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Gun Control 

Seventeen ideas to reduce gun violence and save lives.

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Editor's note: In 2018 [as of press time] Richmond has 27 homicides with 26 committed by gun — a 21 percent reduction from last year. Seventy-seven people have been injured nonfatally by guns. Sixteen of those 27 killing investigations have been closed with 11 pending for a closure rate of 59 percent. These statistics come from the Richmond Police Department.

Here's the good news: America, overall, is a much less violent place than it used to be. Our reported violent-crime rate is almost half what it was in 1991. But here's the bad: Mass shootings haven't decreased. They've become even deadlier.

In 2010, the World Health Organization found that the United States' gun-homicide rates were more than 25 times higher than in any other high-income country.

And that was before Las Vegas. And before Parkland, Florida. We've witnessed 19 of the 30 deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history during the past decade.

It isn't just about murders. The suicide rate has been skyrocketing as well, reaching a 30-year high in 2016. More than half of those suicides were with firearms.

Today, high school and middle school students have risen up in protests and marches after the Parkland shooting, demanding that something must be done.

But what?

Here are just a handful of ideas to reduce gun violence, weighing the results of academic research and the analysis of experts.

1. PLUG HOLES IN THE BACKGROUND CHECK SYSTEM

Gaps in the federal background checks, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, allow domestic abusers, convicted felons and people with mental illness to purchase guns.

Roughly 20 percent of Americans who purchase guns do so without background checks. A 2013 survey of prisoners locked up for gun violence found that more than 96 percent of offenders, who were legally prohibited from owning guns, purchased them without a background check.

Experts point to three major holes:

1. In most states, gun buyers are able to purchase guns from unlicensed dealers who aren't required to run background checks at all. Some states, including Washington, have closed this gap. After Missouri stopped requiring background checks for all firearm purchases, researchers found a 25 percent increase in firearm homicides.

2. If the FBI doesn't complete a background check in three business days, licensed dealers are free to sell the gun anyway. This is how the man who killed nine parishioners inside a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, bought one.

FBI data indicates that authorities failed to meet the three-day deadline 1.1 million times between 2014 and 2017. However, it's unclear how many firearms were actually sold because dealers have discretion to wait until the check is completed.

3. The federal definition of domestic abuser doesn't include unmarried or childless couples. Many states, including Oregon this year, have closed the so-called boyfriend loophole.

Strengthening the federal background check system is one of the most feasible and most effective measures to reduce gun violence, surveys and research show. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that states that require universal background checks have lower gun-death rates. Surveys show overwhelming public support.

2. LET AMERICANS SUE GUN MANUFACTURERS AGAIN

It's the American way: If a product is killing an unbelievable number of people, the proper remedy is to sue the hell out of the makers. This, after all, was the plot of the 2003 John Grisham movie adaptation "Runaway Jury."

But since 2005, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act made gun manufacturers and dealers essentially legally bulletproof.

A victim can still sue if a gun, for example, malfunctions and explodes — but not if a teenager uses it to kill 14 of his classmates. Guns are meant to kill, the Republican argument went, so why should people be able to sue when the gun has done what it was built to do?

Remove the shield, a recent op-ed in the New York Times pointed out, and that means gun manufacturers suddenly would have a financial incentive, like every other industry, to make their products safer — likely preventing more accidental shootings. While Democrats have repeatedly tried to push legislation to disarm the gun industry's special shield, it doesn't have a chance while Republicans are in control.

3. LIFT THE BAN ON GUN-CONTROL RESEARCH

From 2004 to 2014, gun violence killed about as many people as life-threatening infections known as sepsis, but funding for gun violence research was only about 0.7 percent of the amount spent to study sepsis, according to a 2017 research letter in the Journal of the American Medical Association. In fact, the researchers found that gun violence was the least researched cause of death, in relation to mortality rate, and only research into deaths by falling are funded less.

The nonpartisan Rand Corp. looked at thousands of U.S. gun-control studies and found that, in many areas, there just wasn't enough research to definitively show effects one way or another. The lack of research in certain areas muddles debates over policies, like some listed in this story.

