How to Disarm America

How to Disarm America
Illustration: Angelica Alzona (G/O Media)
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There are more than 363 million civilian-owned guns in the United States. We kill each other and ourselves with them almost constantly, at a rate of around 100 deaths per day.

This is a statistic you have probably seen before. It seems to come up a lot these days. America’s guns are constantly in the news and on every politician’s lips, because our country plays host to a generational horror on an everyday basis. Mass shootings, the kind that leave dead bodies in the dozens and broken lives in the hundreds, occur in this country far more often than anywhere else in the world.

Recently, two young men murdered a combined 31 people in separate mass shootings in El Paso, TX, and Dayton, OH. They were not the first of their kind and they will not be the last. Mass shootings are the staggering endpoint of American gun culture, the perfect distillation of the two main reasons that firearms contribute to violence wherever they are found.

Those points can be summed up like this:

  • Guns are too easy to get.
  • Guns make brutal violence too easy to inflict.

These two broad points, taken together, represent a drastic public health risk to every person who lives in this country. The widespread availability of semiautomatic weapons fitted with high capacity magazines has made unspeakable violence incredibly easy to commit. The laws we have are not good enough. Both the El Paso and Dayton shooters acquired their weapons legally; so did the Parkland, FL, shooter, the Las Vegas shooter, and did many others. The weapons favored in mass shootings—largely AR-15 variants or other civilian versions of military rifles—can be bought in less than an hour in many states. These weapons are incredibly popular among mass shooters, home defense preppers, and gun enthusiasts for the same reason: they are made to kill people as quickly and as easily as possible.

After El Paso and Dayton, gun reform will be back in the spotlight for the next few weeks, as Americans are forced to reckon with the reality that they could be gunned down in a public space at any moment. This fear will fade in time, existing for many of us as a tiny undercurrent of anxiety, a nagging worry that occasionally rears its head when a car backfires on a crowded street or someone stands up suddenly in a darkened movie theater.

If this anxiety is your only symptom you are one of the lucky ones. The real horror of gun violence does not end when people get tired of posting their senators’ office numbers on their Instagram story. Mass shootings are only the tip of an iceberg of blood; the media and many lawmakers focus on assault weapons in particular is disproportionate to the harm those weapons actually cause when looking at gun violence overall. This isn’t an argument against banning assault weapons (although it’s often used as such by conservative media), but rather a reminder that political speeches about “weapons of war” on our streets overlook the larger scope of trauma that guns cause. Two-thirds of firearm deaths in this country are suicides. Gun homicides are shocking when they happen en masse, but like so many other structural failings of the American experiment, the grinding toll of everyday gun violence is primarily felt in poor communities, especially those of color, where the trauma of poverty is exacerbated by easy access to deadly force.

Like income inequality, affordable housing, student loan debt, and the private healthcare industry, the question of how to disarm America does not have an easy answer. (It’s worth noting that there is already disagreement on the left about guns, led by some groups who think an armed society is the best way to insulate themselves from the danger of a militarized hostile state controlled by far-right interests. I respect this view—those dangers are real. But I believe that in the end it assumes a pessimistic understanding of what America can and should be.)

The reality, I think, is that a truly gun-free America is impossible—firearms will always be a tool of violence and power in the modern world. The hope is that eventually, we can choose and control how the power to kill is applied in a way that kills the fewest people.

This is a future worth working toward—not one that pretends guns do not exist, but one that relegates their use to times of extreme duress, when humanity’s inherent violence leaves no other solution. The absence of guns will not heal the deep wounds that nations, sects, races, and groups have done to one another over thousands of years of our bloody history. But it will stop many wounds from being ripped anew, and let our children grow up in a world where their backpacks carry only books, and not “bulletproof” inserts to shield them from harm. 

We know from the vast majority of the developed world that a better system is possible. So what does meaningful, progressive change look like?

Gun violence has been absorbed almost entirely into the dichotomy of electoral politics. The reason for this is relatively simple: over the past three decades, the National Rifle Association and other lobbying groups representing gun manufacturers have successfully pressured the Republican Party (and some Democrats) into blocking any meaningful legislation, research, or reform targeting firearms in America.

This has manifested itself in some truly surreal ways, like the fact that there is no national registry for guns and that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms’ only gun-tracing facility is a giant warehouse filled with cardboard boxes of non-digitized records (the agency is banned from putting gun seller’s data into consolidated, centralized, or searchable systems).

