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8 modest proposals to prevent gun violence in America

The Week US 1/27/2023 Brigid Kennedy
The White House. Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock © Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock The White House. Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

A list of real — and reasonable — ideas for addressing one of America's most daunting challenges

Just one month into the new year, 2023 is already outpacing 2022 in mass shootings — three of which left a combined total of 19 dead in California. As traumatized bystanders recover, families grieve, and authorities investigate each attack's gruesome details, a perennial question looms: What can the U.S. do about all this gun violence? Here are some policies under consideration: 

Red flag laws

So-called "red flag" laws, or extreme risk protection orders (ERPOs), allow law enforcement to temporarily seize guns from individuals believed to be a threat to themselves or others. Nineteen states and Washington, D.C., have already implemented such measures — but more could follow.

Critics of red flag laws argue that the measures strip away due process and just flat-out don't work. But a "growing body" of public health research suggests these laws may help prevent gun violence at least some of the time, The New York Times reports. For example, authorities in Florida used the state's ERPO to seize guns from a young man accused of threatening to shoot up his former high school. The attack never unfolded.

To help law enforcement agencies better implement and train officers to use red flag laws, Congress allocated millions of dollars for state crisis intervention programs in the 2022 bipartisan gun control bill.

An assault weapons ban

Per the Giffords Law Center To Prevent Gun Violence, semiautomatic, AR-15-style assault weapons — which allow a gunman to fire at a large number of people very quickly — have become "the weapon of choice" for mass shooters. Such firearms have been used in some of the deadliest and most high-profile mass shootings in recent U.S. history, including those at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas; Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida; Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut; and the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Though Congress long ago successfully enacted a ban on assault weapons, that legislation expired in 2004, and lawmakers have since failed to pass something similar despite renewed calls to action

In the wake of the Jan. 21 shooting in Monterey Park, California, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and others introduced the so-called Assault Weapons Ban, which would "ban the sale, transfer, manufacture, and importation of military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and other high-capacity ammunition feeding devices," per a press release from Feinstein's office. But the measure is unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled House or the gridlocked Senate, even though President Biden and most Americans support such restrictions. A similar piece of legislation authored by Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who will introduce a companion version of Feinstein's bill in the House, passed the lower chamber in the summer of 2022, but has yet to get a vote in the Senate.

No assault weapons until 21 

In addition to their proposed assault weapons ban, Feinstein and co. also in January introduced the Age 21 Act, which would "raise the minimum age to purchase assault weapons from 18 to 21," or "the same requirement that currently exists in law for handguns."

Much like the public health benefit of raising the drinking age (which saw a noticeable decline in car crashes), raising the minimum age to buy semi-automatic weapons could save thousands of lives, advocates say. "There are individuals who absolutely could safely buy and use and own long guns," Cassandra Crifasi, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, told NPR in the wake of the 2022 Buffalo supermarket and Robb Elementary School shootings. "But there are folks who can't, and we've seen that demonstrated with immense tragedy in the last few weeks with Uvalde and with Buffalo."

Some studies suggest that raising the minimum firearms purchasing age could help reduce the number of suicides, which are "the most common form of gun deaths," per NPR. In one analysis, researchers observed an 18 percent decline in the suicide rate among 18- to 20-year-olds between 2001 and 2017 in states where handgun sales were limited to those 21 and older. "Clearly, keeping guns out of the hands of these young, young adults has a profound effect on suicide rates," Michael Siegel, one of the study's authors, told NPR. "And it makes sense because we know that the greatest factor that affects suicide rates is the availability of lethal means, which basically means a gun."

Eliminate the filibuster

It's unlikely to happen, given opposition from Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), but Democrats could attempt to eliminate the filibuster to allow passage of stricter gun laws. As Senate rules currently stand, gun legislation would require at least 60 votes to advance, meaning Democrats would need to bring at least 9 Republicans on board their plans (a daunting task, and one that certainly wouldn't survive a more-restrictive bill given the ideological differences between the two parties). But if Democrats somehow convinced Manchin and Sinema to drop their objections to eliminating the filibuster, the caucus could do away with the threshold and pass gun legislation with a simple majority. Any Senate-passed bill must still clear the GOP-controlled House, but perhaps it would be easier to get a few lawmakers on board over there.

