As both sides in the gun-control debate mobilize for a possible second act on Capitol Hill, could we please retire the argument that taking step X on guns wouldn’t have prevented tragedy Y?
That talking point has been a recurring theme in the gun debate, from Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley to Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp to the National Rifle Association. It even informed Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s response last week to Erin Lafferty, whose mother was shot to death in December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. “As you and I both know, the issue wasn’t a background-check system issue at Sandy Hook,” Ayotte said at a town meeting in Warren, N.H., defending her vote against the Manchin-Toomey bill adding a background-check requirement for sales at gun shows and online.
Yet arguments like that ignore the fact that step X—whether it’s expanded background checks or other proposals before Congress—might well have helped prevent or mitigate some horrendous past incident, and could spare us future tragedies.
For instance, expanded background checks might have saved the life of Ricky Byrdsong, the former Northwestern University basketball coach killed by white supremacist Benjamin Nathan Smith in 1999. Smith tried to buy a gun from a licensed dealer in June 1999 but was blocked because of a domestic-violence restraining order against him. The next month he bought one from an unlicensed dealer and used it to target blacks, Asians, and Orthodox Jews in a three-day, multicity rampage. Nine were wounded and two died, among them Byrdsong, who was shot multiple times while walking with two of his children.
And, yes, expanded background checks might have kept Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold from killing 13 people and themselves in the 1999 Columbine massacre. Three of the four guns the two 17-year-olds used in the shootings were purchased for them at a gun show by Robyn Anderson, then 18. “I would not have bought a gun for Eric and Dylan if I had had to give any personal information or submit to any kind of check at all,” Anderson said in a statement in 2000. “I wish a law requiring background checks had been in effect at the time.”
An expanded background-check system is only as good as its database. New proposed federal laws and President Obama’s executive actions are aimed at making sure that mental illness is better detected, reported, and treated, and that states have the money to enter mental health adjudications, felony records, and restraining orders into the system. In fact, the Manchin-Toomey plan would have given states grants to upgrade their databases.
Would this be helpful? Ask the survivors of 32 people killed six years ago at Virginia Tech. Seung-Hui Cho, the shooter, was mentally ill and had been adjudicated as dangerous. But his records weren’t entered into the system, so he passed a background check. Virginia fixed its reporting system, but many states still have gaps.
Some pundits, lawmakers, and advocates, topped by the NRA, have argued it would be pointless to limit the size of ammunition magazines. Yet past incidents suggest such limits could make a difference. In 1998, Kip Kinkel emptied a 50-round clip at Thurston High School in Springfield, Ore., killing two students and injuring 25. When he stopped to reload, several students wrestled him to the ground.
Adam Lanza brought 10 magazines of 30 rounds each into Sandy Hook Elementary School last December. Parents there say 11 children may have escaped when he had to stop to reload. In Tucson in 2011, shooter Jared Loughner was tackled and his gun wrested from him as he tried to reload after firing 31 bullets in a matter of seconds. If his clip had been limited to 10 rounds, Christina Taylor Green might be alive today. She was killed at age 9 by Loughner’s 13th bullet.
Brian Malte, national policy director of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, says there’s no single way to head off shootings, which is why most gun-control advocates support a wide range of steps. The starting point for all of them is a background-check system that covers as many gun purchases as possible. That is how ineligible people can be identified and denied a gun. It’s also the foundation for enforcement of state laws such as those in California, which limit handgun purchases to one a month (helpful in discouraging trafficking) and require a waiting period before purchase (helpful in preventing suicides).
Newtown parents are aware that a better background-check system would not have kept guns away from Lanza, whose mother had a huge cache of weapons and ammunition in their home. But they and others involved in the push for expanded background checks and other new laws are looking toward the future, not the past. “They don’t want what happened to them to happen to somebody else,” says Malte. “That’s the overriding factor.”