In the wake of mass shootings, such as the recent tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were killed and another 17 wounded, the role of the federal government in reducing gun violence typically comes into focus. We rightfully expect our elected national leaders to take action to quell the uniquely American scourge of gun violence. However, while the goal is noble, and while such efforts have proven to be effective in other parts of the world, notably Australia and Japan, we should not expect that Congress will, in fact, act or that federal regulation alone will be a satisfactory remedy. As a society, we must not lose focus on some of the root causes of and contributors to gun violence that may be addressed via other means.
Since the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban of a generation ago, Congress has not passed a significant law that has restricted gun sales, ownership or usage. In the intervening 24 years, more than a million Americans have been shot to death or grievously injured by a firearm. There has been an interminable sequence of horrifying massacres: from Columbine to Sandy Hook to Las Vegas. Yet, between 2011 and 2016, at least 100 gun control proposals in the U.S. Congress were rejected. Even during the two years the purportedly pro-gun control Democratic Party controlled both houses of Congress and Barack Obama was president, no laws restricting gun ownership or use were passed.
The notable federal laws that have been enacted during the past two decades skew in the opposite direction, inuring to the benefit of those who distribute and possess firearms. In 2003, the Tiahrt Amendment “removed from the public record a government database that traces guns recovered in crimes back to the dealers.” Two years later, George W. Bush signed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which shields gun manufacturers from civil lawsuits by victims of gun violence. President Obama signed legislation allowing American to bring guns into national parks and to pack unloaded weapons in luggage on Amtrak trains.
However, political inertia is not the only obstacle to success; the gun regulations that can be advanced by the Congress may not be effective. There is debate over whether the Federal Assault Weapons Ban had an appreciable impact on gun violence in America. Further, leading researchers question whether existing federal background check laws save lives. Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center on Gun Policy, points out that “the federal Brady Law, which mandates background checks for firearm sales but exempts sales by private parties, has not been strong enough to reduce homicide rates.” So it appears that the best Congress can do may not be good enough.
These failures and shortcomings do not preclude efforts to address gun violence at the highest levels. However, they do emphasize the importance of considering other ways to move forward. If we want to devise and implement effective strategies, we must keep our eye on critical underlying factors. Although I would not describe myself as an expert on gun violence, I spent 18 months recruiting and interviewing individuals who have shot someone for my upcoming book, "The Trigger: Narratives of the American Shooter." (Read an excerpt here on Salon.) This experience has afforded me a somewhat unique perspective on various factors that contribute to the problem.
By “gun availability,” I am referring to the ease with which an individual can obtain a firearm, either legally or illegally, regardless of established law. Four of the individuals in my book, all of whom were convicted of homicide or murder, had no problem whatsoever acquiring a weapon. Three used guns belonging to family members, and one obtained a gun (in fact, numerous guns) on the black market.
Federal gun control legislation could have an impact in this area, but not necessarily. Notably, there are more guns than people in this country – more than 300 million. A federal law mandating stricter universal background checks, or outlawing the sale and manufacture of assault weapons, might not meaningfully diminish that number. Conversely, gun availability may be reduced through initiatives that have nothing to do with federal gun regulations: education on proper securing of firearms in the home, law enforcement crackdowns on black markets for weapons and local efforts to reduce gun theft.
Mental illness is a heavily publicized and fervently debated underlying factor of gun violence. In "The Trigger," I recount the experience of a U.S. Navy veteran who shot his mother during a psychotic episode. He had exhibited erratic behavior for years and had been dishonorably discharged shortly before the incident. Two decades later, he still cannot explain why he pulled the trigger and harbors resentment because his superiors did not sufficiently intervene, despite repeated warning signs.
Among academics and experts, there is debate regarding the relationship between mental illness and gun violence. One side points out that mental illness, by itself – without coincidental risk factors such as substance abuse or exposure to violence – may not be a significant predictor of violence against another person. However, there are often coincidental factors, and moreover, there is a strong correlation between mental illness and suicides by firearm, which account for roughly two-thirds of the gun deaths in this country each year. Furthermore, according to some estimates, roughly 60 percent of recent mass shootings have been “carried out by people who had either been diagnosed with a mental disorder or demonstrated signs of serious mental illness prior to the attack.”
Preventing mentally ill individuals from possessing firearms is more difficult than it may sound. However, a legislative option has begun to gain momentum at the state level. Currently six states have passed “red flag laws,” which allow law enforcement or family members to seek a court order to restrict an individual’s access to guns if he is behaving in a manner that indicates he might be a danger to himself or others.
Alcohol played a role in four of the six homicides I wrote about in "The Trigger." Three of the perpetrators were intoxicated when they fired the gun. One of the shooters, in particular, was a straight-edge student and college football star who had never been in trouble with the law prior to drunkenly discharging a shotgun and killing an innocent man. Research shows that a history of alcohol abuse is often a precursor to violent crime. Moreover, more than one-third of convicted criminals were drinking at the time of their offense. At least one leading researcher believes that state laws that restrict alcohol abusers from possessing guns are effective and should be more widely adopted.
Domestic abuse, too, is strongly correlated with gun violence. The presence of a gun in a home where there is domestic violence vastly increases the probability that a woman will be killed. More than half of mass shootings are related to domestic violence. In my book, a victimized teenaged girl became the perpetrator of gun violence. After suffering years of physical and emotional abuse, she ultimately shot her father in his sleep with his own weapon. Gun safety advocates recommend confiscating firearms from adjudicated domestic abusers, but, currently, only 15 states do so.
And, of course, economic strife is central to this conversation. Much of American gun violence is clustered in impoverished urban communities. Income inequality, in general, is strongly correlated with the rate of homicide, not just in the U.S., but in the world. In "The Trigger," I profile a reformed crack dealer and murderer from South Carolina. Despite the positive influence of his hardworking parents, he could not escape the culture of violent street crime perpetuated within his economically disadvantaged South Carolina community.
Another subject featured in "The Trigger," Chicago police officer Al O’Connor, believes that the only viable solution for urban gun violence is to disrupt the established culture through investment in blighted communities and the creation of economic opportunities for at-risk citizens. Various studies have demonstrated that such initiatives, involving both governmental and private participants, may reduce violent crime.
The American gun violence epidemic is a complex problem that requires a multi-dimensional solution. The battle must be fought not just in the halls of Congress but wherever and whenever the root causes manifest.