Ideas to Reduce Mass Shootings in America

*** NOTE This is a working draft, being assembled in public. ***

Break free of the mass-shooting media cycle—people are murdered, politicians grandstand, cries to “do something” accompany vague policy notions, and nothing changes. Instead, review ideas for improvement.

Also, keep perspective. While mass shootings garner broad media coverage and spark justifiable outrage, they account for only about 1 percent of firearm violence.

From Priorities for Research to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence: “The number of public mass shootings of the type that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School accounted for a very small fraction of all firearm-related deaths.” That was through 2012, but the fraction has persisted through the Uvalde shooting on 24 May 2022.

I update this page with pro/con information on each idea. To contribute material please leave a comment at the bottom, or contact me.

To a less deadly future,
[Jason signature]

 


Idea List

Boost School Security — Little evidence of effectiveness.
Buy Back Guns — Shooters can still obtain them.
Expand Background Checks — We already have them.

Conclusion — We’re in a world of hurt.

 


Boost School Security

Idea

Station armed guards in schools, redesign buildings with a single point of entry that is monitored, keep the doors locked, and screen unknown visitors. Train teachers, staff, and students to respond to active shooters.

Pros

Does not infringe on Second Amendment rights. Has saved lives.

Cons

Little evidence that the presence of guards has reduced crime rates. Already 67 percent of American high school students attend a school with a campus police officer. Expensive. Does not address root causes. Creates an unpleasant, “militarized” atmosphere for children, heightening a sense of danger and tarnishing the innocence of childhood.

Pending Legislation

None.

Information

All of the following reports and commentary are about the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas on 24 May 2022, which killed 21 people.

 

Daily Mail 26 May 2022:

Texas cops have revealed that there was no armed guard on campus when the gunman arrived on Tuesday which allowed him to walk ‘unobstructed’ through an unlocked door and into the building where he slaughtered 21 people. …

It’s unclear if there was meant to be a resource officer at the school that day. There are four in the district and there are nine schools, including four elementary schools, a junior high and a high school. …

Javier Cazares, whose nine-year-old daughter was murdered, says cops were ‘just standing there’ and waiting for protective shields to arrive at the scene before they went in. ‘They said they rushed in and all that, we didn’t see that,’ he told The New York Times. ‘There were plenty of men out there armed to the teeth that could have gone in faster. This could have been over in a couple minutes,’ he said. …

Video shows Texas cops holding down a parent outside Robb Elementary School on Tuesday while a shooting unfolded inside. It took police an hour to get inside the building and bring down the shooter. …

Customs and Border Patrol agents who rushed to the scene had to grab a key from school staff to open the door of the classroom where the bloodbath took place. That is because they were unable to break the door down themselves.

 

New York Times 28 May 2022

[At 12:50 p.m.] Specially trained Border Patrol officers unlock and open a classroom door using a master key given to them by a janitor.

 

New York Post 27 May 2022

Police also revealed there were a series of harrowing 911 calls from several students while they were barricaded inside with the gunman—with one kid pleading with a 911 dispatcher “please send police now!” The calls were taking place until moments before [the shooter] was killed, showing that people were still alive in the class even though authorities believed the killing had stopped.

 

New York Times 26 May 2022:

In an interview, Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers … warned against jumping to conclusions about officers’ actions. Storming a building too quickly could allow an active shooter to escape, he said. And while capturing or killing an active shooter is “Plan A,” he said, containing them to a particular space can be an effective “Plan B” to lessen the carnage. …

Mr. Canady said that school officers had prevented many instances of violence that do not gain broad attention. He pointed to a National Policing Institute database that showed 120 cases of averted school violence between 2018 and 2020.

[However, according to the report: “While it is possible for a single incident to be discovered multiple ways, of the cases in the new sample the largest number of potential school violence plots (56 cases) were initially discovered by at least one suspect telling another person—frequently a peer—of their plan, who then reported it to a school administrator, SRO, or other law enforcement.” The presence of armed guards was not key.]