Republicans have cloaked their behavior in the language of patriotism, positioning themselves as “defenders” of the Second Amendment. Obviously, one way to roll back the gun landscape would be to repeal the Second Amendment. But that is, at best, highly unrealistic. Likewise, hashing out the semantics of a “well-regarded militia” and the “right to bear arms” is a pointless exercise in shouting online. The end goal of any progressive gun violence plan must be to reduce the number of guns in this country.

That begins by passing laws that regulate and limit the sale of new weapons, but will eventually have to reckon with the vast number of guns already in American homes. Gun buyback programs, which will be a necessary part of this solution, have succeeded in other countries, but in the U.S. we will have to deal with the firmly entrenched mindset that freedom only comes from the power to kill. Statewide attempts at gun control, like age limits for purchasing and transport or storage laws, have already encountered stiff resistance from some communities, with local sheriffs in at least four states claiming that they will create “gun sanctuaries,” a perverse bastardization of “sanctuary cities” for immigrants, where state or federal gun laws won’t be enforced.

Adelyn Allchin, the Senior Director of Public Health and Policy at the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence/ CSGV, has worked directly with getting local communities to support and enforce new legislation. Allchin told Splinter that her work often involves figuring out who the “stakeholders” are in a given community with regard to gun legislation. That could be doctors, lawyers, members of law enforcement, or community organizers.

“When there’s a champion in the community, we’re seeing these laws be effectively implemented,” Allchin said. Her currency, in these interactions, is data: bringing national studies and past results of similar programs to the wide range of smaller communities and jurisdictions around the country, often by bringing in outside experts and researchers to talk about their work.

“Using research and data and a public health approach can really engage people who may have been skeptical at first,” Allchin said, “by showing how these policies can actually reduce gun violence and how law enforcement can actually play a role in preventing violence and not just being the ones to respond to it.”

To me, this is the only way comprehensive gun reform is going to happen. The sheriffs setting up “gun sanctuaries” may sound like jingoistic hardliners, and their point of view is well represented among the American public. But that doesn’t mean gun laws are a lost cause—a rural community wracked with gun suicides isn’t going to reflexively turn down a sensible plan to reduce that pain if it’s presented in the right way, with clear data and local support backing it up. The problem is breaking through the layers of cultural, political, and legal stigma and rhetoric that have inundated the conversation for years.

Despite these hurdles, it is possible to make a measurable dent in the loss of life our country experiences on a daily basis. Democrats (and the odd Republican) have, particularly in the past few years, begun to embrace an outright push for change. All but one of the Democratic candidates currently running for president support a federal ban on “assault weapons,” the catch-all term that has come to describe the semi-automatic, military-style rifles favored by many mass shooters. Similarly, every one of the current 2020 Democrats supports universal background checks on all gun purchases, a much-needed, publicly supported reform.

While these policies are essential for future progress, true reform requires a deeper understanding of the problem that is largely missing from the wider cultural conversation. Gun violence and gun ownership is an issue as diverse, multifaceted, and complex as America itself—and any gun control plan has to recognize this.

For instance, we should understand that of the 39,773 Americans killed by firearms in 2017, 23,854 died by suicide. We tend to only think of the horrific destructive power of guns when they’re used on other people, but that power is felt disproportionately in suicide attempts: While guns are used in less than six percent of suicide attempts, they account for over half of suicide deaths. In America you can almost always get a gun. And once you have one, statistically speaking, the risks to yourself and everyone around you jump dramatically. A widely cited 2003 study found that just having a gun present in a domestic violence situation increases a woman’s risk of being killed by 500 percent. A study this year found that an increase in handgun ownership was correlated to an increase in child deaths. With a gun, all forms of death more likely: accidental, self-inflicted, and deliberate. The result is the same.

Dakota Jablon, the federal policy director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, pointed out another example of the complexities of guns in America in an interview with Splinter. Jablon noted that gun deaths in an urban area like Los Angeles look drastically different from those in Shasta County, a rural area of Northern California. L.A. County is densely populated and plagued by many of the problems cyclical poverty creates in urban centers across the country, which, given the availability of guns even in relatively strict California, leads to a higher homicide rate than the national average (although violent crime is on the decline, generally).

In Shasta, however, the epidemic is felt primarily through suicide, which is compounded and enabled by the high rate of gun ownership. And these are, statistically speaking, responsible gun owners: a 2016 Shasta County Sheriff’s department pamphlet on firearm safety notes that homicides are rare, and for the past 20 years, the area has seen an average of only one accidental firearm death per year. “However, in that same time span, 400 members of our community have intentionally taken their lives with a firearm,” the pamphlet reads, suggesting that struggling residents store their weapons with local law enforcement or shooting clubs in times of emotional distress.

These are very thorny things to untangle, and one of the biggest issues with guns in America is that we know so little about them. We know that guns kill, but have only rudimentary knowledge of how the vast diversity of weaponry present in this country endangers its citizens lives. We can see broad strokes—that semi-automatic rifles can exacerbate mass shootings, that the presence of a gun often increases the chances of suicide—but there are thousands of ways to die at end of a gun, and we need to devote millions of dollars toward research to catalogue them all. That is a crucial part of any gun control solution.

Early in the reporting for this piece, I asked David Hemenway, a professor of health policy and the Director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, for his opinion on the most urgent areas of gun research we should be funding. It turns out that’s an extremely stupid question.

“For me, that’s like asking if you were doing cancer research and there was only three percent of the funding that should have been done over the last 25 years… and then you say ‘What should have been done?’” he said. “The answer is the other 97 percent.”

Per CDC data, firearms killed slightly more Americans in 2017 than automobile accidents did. Among children and adolescents, cars and guns are the number one and number two causes of death, respectively. But as Hemenway pointed out, there’s a huge difference between those two: the rate of motor vehicle deaths has dropped 60 percent since its peak in 1937, thanks to a glut of federal funding and the establishment of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“We really know a lot about what’s going on [with motor vehicles],” Hemenway said. “So we really know what to do. We don’t always do it, but it’s so much easier once you understand the problem at a micro level.”

We do not have this understanding with guns. Hemenway’s off-handed three percent estimate is actually generous. Per Modern Healthcare’s reporting in April, the authors of a 2017 study on funding sources concluded that the roughly $22 million spent on gun violence research between 2004 and 2015 represented just 1.6 percent of what they would expect the government to commit to a public health crisis of a similar scale.

The reality is that almost nobody, including the federal government, wants to fund gun research. Much of this can be blamed on a 1996 Congressional spending bill, supported by the NRA, which barred the Centers for Disease Control, America’s largest public health resource, from using federal funds to “advocate or promote gun control.” The ‘96 vote was perhaps one of the most visible battles in a longstanding war between the gun lobby and those who wish to study it, which scientists have largely been losing for decades.

An example of what this does to the issue as a whole: while we have relatively solid data on gun deaths for researchers to work with, the data for gun injuries is an absolute mess. The CDC’s numbers—ordinarily solid—on nonfatal gun injuries are way out of whack compared to other studies, and there’s almost no national infrastructure in place for even collecting that data from hospitals en masse. The only reason the CDC has good data on deaths is because “gunshot wound” is listed as a cause of death on coroner’s rolls. Nobody knows what happens to the people who survive.

“We know so little about everything,” Hemenway said. One of the things he’s “trying to get a little money for” is a list of all the areas of study in which we need better data. In short, we can’t even fund the minimum research to tell us what research we should be doing.

Fortunately, that doesn’t mean we’re out of ideas.

Any progressive plan to mitigate the harm of gun violence must look at all aspects of this problem: suicides, homicides, accidental deaths, and the drastic dearth of research into the root causes of the problem. The first and most obvious step to this is instituting a nationwide, federal law mandating that every person who purchases a gun in any context goes through a background check first. David Chipman, a senior policy advisor for Giffords, the gun violence nonprofit founded by assassination-attempt survivor and former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, told Splinter that background checks are a “foundational” step the country has to take before it can make any other progress.

In the late ‘80s, Chipman was a special agent at the ATF working gun cases on the “iron pipeline” from Southern states to Northeastern cities. He told Splinter that he was stunned by the lack of oversight into gun purchases at a federal level.

“It was just shocking to me, at that time, how little oversight we had in this country for buying firearms and buying quantities of firearms,” Chipman said. He saw a change, however, when Virginia passed the Virginia Firearms Transaction Program in 1989, the first computerized, instant background check program on gun sales. That system “changed the dynamics of firearms trafficking,” Chipman said.

There is already some progress on this: House Resolution 8, a bipartisan background checks bill, is already through the House of Representatives and sits before the Senate. HR8 is far from perfect, but would accomplish some vital, necessary things: it would mandate that all firearm transfers go through a licensed dealer, who is required to perform a background check and close the gun show and private transfer loophole, which often allows gun buyers to circumvent background check processes at licensed dealers. It also includes a Republican poison-pill amendment that requires gun sellers to notify ICE if a prospective buyer fails a background check because they’re undocumented. One step forward, one step back. The latter drawback of the bill seems to be precedent for a wider Republican strategy of linking gun reform with racist immigration legislation, something President Trump directly mentioned in his response to the El Paso shooting.

