As the next mass shooting looms
James Alan Fox 2:37 p.m. EST
June 19, 2015
New gun laws likely
won't prevent massacres, but there are other good reasons to pass them.
It has become semi-automatic that any large-scale mass shooting will
spark furious discussion concerning the role of guns and regulations
governing their sale and ownership. The higher the body count, the more
heated the debate between those demanding more gun restrictions and those
wanting more gun rights.
With over four dozen killed and even more
wounded at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, it is no surprise that gun
control groups and gun lobbyists alike are exploiting the tragedy as fodder
to advance their respective agendas. Despite the passion behind their
arguments, both sides overstate the potential impact on future rampage
Given that assault weapons were used in the Orlando
shooting as well as in the 2012 Newtown, Conn. school massacre, the obvious
and logical response for many Americans is to urge a ban on the sale of such
powerful killing machines. Several petitions are circulating online and a
Democratic filibuster forced Senate leaders to schedule votes on gun
measures this week.
Bill Clinton and other political leaders have
blamed the scourge of mass shootings on the expiration of the 1994 federal
assault weapons ban. However, the 10-year prohibition failed to produce any
real reduction in shootings in which four or more victims were killed. The
average number of mass shootings annually was 16.9 in the decade prior to
the ban, 19.2 during the ban, and 21.6 in the decade after the ban lapsed —
a gradual increase essentially paralleling the nation's population growth.
There was an increase after the ban in the average victim count: 4.5
victims killed on average before and during the ban, and then up to 5.0 in
the 10 years following the ban, an increase mainly the result of the
especially large body counts at Virginia Tech in 2007 and Sandy Hook in
2012. Of course, prohibiting the sale of assault weapons may still be a
reasonable move, yet there are millions of them already in circulation for
anyone determined to obtain one through a private transaction.
Despite their unparalleled firepower, most mass murderers actually do not
use assault rifles, but instead rely on more easily transported and
concealed semi-automatic handguns. The assailant at Virginia Tech, for
example, was able to execute 32 students and faculty with a pair of
semi-automatic pistols. Although high capacity magazines allow for dozens of
shots without reloading, the same can be accomplished with multiple weapons.
Gun control groups are also calling for universal background checks,
including closing the gun show loophole. Unfortunately, keeping dangerous
guns away from dangerous individuals is far easier said than done. Most mass
killers are not on terrorism watch lists and do not have criminal records or
a history of psychiatric commitment, and thus are able to purchase their
guns and ammo legally. Even if denied, they can always beg, borrow or steal
the weapons needed to perpetrate a bloodbath.
On the flip side of the
gun debate, champions of right-to-carry provisions point out that mass
shootings usually occur at so-called “soft targets” where victims are
expected, by virtue of gun restrictions, to be unarmed. But then again, most
places are soft. Florida’s concealed carry law, for example, excludes
establishments primarily devoted to alcohol consumption, such as the Orlando
night club. Keeping guns from inebriated people makes good sense: We really
wouldn't want to mix vodka with anything more potent than tonic water.
Of course, there have been a handful of shootings in which citizen
intervention may have reduced the carnage. Beyond anecdotal evidence, the
effect of an expanded carry right is an empirical question that was best
answered by criminologist Grant Duwe. His research found that concealed
firearms laws have no measurable impact on public mass shootings.
Then there is the risk that a shootout involving an assailant and armed
citizens would claim more lives. For example, had moviegoers in Aurora,
Colo. pulled out concealed weapons inside the darkened theater, the chaos
could have been magnified with many more victims potentially caught in the
crossfire. Unlike the gunman who, by virtue of planning, is calm and steady,
others are caught by surprise.
On balance, there are many reasonable
strategies that we should pursue, including enhanced background checks as
well as limits on certain guns and accessories that increase their
deadliness. Mass shootings do tend to create legislative momentum, if only
for a short while.
Strengthening gun-control laws may have many
benefits in addressing the dozens of firearm homicides that that take place
daily in the U.S., but will do little to curtail murder in its most extreme
form. Nevertheless, if the latest episode becomes the impetus for needed
change, then at least it is the right thing to do even for the wrong reason.
James Alan Fox is the Lipman
Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University
and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors. He is co-author of
Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder.