Are We Doing Everything We Can to Prevent Gun Violence?

No one expects Washington to crack down on guns. But we can still work toward a national agenda.

 Guns seized by the New York Police Department (NYPD), in the largest seizure of illegal guns in the city's history, are displayed on a table during a press conference on August 19, 2013 in New York City.
National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
May 29, 2014, 3:40 p.m.

Those won­der­ing what set of policies might have pre­ven­ted last week­end’s tragedy at the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (Santa Bar­bara) are ask­ing the wrong ques­tion.

Would tough­er gun-con­trol laws have stopped El­li­ot Rodger from ob­tain­ing the weapons he used in his at­tack? Would broad­er men­tal-health coun­sel­ing have flagged his prob­lems earli­er? In each in­stance, it’s im­possible to con­clude any­thing more defin­it­ive than: maybe.

But the right ques­tion isn’t wheth­er any new law or reg­u­la­tion might have stopped this in­di­vidu­al killer. The real is­sue is wheth­er we are do­ing everything we can to im­prove our odds of pre­vent­ing at­tacks like this — and the routine fu­sil­lade of gun vi­ol­ence that on av­er­age pro­duces 30 hom­icides daily. The ap­pro­pri­ate test for pub­lic policy is wheth­er it max­im­izes our chances of achiev­ing the out­comes we want as a so­ci­ety. And when it comes to pre­vent­ing gun vi­ol­ence, in­clud­ing mass shoot­ings, it’s im­possible to ar­gue that we are do­ing that.

“If we tight­en up the sys­tem there is no ques­tion that we will im­prove our odds of stop­ping things like this, and vastly im­prove our odds of stop­ping more reg­u­lar­ized crime com­mit­ted by garden-vari­ety crim­in­als,” says Matt Ben­nett, a vice pres­id­ent at the cent­rist Demo­crat­ic group Third Way, who has ad­vised the fam­il­ies of the 2012 school shoot­ing in New­town, Conn.

After a GOP-led fili­buster last year blocked Sen­ate pas­sage of a uni­ver­sal back­ground check for gun pur­chases, no one ex­pects Wash­ing­ton to “tight­en up the sys­tem any time soon. Like oth­er is­sues rooted in cul­tur­al af­fin­it­ies, gun con­trol unites Re­pub­lic­ans by ideo­logy but di­vides Demo­crats by geo­graphy. So long as red-state Demo­crat­ic House and Sen­ate mem­bers res­ist gun con­trol, and Re­pub­lic­ans from blue and swing states don’t feel ir­res­ist­ible pres­sure to sup­port it, Con­gress is un­likely to ap­prove ma­jor le­gis­la­tion re­strict­ing ac­cess to fire­arms.

But that’s no reas­on to stop for­mu­lat­ing an up­dated na­tion­al agenda to con­front gun vi­ol­ence. In pres­id­en­tial polit­ics, gun-con­trol ad­voc­ates face a more com­pet­it­ive land­scape than in Con­gress. Meas­ures to re­strict ac­cess gen­er­ally draw strong sup­port with­in the grow­ing con­stitu­en­cies (par­tic­u­larly minor­it­ies and col­lege-edu­cated white wo­men) and the states that have provided Demo­crats the edge in most pres­id­en­tial elec­tions since 1992. Ad­van­cing new ini­ti­at­ives to re­duce gun vi­ol­ence could strengthen the Demo­crats’ hold on that win­ning co­ali­tion in places like the sub­urbs of Den­ver or Phil­adelphia — and pres­sure the GOP nom­in­ee to re­spond.

Any re­for­mu­lated agenda would re­flect an im­port­ant shift: The fo­cus among gun-con­trol ad­voc­ates is evolving from hard­ware to people. Al­though a ban on as­sault weapons still car­ries emo­tion­al power, more voices in the gun-con­trol camp con­sider it too easy to cir­cum­vent with cos­met­ic ad­just­ments. And, as Ben­nett notes, while a ban on high-ca­pa­city am­muni­tion magazines might have more im­pact, so many of them are already in cir­cu­la­tion, “it’s in­cred­ibly easy for people to get their hands on them.”

Think­ing about gun vi­ol­ence in­stead is tilt­ing to­ward work­ing harder to deny weapons to people likely to ab­use them. That agenda’s center­piece is the uni­ver­sal back­ground-check le­gis­la­tion that would close the cur­rent loop­hole ex­empt­ing gun-show and In­ter­net sales from such re­quire­ments. That idea still draws over­whelm­ing pub­lic sup­port in polls.

The fron­ti­er of new think­ing fo­cuses on the nex­us between men­tal health and gun vi­ol­ence. Pres­id­ent Obama’s post-New­town re­view of gun laws ac­tu­ally made im­port­ant pro­gress on two fronts: The ad­min­is­tra­tion is­sued reg­u­la­tions tough­en­ing re­quire­ments on health in­surers to fund men­tal-health ser­vices, and it strengthened the fed­er­al data­base used to screen gun buy­ers un­der the “Brady bill” by cla­ri­fy­ing fed­er­al pri­vacy rules that dis­cour­aged some states from shar­ing men­tal-health re­cords with the sys­tem.

The Brady law blocks gun pur­chases for people who have either been in­vol­un­tar­ily com­mit­ted to a men­tal in­sti­tu­tion, ad­ju­dic­ated as men­tally ill, or who fit a few oth­er cat­egor­ies, most not­ably a con­vic­tion for do­mest­ic vi­ol­ence. Sarah Bi­an­chi, who led the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­view as Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden’s do­mest­ic policy ad­viser, says the biggest ques­tion for any fu­ture gun-con­trol agenda is wheth­er to ex­pand those cat­egor­ies. “This is­sue “¦ needs a new way of think­ing,” she says.

Broad­en­ing these ex­cluded cat­egor­ies raises com­plex is­sues; men­tal-health pro­fes­sion­als com­plained after Con­necti­c­ut’s post-New­town le­gis­la­tion denied guns for six months to any­one who had been vol­un­tar­ily hos­pit­al­ized for men­tal ill­ness. A re­cent Johns Hop­kins Uni­versity-led com­mis­sion of gun-vi­ol­ence ex­perts pro­posed to tar­get ex­pan­ded ex­clu­sions not at men­tal ill­ness but at be­ha­vi­ors that might sig­nal fu­ture vi­ol­ence, in­clud­ing con­vic­tions for vi­ol­ent mis­de­mean­ors or al­co­hol and drug ab­use. Oth­er poli­cy­makers are ex­amin­ing the equi­val­ent of re­strain­ing or­ders to tem­por­ar­ily ban gun pos­ses­sion.

These tough ques­tions point to a fi­nal pri­or­ity for any gun-vi­ol­ence agenda: more re­search. Obama’s re­view, through a new leg­al in­ter­pret­a­tion, lif­ted con­gres­sion­al re­stric­tions that had blocked the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion from study­ing gun vi­ol­ence for more than 15 years, but fund­ing re­mains scarce. If a for­eign ter­ror­ist had at­tacked UC­SB (or New­town), we would ex­haust­ively study every chink in our de­fenses. It’s in­defens­ible to turn away just be­cause the vi­ol­ence came from down the block.

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