Armed school police officers. Lockdown drills. High-tech apps for monitoring bullying and students’ social media posts. Like many school systems across the country, the school district in Uvalde, Texas, put in place a plethora of recommended safety practices meant, in part, to deter school shootings. But they were of little use on Tuesday …

The district used software called Social Sentinel, which monitors students’ social media posts for threats, and an app called STOPit, which allows anonymous reports of bullying. These, too, are common practices. …

School policing exploded in popularity after the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., when Congress began providing federal dollars for campus officers. Nationally, 19 percent of elementary school students, 45 percent of middle schoolers and 67 percent of high school students attend a school with a campus police officer, according to a 2018 report from the Urban Institute. But when the Congressional Research Service looked at the effectiveness of school policing in the wake of the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., it concluded there was little evidence showing that the presence of officers affected crime rates.

 

Eliza­beth Bruenig, columnist at The Atlantic, on KCRW’s Left, Right & Center, 5/27/22 show, 8:56-9:32 and 10:58-11:13 in the audio

It’s ridiculous to behave as though you’re not losing something profound when you agree to turn a kindergarten into a prison with armed guards. You’re admitting that, yes, we have to surround our kindergartens with armed guards to keep all the killers out. Our society has a problem. We have all these people we produce that want to murder all the children and have the means  to do it. What the hell? That’s a nightmarish wasteland. What is going on in this society? …

It is extremely distressing to live in a society where you feel like your kid is prey. Why the hell is it like that? It wasn’t always like that. It’s not like that in other places.

 


Buy Back Guns

Idea

Start a gun buyback program, similar to the one Australia launched after the April 1996 Port Arthur massacre, in which a mass shooter killed 35 people.

Pros

Placates public fear. Could at least reduce the availability of guns for shooters.

Cons

Mixed results. Seems more effective at reducing homicide and suicide than mass shootings. Guns bought back are generally not the ones mass shooters use. Determined killers can still obtain guns.

Pending Legislation

None.

Information

Vox 25 May 2022:

Between October 1996 and September 1997, Australia responded to its own gun violence problem with a solution that was both straightforward and severe: It collected roughly 650,000 privately held guns [about 20 percent of all privately owned guns in Australia]. It was one of the largest mandatory gun buyback programs in recent history. …

The so-called National Firearms Agreement (NFA), drafted the month after the [Port Arthur] shooting, sharply restricted legal ownership of firearms in Australia. It also established a registry of all guns owned in the country, among other measures, and required a permit for all new firearm purchases.

One of the most significant provisions of the NFA was a flat-out ban on certain kinds of guns, such as automatic and semi-automatic rifles and shotguns. But there were already a number of such guns in circulation in Australia, and the NFA required getting them off the streets.

Australia solved this problem by introducing a mandatory buyback: Australia’s states would take away all guns that had just been declared illegal. In exchange, they’d pay the guns’ owners a fair price, set by a national committee using market value as a benchmark, to compensate for the loss of their property. The NFA also offered legal amnesty for anyone who handed in illegally owned guns, though they weren’t compensated. …

A 2018 study found that in the 18 years before Port Arthur, Australia experienced 13 mass shootings—defined as incidents in which five or more people died. In the years since, the country suffered one such incident (there was also a shooting in 2019 that killed four).

 

New Yorker 26 May 2022

In a country of roughly twenty-seven million people, there are still a lot of guns in private hands—in 2020, there were an estimated 3.5 million. But the number of mass shootings, defined as attacks in which at least four people are killed, has declined precipitously. In the decade before Port Arthur, there had been eleven such incidents. In the quarter century since, there have been three, the worst of which involved a farmer in Western Australia killing six family members.

 

Harvard Bulletins (firearms research) Spring 2011

While 13 gun massacres (the killing of 4 or more people at one time) occurred in Australia in the 18 years before the NFA, resulting in more than one hundred deaths, in the 14 following years (and up to the present), there were no gun massacres. …

Additional evidence strongly suggests that the buyback causally reduced firearm deaths. First, the drop in firearm deaths was largest among the type of firearms most affected by the buyback. Second, firearm deaths in states with higher buyback rates per capita fell proportionately more than in states with lower buyback rates.

[However:] It does not appear that the Australian experience with gun buybacks is fully replicable in the United States[, for three reasons]: (a) the buybacks are relatively small in scale (b) guns are surrendered voluntarily, and so are not like the ones used in crime; and (c) replacement guns are easy to obtain. These factors did not apply to the Australian buyback, which was large, compulsory, and the guns on this island nation could not easily be replaced.