The partisan realities of gun reform mean that HR8 is unlikely to pass anytime soon. It left the House in February; the Senate introduced concurrent legislation in January that Mitch McConnell is refusing to put to a vote, despite the widespread public support for background checks. Still, Peter Ambler, Gifford’s executive director, told Splinter he’s “overall very hopeful” that electoral politics are moving in the right direction, claiming that gun safety groups finally have the edge over the NRA thanks to the latter group’s chronic leadership and financial struggles. “We don’t have to get every single elected Republican to vote for our bill,” Ambler said, “but we do need to build a coalition of Americans that includes Republicans.” Eight Republicans voted to pass HR8 in the House; it remains to be seen what they’ll do with more ambitious legislation.

My worry, though, is that moderate lawmakers will declare victory over gun violence if and when they do succeed in passing a background check bill. Fortunately, the background check bill before Congress isn’t analogous to other progressive campaigns for reform, like the Obama administration’s compromises in the Affordable Care Act. The ACA represents a barrier to the ideal system (single-payer healthcare); a universal background check bill does not. Rather, it provides a platform that future legislation can be built off of, if political leadership has the foresight to do so.

The natural extrapolation from a background check bill is a federal licensing system for guns, which would ideally incorporate a background check in the licensing process. Such a system seems obvious—it is ludicrous that you need a license to operate a car but not to own a gun—but is only now starting to become a central tenet of Democratic gun violence legislation, as several of the 2020 candidates support a federal license. For progressives, pushing beyond universal background checks is vital—several recent studies have shown that background checks alone have negligible or indistinct results on gun violence and suicides, but they’re undeniably an important step toward curbing violence as a platform from which to build future laws.

Here are the most likely next or concurrent steps. Jablon, the CSGV federal policy director, noted that there are two policy goals that seem both practical and well-supported by existing research: permit to purchase laws and extreme risk protection order laws.

The first, Jablon said, would require buyers to apply for a handgun permit from a state or local law enforcement agency before purchasing the weapon. Some of these laws are already in place in 10 states and the District of Columbia, and the data behind them is extremely promising. A 2018 study by Johns Hopkins University found that permit to purchase laws were associated with a 14 percent reduction in homicides in large urban counties (where handgun violence is often concentrated). These policies will be much more effective if instituted on a federal level; if they’re only instituted locally there’s little to stop gun traffickers traveling to another state without P2P legislation in order to obtain a gun. A federal permit-to-purchase law could also easily build toward or be incorporated into a national licensing system, and should be written with that in mind wherever possible.

The second incremental step is slightly more complicated. Extreme Risk Protection Orders, or “red flag laws,” broadly allow law enforcement to confiscate guns from individuals who pose a threat to themselves or others with a court order, like a temporary restraining order for a gun. ERPO bills need to be written extremely carefully so as not to be abused, something the ACLU in Rhode Island has already noted in its appraisal of that state’s law. California Rep. Salud Carbajal has already introduced a federal ERPO order into the House; Dianne Feinstein introduced concurrent legislation in the Senate. Carbajal’s bill is modeled on ERPO legislation that exists in 13 states but again, is not policy at the federal level. Many states, like California and Florida, passed ERPO legislation after mass shootings that lawmakers think could have been prevented by an ERPO. In states where they’re already in place, initial data also shows promising signs. Studies estimate that ERPOs save one life for every 10-20 orders issued, mostly by reducing prospective suicides, although the CSGV also notes they’ve been used repeatedly in prospective school shooting, domestic violence, and harassment cases. The NRA, surprisingly, has moved from opposition to ERPOs to grudging support under public pressure, and President Trump has directly mentioned them as a solution, although his word means next to nothing on the issue.

This bipartisan support is, at face value, a good thing, as passing ERPOs appears to be a statistically sound way to mitigate some violence. But after El Paso and Dayton, it appears the Republican game plan is to use ERPOs as an a panacea to the gun violence problem—which it is not—and yet another tool to claim that firearms deaths are a mental health problem, and not a gun problem (they are a gun problem). ERPOs as well do not directly interfere with gun manufacturers’ ability to sell their product—the possibility of a weapon being taken away probably doesn’t mean someone is any less likely to buy one in the first place—which means that at best, they address a symptom of the problem and not a root cause.