Part of what has stymied gun research in the U.S. is the 1996 Dickey Amendment, which prevents the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from spending money on activities that advocate or promote gun control. Former Arkansas Republican Rep. Jay Dickey, the amendment's namesake, told NPR he never intended for the amendment to cut off federal gun research altogether, only gun-control advocacy, and regrets that the effect was to essentially halt research in the area.

This March, President Donald Trump signed a spending bill that left the Dickey Amendment in place but clarifies that the CDC can research the causes of gun violence. It's not clear yet if federal research will increase, though, as no funding for gun-violence research was included.

4. COPY THE AUSSIES

It's considered perhaps one of the most successful gun-control programs in history. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have both pointed to Australia as a model of how dramatic gun control can make a nation safer. It's also about as close to "taking your guns" as the mainstream gun-control movement gets.

Here are the simple facts: There were 13 mass shootings in 18 years before Australia's sweeping National Firearms Agreement in 1997. In the 20 years after, there's been just one. While skeptics quibble with whether the law can be entirely credited, the country's already-low firearm homicide rate fell further — and suicides absolutely plunged.

The flashiest piece of the program featured a mandatory buyback program that gathered around 650,000 firearms — a full fifth of the country's arsenal. However, today Australia has about as many guns as before the buyback.

Instead, the key, as the "Science Vs." podcast explains, seemed to be the thicket of other laws that came with it, including a ban on semi-automatic and pump-action rifles and shotguns. You have to show a good reason to own a gun — and self-defense doesn't count. You can only sell through a licensed dealer. You have to register your gun and report it if it's stolen.

Much of the Australia program would also almost certainly be struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court — and the cultural and physical geography of the United States would create serious regulatory challenges. But even some pieces of Australia's gun-control program, when combined, could seriously reduce deaths.

click to enlarge In March, a hundred Open High School students walked out of class in support of school safety and stricter gun laws. They observed 17 minutes of silence in honor of the Parkland shooting victims. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • In March, a hundred Open High School students walked out of class in support of school safety and stricter gun laws. They observed 17 minutes of silence in honor of the Parkland shooting victims.

5. TRACK GUNS — AND MANDATE REPORTING IF THEY'RE STOLEN

One of the most effective parts of Australia's gun-control strategy was simply creating a gun registry — and then enforcing it. In the United States, gun-rights activists fear registries are only the first step to confiscation — and research on their effectiveness in the U.S. is limited.

Yet, the potential benefits are clear, particularly when combined with a requirement that lost or stolen guns are reported: It's a way to close the loophole of straw purchasers — where a person illegally buys a gun for somebody else ineligible to purchase one. It hands law enforcement officers the ability to actually identify which guns are stolen — cracking down on both illicit arms traders and allowing cops to get convictions for thieves. And it encourages gun owners to do a better job of safely securing their weapons.

A 2002 report from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms concluded that about 85 percent of criminal gun owners weren't the original purchaser of their guns. So if you're worried about stopping a bad guy with a gun — make sure he doesn't get that gun in the first place.

6. INSTITUTE BACKGROUND CHECKS AND TRACKING FOR AMMUNITION

Only a handful of states currently have laws regulating the purchase of ammunition. Federal law does not currently require ammo purchasers to submit to a background check.

This year, congressional Democrats introduced a bill that would establish a federal background check system for ammo. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Florida, one of the sponsors of the bill, has said it would plug an "absurd loophole" that allows people to "amass hundreds of rounds of ammunition without so much as sharing their first name with a gun store clerk."

Starting in 2019, California will require ammo vendors to report sales to the state's Department of Justice and conduct background checks on ammunition sales. New York and New Jersey have similar laws.

While the National Rifle Association has opposed such proposals, a 2013 Fox News poll found 80 percent of respondents were in favor of ammunition background checks.

And a study in the journal Injury Prevention analyzing school shootings between 2013 and 2015 found that states with ammunition background checks, along with other factors, have lower rates of school shooting incidents.

7. BAN HIGH-CAPACITY MAGAZINES

To trained hands, reloading a weapon is second nature, like wiping your brow or cracking your knuckles. The rounds run out, the bolt slams back, the magazine drops with a simple push of a finger and a new magazine is inserted. It only takes a few seconds.

But in a mass shooting, those seconds can buy people time to get to safety — or disarm the shooter. At Seattle Pacific University in 2014, an unarmed student used pepper spray to subdue a shooter while he was reloading.

And as advocates of high-capacity magazine bans point out, you wouldn't need more than 10 rounds before reloading to kill a deer.

High-capacity magazines and the weapons capable of using them, including handguns, were disproportionately recovered by police in connection with violent crimes in Baltimore, Minneapolis and Richmond. These same types of magazines were used in the 2017 Las Vegas shooting. Ultimately, reducing the number of rounds that can be shot from any weapon will reduce its lethality.

8. MAKE FIREARM OWNERS LOCK 'EM UP

An eighth-grade school shooter in Townville, South Carolina, the Washington Post reported, thought he'd be able to kill at least 50 of his classmates — 150 if he got lucky. But he couldn't get into the gun safe where he thought his dad kept the powerful Ruger Mini-14 semi-automatic rifle. Instead, he settled for a pistol he found in his dad's dresser — a pistol that jammed after he shot several elementary school students. He didn't notice that the rifle hadn't actually been locked up either.

More than two-thirds of school shooters got their guns from their own homes or homes of relatives.

Massachusetts legally requires guns to be either kept in locked containers or protected with trigger locks that prevent them from being fired. Gun-rights advocates strenuously objected, arguing that locking up their firearms made it nearly impossible to ward off a home invader.

But a 2015 Harvard University analysis found that victims using guns to ward off criminals were more likely to be injured than people who just tried to run away. By contrast, other studies have found that safe storage practices significantly reduce the risk of suicide and accidental gun deaths. Not only that, it makes it harder for thieves to steal them during a burglary.

If you don't want the outlaws to get guns, in other words, outlaw leaving guns out where outlaws can get them.

click to enlarge Last year, a gunman using bump fire stocks took aim from an upper floor of the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas and killed 58 concertgoers and wounded 851.
  • Last year, a gunman using bump fire stocks took aim from an upper floor of the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas and killed 58 concertgoers and wounded 851.

9. BAN BUMP STOCKS

When a mass shooter fires into a crowd with a semi-automatic rifle, how fast he can pull the trigger becomes a life-or-death question. In the Las Vegas shooting in October, the gunman in the Mandalay Bay Hotel room was able to fire nine rounds per second. That's all thanks to a rifle modification called a bump stock, which harnesses the recoil of a weapon to allow a shooter to fire at speeds comparable to already-illegal automatic weapons.

After Las Vegas, banning bump stocks has become a rare gun-control measure even Republicans in Congress say they support — though not, so far, enough to actually pass federal legislation to ban them.
But the impact would likely be small. While fewer people may have died in Las Vegas if bump stocks were banned, the devices have rarely, if ever, been used in prior shootings.

10. RAISE THE FIREARM-PURCHASING AGE

Check out this absurdity: You can't buy a handgun from a licensed dealer if you're younger than 21. But if you're 18, you can still buy an AR-15.

While Republicans like Washington state's Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers argue that those old enough to join the Army should be able to privately own semi-automatic rifles, after the Parkland shooting, even gun-rights-loving Florida passed a bill that raised the age to 21.

The reform is unlikely to have a dramatic impact on mass shootings, however: Out of the 156 mass shootings since 2009, a Vox piece explained, only one was committed by a gunman younger than 21 with a legally purchased semi-automatic rifle. So gun-control advocates suggest going further: Raise the legal age for unlicensed dealers as well, barring informal gun sellers — dealers at gun shows, for instance — and online stores from selling handguns and rifles. Heck, raise it to 25. Treat guns as seriously as rental cars. FBI data shows that more than half of firearm-homicide offenders from 2005 to 2015 were younger than 25.