 

US Department of Justice August 2008

Although gun buybacks appear to be a logical and sensible policy that helps to placate the public’s fears, the evidence so far suggests that in the Australian context, the high expenditure incurred to fund the 1996 gun buyback has not translated into any tangible reductions in terms of firearms deaths. …

[Links to an August 2008 Melbourne Institute Working Paper, “The Australian Firearms Buyback and Its Effect on Gun Deaths,” from which:] Using a battery of structural break tests, there is little evidence to suggest that it had any significant effects on firearm homicides and suicides. In addition, there also does not appear to be any substitution effects—that reduced access to firearms may have led those bent on committing homicide or suicide to use alternative methods.

 


Expand Background Checks

Idea

Run a background check on everybody who wants to buy a gun from a licensed dealer. If anything questionable surfaces, cancel the sale and report the person to authorities.

Pros

Seems the least we can do before handing over a gun and ammo. Might catch a rare shooter who exposes his questionable background to a check. More than a fifth of firearm transfers happen without a background check, showing room for improvement.

Cons

We already run background checks on almost 80 percent of firearm purchases. They didn’t prevent recent mass shootings. Evidence of their effectiveness is inconclusive.

Pending Legislation

Two gun bills, H.R. 8 and H.R. 1446, have been passed in the House but not in the Senate.

USA Today 26 May 2022:

H.R. 8, or The Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021, would expand background checks on individuals seeking to purchase or transfer firearms—including for private individuals and groups, closing the “Gun Show Loophole.” …

H.R. 1446 would close the “Charleston Loophole,” a gap in federal law that lets gun sales proceed without a completed background check if three businesses days have passed. The legislation would extend the initial background check review period to 10 business days—and, if that period elapsed, require the purchaser to ask the FBI to complete its investigation before receiving authorization.

[Note: H.R. 1446 is linked to the 17 June 2015 Charleston church shooting, which killed nine parishioners during a Bible study. The shooter obtained firearms through the loophole.]

 

Information

Rand 22 April 2022:

We identified three studies examining the effects of background check policies on mass shootings in the United States. …

Given how rare these outcomes are—there was an average of 14 school shootings and 15 injuries from school shootings per year across the United States—it is not surprising that the author [of one of the studies] found only an uncertain relationship between state background check laws and the number of casualties from school shootings. …

[In another study], the authors’ estimates most likely reflect differences between states that have the laws and states that do not rather than differences within a state before and after the law was passed. Thus, this study is not likely to provide valid insights into the causal effects of background check laws on school shootings. …

We identified two qualifying studies that estimated the effects of background checks on mass shootings or school shootings. One study estimated how background checks for all handgun sales and for all firearm sales affect mass shootings and found uncertain effects of these universal background check laws on whether at least one mass shooting occurred in a state (Luca, Malhotra, and Poliquin, 2016). Another study found uncertain effects of background checks for private sales on school shooting casualties (Gius, 2018). Considering the methodological limitations in both studies, we consider there to be inconclusive evidence for the effect of background checks on mass shootings.

 

Science.org 27 September 2018

Garen Wintemute, an emergency medicine physician at the University of California (UC), Davis, Medical Center, and the director of UC Davis’s Violence Prevention Research Program, has studied gun violence for more than 30 years and is one of the few researchers to approach the matter as an issue of public health. …

Q: The first way you say we can stop mass shootings is through better background checks. How do we improve them?

A: Twenty-two percent of all firearm transfers in the country do not involve a background check. These take place over the internet, at gun shows, or a brokered through “friend of a friend” exchanges. Some states require a background check for all transfers of firearms, but most states do not, and the federal government does not. Comprehensive, well-designed background checks, as well as regular reporting by agencies of incidents that would prohibit someone from purchasing a gun would let us see the full effectiveness of this policy.

 

New England Journal of Medicine 27 September 2018

[Opinion piece by the aforementioned Garen Wintemute.]

Background-check policies work at the population level to prevent firearm purchases by felons, people convicted of certain violent misdemeanors, and others who are at increased risk for violent behavior (specifics vary from state to state). Using background checks to prevent such persons from acquiring firearms is associated with a reduction of at least 25% in their incidence of arrest for a firearm-related or other violent crime.