All in all, eliminating the filibuster is certainly not an easy or politically innocuous solution. But as advocacy organization Brady United purports: "Every time common-sense gun violence prevention legislation fails to overcome the filibuster, lives are needlessly lost."

The Active Shooter Alert Act

A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill in 2022 to develop alert systems for active shooter emergencies. If passed, the bill would establish an Active Shooter Alert Communications Network, which, similar to Amber Alert, would notify individuals of an active shooter in their area. The act passed the House in July 2022 but has yet to be taken up in the Senate.

Build out 'prevention infrastructure'

While undoubtedly important, curbing gun violence goes beyond the regulation of the weapons themselves — indeed, a "public health approach" to the matter should involve "building a prevention infrastructure" that, among other things, supports and funds gun violence research, invests in community health and wellbeing, fosters economic development in areas heavily impacted by gun violence, and advances gun safety and self-defense technology, according to recommendations outlined by the Prevention Institute, a health equity nonprofit.

Additional research is also needed to "examine patterns of impulse control, empathy, problem-solving, and anger management across shootings," as well as the link between harmful norms regarding power and privilege — like masculinity — and gun violence, the institute posits. This is not to suggest that the majority of men are responsible for gun violence; rather, it acknowledges the fact that "the majority of people who use guns against others and themselves are boys and men," and that the majority of mass shooters in recent decades have been men, per PI. With that in mind, the nation should be asking itself: "How do expectations about masculinity in different cultural contexts that promote, domination, control, and risk-taking connect to distress, bias and discrimination, and gun violence perpetration?" In answering such questions, perhaps the U.S. can inch toward "a culture of equitable safety."

Regarding gun violence research, the CDC was long restricted in its ability to investigate the matter, thanks to a 1996 rule known as the Dickey Amendment. Passed under pressure from lobbyists, the rule, in theory, only forbade the CDC from using its funding to advocate for gun control, but in practice prevented the agency from gathering "essential" data on gun violence or receiving grant money to do so, per The Washington Post. In 2019, Congress finally reached a deal to send $12.5 million to both the CDC and the National Institutes of Health for gun violence research each year, but data remains woefully behind.

Eliminate legal immunity for gun manufacturers

The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act of 2005 provides U.S. gun manufacturers and dealers "near blanket immunity from liability for crimes committed with their products," Reuters reports. There are some exceptions to the rule, particularly as they relate to product marketing, but settlements or convictions on that front are few and far between, if not impossible (in one historic instance, families of Sandy Hook victims in late 2022 reached a $73 million settlement with Remington Arms, the company that manufactured the gun used in the massacre).

Sure, "no one benefits from frivolous lawsuits," Time reported in 2018. But manufacturers might be inclined to make their firearms safer if they could be held liable for how they were used. "If pillows caused fatalities at that level, those companies would be bankrupt," Dr. Eric Fleegler, a health services researcher, told Time. "If there were 500 deaths a year associated with any consumer product, it would be banned, regulated, fixed. But here, nothing." In late 2022, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed into law a bill allowing state and local governments as well as private citizens to sue gun manufacturers.

Let doctors talk about firearm safety

Though doctors view gun violence as a public health issue, many are, at least at times, reluctant to speak with gun-owing patients about firearm safety, especially after certain states attempted to pass gag laws that would prevent physicians from doing so. But if the U.S. could "figure out how to make such safety checks routine, the harm reduction could be significant," health industry professionals Chethan Sathya and Sandeep Kapoor wrote for Scientific American. Doctors "could provide policymakers with valuable insights into how to depolarize, depoliticize, and humanize discussions surrounding the prevention of firearm injuries" with an overall approach that "focuses solely on safety and injury prevention" — no discussion of the Second Amendment required.

Updated Jan. 27, 2023: This article has been updated throughout to reflect recent developments.

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