11. GIVE COPS THE POWER TO RESPOND TO RED FLAGS

The horror of the Parkland shooting was compounded by the fact that so many people knew that the shooter was a danger. Why didn't anyone take away his weapons? Authorities legally couldn't. All the red flags in the world can't do much if the cops don't have a legal right to act on them.

It's caused a number of states to enact red flag laws, giving police the power to ask a court for a warrant to temporarily remove people's access to firearms if they're an imminent danger to themselves or others.

In the 14 years after Connecticut implemented such a law in 1999, police temporarily removed an average of seven firearms from each at-risk gun owner in 762 firearm-removal cases, one study found. Often, those gun owners were connected with mental health treatment they wouldn't have received otherwise. Ultimately, more than 100 suicides may have been prevented, the study estimated.

12. LET FAMILY MEMBERS PETITION FOR GUN REMOVALS

The profile of mass shooters can vary radically, but a few things keep popping up: They're almost always men. And they very often have a history of domestic violence. In fact, more than half of the shootings from 2009 to 2016 tallied by Everytown for Gun Safety involved domestic or family violence.

It's scary as hell to be a woman trapped in a violent relationship — it's even scarier if he can kill you with the click of a trigger. It's why some states have adopted the use of gun violence restraining orders.

Red-flag laws in states like California and Washington let family members, friends and employers — not just police officers — ask courts to temporarily take away people's firearm access.

click to enlarge At a 2013 vigil for Garrick Ellis in Highland Springs, friends holds their hands high, thumbs and forefingers touching in a tribute to their murdered friend’s basketball skills. Ellis was shot on the city’s North Side at the age of 18 — almost two decades earlier, his father also died by gunshot in Church Hill. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • At a 2013 vigil for Garrick Ellis in Highland Springs, friends holds their hands high, thumbs and forefingers touching in a tribute to their murdered friend’s basketball skills. Ellis was shot on the city’s North Side at the age of 18 — almost two decades earlier, his father also died by gunshot in Church Hill.

13. ALERT THE COPS WHEN SOMEONE FAILS A GUN BACKGROUND CHECK

Here's a policy both Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and his counterpart Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson support: It requires federal officials to notify local authorities within 24 hours whenever someone tries to buy a gun, but fails the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Last year, Washington state passed a similar bill — requiring gun dealers to report a failed background check. A King 5 report found that there were almost 4,000 instances of failed backgrounds checks per year in Washington state, but police were doing little to follow up to find out why ineligible buyers were trying to purchase weapons. It's a minor fix, but since authorities often miss multiple red flags before mass shootings, this would at least make the red flags shine a little brighter.

14. REQUIRE STATES TO SHARE MENTAL HEALTH RECORDS WITH THE FEDS

Technically, federal law already prohibits people with a history of some mental health conditions from possessing guns. But the FBI's federal background check system relies on states' voluntarily reporting that information, and participation is spotty. A New York Times report in 2016 found that Pennsylvania had entered more than 718,000 mental records into the federal background check system, for example, while Montana had entered a grand total of four.

There are legitimate debates about which mental health conditions should exclude a person from gun ownership. The vast majority of people with mental health conditions, after all, are not violent. But as it stands, some states' failure to share their information or properly enforce the law has allowed dangerous people like the Virginia Tech shooter to gain access to guns. Recent bipartisan legislation has directed grant money to help states better share that information.

15. REQUIRE A POLICE INTERVIEW TO GET A GUN

In 1911, New York passed the Sullivan Act. Richard Aborn, president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, calls the act "possibly the most effective gun control law in the history of the country," in an interview on Slate's podcast, The Gist.

In New York, it generally takes about six months to get a gun after the applications, background check, safety training and an interview with a uniformed officer, Aborn says. New York also requires safe storage and reporting if a gun is lost or stolen and bans large-capacity magazines and assault-style weapons.

