But as it stands, we had absolutely no idea, actually, who this person was,” Drake told reporters.
Laws are not going to catch every shooter
Red flag laws failed to identify the shooter who targeted Black Americans at a Buffalo grocery store last May. A red flag law in Indiana failed to identify the shooter who killed eight people at a FedEx facility in 2021. The law has since been tweaked.
Everytown for Gun Safety notes that mass shooters often find their way around ownership restrictions, despite prior warning signs.
Many states are expanding access to firearms
Part of the country thinks the answer is fewer guns, while another part wants to see more guns everywhere to take down deranged shooters.
In many states, including Tennessee, policymakers continue to make laws more permissive.
The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence gives Tennessee an “F” for its existing laws. The legislature there is currently considering legislation to expand which guns can be carried legally without a permit.
New national laws are less likely
After the shooting in Nashville, Republican leaders on Capitol Hill dismissed immediate calls to reconsider an assault weapons ban to curb the number of AR-15 rifles – which was one of the weapons the Nashville suspect used during Monday’s shooting.
“The Second Amendment is the Second Amendment,” said Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee that has jurisdiction over gun policy. “I believe in the Second Amendment and we shouldn’t penalize law-abiding American citizens.”
Rep. Andy Ogles, the Republican whose district includes Nashville, said guns aren’t the main problem.
“Why not talk about the real issue facing the country – and that’s mental health,” Ogles said, according to CNN’s Capitol Hill team.
Presidents of both parties have had trouble appointing permanent directors for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Biden, doing what he can, promised administrative efforts to crack down on home-assembly ghost guns, but lacks the power to do much about the guns used in mass shootings.
Former President Donald Trump’s administration tried to reinterpret an existing law against civilian ownership of machine guns to ban so-called “bump stocks” like the one used to kill 58 people in Las Vegas in 2017. A federal appeals court struck down the bump stock ban earlier this year, but left it in place while the case returns to a lower court.
A country divided by guns
There is an apocryphal belief among many Americans that the Constitution views gun ownership in the same way it views life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. An increasingly conservative Supreme Court has turned that belief into precedent. Justice Clarence Thomas, in striking down that long-standing New York gun licensing law, said gun laws must be “consistent with this Nation’s historical tradition.”
Note: A 2018 Florida law that raised the minimum age to buy a gun to 21 was upheld earlier this month by a federal appeals court that said it was consistent with the historical tradition. But that decision might not make it to the Supreme Court; Republican lawmakers in Florida, now several years removed from the Parkland shooting that inspired the change, are working on changing the age back to 18.
Regardless, there were no semi-automatic rifles at the founding of the country or the writing of the Bill of Rights.
People think government can do something
You’ve certainly read that large majorities of the country support certain gun restrictions – and that is true.
But it is not a vast majority of the country that wants a wholesale rewriting of the nation’s gun laws.
CNN’s director of polling Jennifer Agiesta has noted that “support for stricter gun laws tends to spike after high-profile mass shootings, such as the one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, which occurred a few weeks before Gallup measured its recent high of 67% support for stricter laws in March 2018.”
In a CNN poll conducted by SSRS last year after the Uvalde and Buffalo shootings, 69% of Americans said that government and society can take action that will be effective in preventing shootings like the one in Uvalde. Thirty percent said that shootings like the one in Uvalde will happen again regardless of what action is taken by government and society.
A 58% majority of Americans say they believe stricter gun control laws would reduce the number of gun-related deaths in the country. That’s up from 49% in 2019 and similar to the 56% following Parkland.
Some agreement on what to do
In Gallup polling, only a narrow majority of Americans are in favor of stricter laws on gun sales, and a 2021 survey from ABC News and The Washington Post found that about half the public says that neither stricter laws nor stricter enforcement would reduce the amount of violent crime in the US.
There is broad support in a 2021 Pew Research Center analysis of polling for some specific ideas that go far beyond what’s possible in Congress:
- 87% supported preventing people with mental illnesses from purchasing guns.
- 81% supported making private gun sales and sales at gun shows subject to background checks.
But the federal law passed last year encouraging new state laws shows the limits of such action. CNN polling editor Ariel Edwards-Levy noted that given a description about the new federal law, 45% in the CNN poll said that those provisions don’t go far enough to change US gun laws, another 39% said they do the right amount and just 16% that they go too far.
People do support specific things
Smaller but sill substantial majorities supported more controversial ideas, according to the Pew analysis:
- 66% backed creating a federal database to track gun sales.
- 64% approved of “banning high-capacity ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.”
- 63% approved “banning assault-style weapons.”
Despite the Supreme Court’s rejection of New York’s permit law, just 20% in Pew’s polling, including only 35% of gun owners nationwide, favored a law “allowing people to carry concealed guns without a permit.”
What this all means is that despite the cries that something – or anything – must be done, the US government is predisposed to inaction, the courts are very respectful of gun rights and the absolutists have a chokehold on the system. Until one or all of those things change, and as long as there are more guns than people in the US, this cycle will continue.