Chipman, the former ATF agent, said the agency has a term for tools that stop gun violence before it happens: “left of boom.” It’s a tacit acknowledgement that by the time a gun has been fired, it’s already too late.

In a post-Parkland, post-Vegas, post-Sandy Hook world, Chipman said, these are the policies that matter. “I think we’re coming to grips with like—we can’t just respond and solve gun crime because often times the perpetrator is already dead,” Chipman said. “So there’s no justice there. And the losses are grave to sustain.”

Focusing on these losses and the communities impacted by them is another key part of “left of boom” strategies. Hospitals with a high rate of gunshot victims, like Philadelphia’s Temple University Hospital, have recently started to invest in outreach programs that focus directly on survivors of gun violence. Temple’s programs, which are profiled extensively in Jason Fagone’s excellent HuffPost piece “What Bullets Do To Bodies,” include Scared Straight-style tours of Temple’s emergency ward, community training programs on first aid for gunshot victims, and direct intervention programs that connect recent victims (and perpetrators) with survivors who have been in their shoes. There are similar programs at high-traffic hospitals in many major cities; they should be supported as much as possible both for their immediate value toward victims and for the data they collect, which can be used in future research.

These are the first steps, however. An ideal system would look similar to the United Kingdom’s gun laws, which include a ban on semi-automatic firearms that fire bullets larger than the .22 caliber, and a near-total ban on handguns. Their rates of gun death are minuscule compared to the U.S. While wild hog hunters may disagree, in my opinion shotguns and bolt-action rifles are largely sufficient for hunting and pest control in rural areas like the one I grew up in. These weapons still pose a risk, of course, but one that can be effectively mitigated by strong licensing or permitting requirements.

We also cannot confront the impact of guns in America without discussing their use by the police. A recent study showed that police are the sixth-leading cause of death for American men between the ages of 25–29, an utterly appalling statistic for anyone who believes that law enforcement’s purpose is to keep citizens safe. The idea of a disarmed police is a long way down the line, and is an entire issue worth examining in depth in its own right. But any sort of meaningful gun reform should proceed with this in mind and as a goal. Police academies in America spend nearly 14 times as many hours on weapons and self-defense training as they do on conflict resolution, a mindset that we have seen lead to the unjust use of deadly force time and time and time again. And again, we have examples of a better system from other countries, like the U.K., where around 90 percent of officers do not carry guns.

On August 21, March for Our Lives, the nonprofit organization founded by survivors of the Marjorie Stoneman Davis High School mass shooting in Parkland, FL, released an ambitious, sweeping plan that incorporates many of these steps, including a renewed focus on federal funding for the ATF, gun violence research, and community organizations that combat the problem. The “Peace Plan for a Safer America,” as it’s called, also mentions two key legal roadblocks to meaningful reform. One is the Supreme Court’s 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller decision, which took a generous interpretation of the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms and set a difficult precedent for legislators who wish to regulate private ownership of weapons. It also recommends the repeal of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), a 2005 law that prevents victims of gun violence, in most situations, from suing the sellers or manufacturers of the weapons that harmed them, something that has protected the gun lobby from almost any sort of public accountability ever since.

The Parkland plan is a great outline for what we should push toward in the next few years, but it’s also a reminder that solving gun violence is going to be a long, iterative process. No one bill or even set of bills will fix it. Gun violence is a uniquely human problem that cannot be eradicated or even controlled like smallpox; firearms are a fact of American life now, like every other machine we have created that has the potential to do us harm. We could pass every aspect of the Parkland plan tomorrow and still suffer another mass shooting; we could go 10 years without mass shootings and still lose hundreds of people to interpersonal violence, suicide, and accidental deaths. This, and every tragic summer weekend in an inner city, will be used as fodder by the gun lobby to say that these laws don’t work. This is clearly a bad-faith argument, but it also strikes to the core of why we must begin to address this issue now: it will be a long process, and we absolutely cannot stop.

If lawmakers lose their appetite for pursuing gun reform after passing universal background checks, we may see only an incremental shift in the everyday misery. The ACA provided insurance to roughly 20 million previously uninsured Americans, yet people are still dying because they had to take the cheap insulin. We cannot stop after passing one bill. As with every major struggle in this country, pressure will have to come from outside the halls of Congress—from a mass movement of people demanding that the current consensus on guns be destroyed, and that a new, just, humane, and democratic framework be erected in its place.

Getting there will not be easy. Every bill we pass will be written in the blood of people they were too late to save. But they can be passed. The epidemic can be stopped. The sooner we start in earnest, the better.