"The goal is not to prevent law-abiding citizens from getting guns," Aborn says on the podcast. "But rather to make sure criminals didn't get a gun. And guess what? It works!"

Firearm death rates in New York are consistently among the lowest in the entire country. In 2016, CDC data shows a rate of 4.2 firearm deaths per 100,000 people, compared to say, Alaska's 23.3 or Idaho's 14.6.

16. MANUFACTURE AND SELL SMART GUNS

A 2-year-old shot and killed his mother inside a Hayden, Idaho, Walmart in 2014. From the shopping cart, the toddler had reached inside the 29-year-old mother's purse, where she kept a concealed pistol. When we talk about smart guns, advocates often point to this example for support.

Smart guns are designed to restrict who can fire them. Some require an authorized fingerprint, others use a radio-controlled watch or other device that must be within a certain distance of the gun in order to fire. There are also trigger guards that require a fingerprint to unlock.

A small 2003 study of 117 unintentional and undetermined firearm-related deaths found that personalized firearms technology was among the most effective at reducing accidental deaths.

While the National Institute of Justice issued baseline requirements for smart guns at Obama's direction, so far, a relative lack of funding along with backlash from gun-rights proponents, including the NRA, has stifled smart guns' popularity. An NRA-led boycott of Smith & Wesson almost put the gunmaker out of business after it pledged to research smart guns among other reforms.

17. BAN "ASSAULT-STYLE" WEAPONS

In 1994, the United States banned the manufacture and sale of certain semi-automatic weapons with military-style features and large-capacity magazines. The idea was to limit the number of crimes committed using weapons that could fire a large number of bullets rapidly.

In several of the highest-casualty mass shootings in modern U.S. history, the shooters used semi-automatic weapons.

The ban was lifted in 2004. A 2018 Quinnipiac poll found that 67 percent of Americans support the ban's return.

A federally funded study found the effect on overall violence to be minimal, in part because assault weapons are used in so few incidents, though high-capacity magazines were more common, and in part because the ban's narrow definition of assault weapon hinges on military-style features such as a pistol grip or a folding stock.

"We cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation's recent drop in gun violence," the authors wrote in the federal study. "Should it be renewed, the ban's effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement."

Although semi-automatic rifles are rarely used to commit crimes, when they are, the potential devastation is terrifying. The purpose of the ban in 1994 was to reduce the lethality of mass shootings: Mass shootings have become much more lethal since the ban expired. S

A version of this article first appeared in the Inlander, a weekly based in Spokane, Washington.

Police Chief Durham on Richmond's Gun Problem

Virginia is a state where people love their guns, but the problem remains with those illegally possessing firearms — and how easy it is for them to do so.

"Convicted felons, young people, that's what creates the problem for us as a police department," says Police Chief Alfred Durham, adding that he just bought a weapon himself recently and was amazed at how quickly — in less than 30 minutes — he was in and out of the store. "You have a lot of people, girlfriends especially, who walk up to these gun shows and purchase three to four firearms and walk into a vehicle and turn these over to a felon," Durham notes . "It's that easy."

The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, based in California, grades states for its gun laws on an A through F scale. Virginia got a D.

"Ways for Virginia to raise its grade and save lives include enacting universal background checks, passing laws aimed at preventing gun trafficking, and funding urban gun violence reduction programs," the law center notes.

Based on forensic evidence recovered from crime scenes, police often find a gun in the East End of Richmond is used and transferred to someone on the South Side, largely through the black market. Many firearms are stolen out of automobiles, Durham adds, yet people continue to leave them there.

"We're trying to arrest those illegally possessing or transferring these firearms," Durham says. He's pushed for legislation that would require lost or stolen firearms to be reported within 24 hours. It's been shot down at the General Assembly two years in a row, but he'll be back this year with community support, he says.

"They have to understand: Give the city of Richmond the ability to make its own law to address the uniqueness of crime gun violence in the city," he says. "Decision-making should be left at local level, not the state level." ---Brent Baldwin

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