In many states, however, transactions between private parties are exempt from background-check requirements, and 22% of all firearm transfers nationwide proceed without a check being done. …

Recent research suggests that background-check policies, as commonly designed and implemented, fall short of their expected effectiveness when it comes to reducing population-level rates of violence. But the findings do not support a conclusion that background-check requirements are fundamentally ineffective. Rather, they highlight the consequences — such as the breakdowns in communication and reporting that led up to the Sutherland Springs shooting—of specific and widespread defects in design and implementation, which have been well documented for decades and which can be overcome.

Perhaps most important is that information that would prohibit high-risk people from purchasing firearms is frequently—many thousands of times per year—not reported. The Air Force alone has apparently failed to report tens of thousands of prohibiting events, and its reporting has been the best among all branches of the military. Remarkably, other than for federal agencies, reporting of such events is not required.

Other substantial built-in barriers exist. Classes of people who are prohibited from purchasing firearms are defined vaguely and anachronistically under US law; “adjudicated as a mental defective or…committed to a mental institution” and “unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance” are good examples. Not surprisingly, there can be serious ambiguity about whether a specific event is in fact prohibiting.

 

Time 10 August 2019

TIME’s examination of the deadliest recent mass shootings showed it was difficult to point to cases where more expansive background checks would have saved lives. Many of the people who perpetrated these mass shootings passed background checks. Some, including the man who killed 12 at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., in 2012 or the shooter who killed 22 at a El Paso, Texas, Walmart on Saturday, passed because they did not have a significant criminal record. Others, like the shooter who killed 9 in Dayton, Ohio, on Sunday, had juvenile charges that were expunged. And several, including the 2012 Sandy Hook, Conn., did not face background checks because they obtained their weapons through friends or family.

[Note: The shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas on 24 May 2022, which killed 21 people, was perpetrated by an 18-year-old who legally purchased a pair of semiautomatic rifles. There was nothing for a background check to catch.]

 

ABCNews 8 November 2021

Under federal law, unlicensed sellers—such as gun shows or private sales—aren’t required to perform background checks. Fourteen states and Washington, DC, have laws closing this loophole, according to Giffords Law Center, but a majority do not.

Under the concept of universal background checks, the idea is that no matter where someone buys a gun—at a store, a gun show or through a friend or online—they would have to go through a background check via a nationwide database. …

But there’s mixed data on whether universal background checks are effective—especially if implemented without other gun safety measures.

Conversations about gun violence—and the ineffectiveness of gun laws—often reference Chicago, where there are restrictive regulations but a significant level of violence. Many people committing crimes with guns, some argue, obtain firearms illegally, so universal background checks wouldn’t make a difference.

According to the Department of Justice’s 2016 Survey of Prison Inmates, 43% of people who used a gun in a crime obtained the firearm off the street or in the underground market, 25% got it from an individual, either from a friend or family member or as a gift, 10% purchased the firearm at a retail source like a gun store or pawn shop, 6% stole it and 17% obtained it in some “other” way such as finding it at the scene or the gun was brought by someone else. …

According to a 2017 report from the City of Chicago, 60% of guns that are recovered after being used in crimes come from out of state, especially from Indiana.

Guns that are trafficked between states nearly always originate from states without strong background check laws,” Rob Wilcox, the federal legal director for Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit gun control advocacy organization, told ABC News.

 

Eliza­beth Bruenig, columnist at The Atlantic, on KCRW’s Left, Right & Center, 5/27/22 show, 9:34-10:25 in the audio

Why do these people have the means to commit these mass murders readily available to them? That’s a good question. Why should an 18-year-old be able to go purchase a couple of ARs? Why? What do you need those for? What the hell do you plan to do with that? That’s a reasonable question. If I try to go buy 4,500 pounds of fertilizer, guess what? The government’s going to ask me what I plan to do with that. I have to either produce some kind of evidence that I’m actually an industrial farmer or they’re going to say, “No thanks. No way. And by the way, what do you think you’re doing?” You know what, I have the same question about an 18-year-old buying a couple of ARs. Okay? So prove to me you’ve got a feral hog problem or something like that or get the hell out of here. The answer is no. And you know what, maybe he would have stolen it or something else, yada yada yada, but why did it have to be so easy?

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