Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
New research and recent court decisions point to the undeniable conclusion that more robust gun bans would reduce mass shootings.
In light of the tragic mass shooting at an Orlando gay club, the political debate is back on over whether U.S. gun laws are too lenient. Addressing the situation June 12, President Obama said that “we need to keep guns like the ones used last night out of the hands of terrorists or other violent criminals.”
It’s fair to say that guns like the AR-15-style rifle that helped kill 49 people and injure at least 53 more in Orlando should be kept out of the hands of anyone—not just those who commit crimes and acts of terror. People who make this argument are often accused of hoplophobia by NRA denizens. However, the research around gun restrictions, such as bans on assault weapons, is becoming clearer in its conclusions: Such laws do tend to reduce gun-related homicides.
This conclusion has been refuted in many studies, particularly those commissioned by people who oppose gun-control laws. However, as Ezra Klein explained on Vox, a group of Columbia University researchers are aiming to settle the matter for good: They recently published the findings of a meta-review of roughly 130 studies conducted across the world on the impact of gun-control laws and gun-related injuries and deaths. The studies examined were performed by scientists across 10 countries in both developing and developed nations, including the U.S. Their chief finding, as Klein writes:
First, and most importantly, that gun violence declined after countries pass a raft of gun laws at the same time: "The simultaneous implementation of laws targeting multiple firearms restrictions is associated with reductions in firearm deaths," the study finds.
Meaning that for the most optimal impact, it takes a village of gun laws—assault-weapon bans, more stringent background checks and permit requirements—passed in one omnibus bill to see a reduction in gun violence. This is what South Africa did in 2000, and the result was a 13.6 percent drop in gun-related homicides in each of the five following years across five cities. Other studies have also concluded that law packages like this also have reduced gun violence in U.S. states and cities.
Of course, in the U.S. it’s often tough enough for just one state to pass just one gun restriction. In Virginia last year, the attorney general ceased the state’s policy of honoring concealed-carry gun permits issued by other states if those states’ laws did not match Virginia’s permitting standards. That policy barely lasted a month before it was rescinded. Washington, D.C., passed a law banning handgun possession in 1976, but the U.S. Supreme Court determined in 2008 that it was a violation of the Second Amendment. This handed a major victory to opponents of gun control laws.
However, other states and cities, have made progress on implementing gun-control policies, often with the support of the courts. Highland Park, a small city just outside of Chicago, passed an assault-weapon ban in 2015, which a federal court upheld. Similar bans on assault weapons are currently in place in a handful of other states, including Connecticut and California—both of which have suffered mass shootings in recent years.
Connecticut toughened its assault-weapon ban in 2013 after a man walked into a school in Newtown and killed 20 children and six adults with a gun similar to the one used in the Orlando massacre. A Connecticut group opposing the ban has challenged the law, but courts haven’t ruled in their favor. On June 16, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether to hear the case, but the National Law Journal reports that it’s doubtful the justices will accept the case.
“Since its landmark 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller, the high court has declined numerous requests by gun-rights advocates to examine the scope of protection for firearms—from concealed-carry bans to open-carry and guns on campus,” writes Marcia Coyle for the National Law Journal. “One possible reason? Lower courts have largely been uniform in upholding firearm restrictions.”
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in May from a Maryland group opposing a semiautomatic-weapon ban law passed by their state in response to the Newtown shooting. Prior to that, a three-judge panel struck that law down in a 2-1 decision. The majority ruled that such bans burden Second Amendment rights by preventing the ownership of guns that could be used for lawful purposes. The one dissenting judge, Robert King, called this dishonest. As Coyle excerpted from King’s dissent:
Let’s be real: The assault weapons banned by Maryland’s [Firearm Safety Act] are exceptionally lethal weapons of war. In fact, the most popular of the prohibited semiautomatic rifles, the AR-15, functions almost identically to the military’s fully automatic M16.
This is the same kind of gun that was used in Orlando. And it’s no longer in question what kind of damage those weapons can do, whether on a field of war or in a school or a nightclub.