Disarming the American gun problem

How some small incremental steps could put momentum back behind the gun control movement

Weapons confiscated from last Wednesday's attack in San Bernardino, California are shown in this San Bernardino County Sheriff Department handout photo from their Twitter account released to Reuters December 3, 2015. (San Bernardino County Sheriffs Department/REUTERS)

Weapons confiscated from the attack in San Bernardino, California are shown in this San Bernardino County Sheriff Department handout photo from Dec. 3, 2015. (San Bernardino County Sheriffs Department/REUTERS)

This article was originally published in December, 2015, after the mass shooting in San Bernardino

There are, believe it or not, a few, sensible restrictions on who can purchase a firearm, or explosives, in the United States. Fugitives from justice will have their applications denied. So will those convicted of a crime that is punishable by more than a year in jail. People who have been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility may not buy weapons. Nor can those who have been found guilty of domestic violence, or have related restraining orders registered against them.

The National Instant Criminal Background Check (NICS), a service the FBI offers 17 hours a day, seven days a week, every day except Christmas, has actually rejected 1.3 million would-be purchasers since it went into operation in November 1998. (Although a staggering 222.3 million applications have been approved.) However, an NICS is only required when the dealer is federally licensed, and therefore covers just 60 per cent of all gun sales. And there are loopholes big enough to drive a dynamite-laden truck through.

Purchases at cash-and-carry gun shows are exempt from background checks. So too, are those made online. But in terror-obsessed America, the most mystifying fact may be that guns and explosives can’t actually be denied to people who have been deemed too big a security threat to fly on commercial airlines.

Over the past decade, 2,233 people on the government’s terror watch list have applied to make such purchases, and 2,043 of them were given the green light.

The Dec. 2 rampage that left 14 dead and 21 others wounded in San Bernardino, Calif., has reinvigorated the debate about America’s unwillingness to tackle its gun violence epidemic. Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik—the husband-and-wife team who carried out the massacre at his workplace, the county department of public health—were reportedly longtime Islamic State sympathizers. While it’s not clear whether the pair had come to the attention of anti-terror authorities, their arsenal, which included two high-powered assault rifles, two semi-automatic handguns, several thousand rounds of ammunition, and more than a dozen homemade pipe bombs, would have been prohibited almost anywhere else in the world. (All of the weapons were purchased legally, and Farook was subject to an NICS check when he bought his pistols at Annie’s Get Your Gun in Corona, Calif., a federally licensed establishment that bills itself at “the family-friendly gun store.”)

In 2015, the United States has had more mass shootings, defined as attacks on four or more people, than days in the year. Yet driven by fear—of terrorism, crime and even their own government—more Americans are buying weapons than ever before. This past Black Friday set a record for FBI background checks, with 185,345 requests. Following the San Bernardino massacre, and President Barack Obama’s plea for “common-sense gun safety laws,” sales spiked again. The U.S. Senate voted down yet another proposal to close the loophole that allows people on the no-fly list to buy assault rifles.

It’s now been almost 22 years since the adoption of the Brady Bill, the last major piece of U.S. federal gun control legislation. The way things look, it could take a generation more before Congress finds the courage to once again defy weapons enthusiasts and the deep-pocketed National Rifle Association. But the gridlock in Washington is only part of the picture. The struggle against gun violence continues, and despite appearances to the contrary, progress is being made. Firearm homicides, which peaked in 1993 at 18,253 deaths, have steadily fallen along with the crime rate, to 8,124 gun murders in 2014.

“What the national debate misses is that quite a lot happens at the state level,” says Kristin Goss, a Duke University professor of public policy and the author of two books on gun control. “There’s a real bifurcation when it comes to gun culture in America. The NRA is effective on Capitol Hill and in Wyoming, but not in New York.” In the three years since a gunman massacred 20 children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., six states—Connecticut, Colorado, Delaware, New York, Washington, and Oregon—have expanded background checks to cover all firearm sales and transfers. (Delaware, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia already had such safeguards in place. Residents of Nevada will vote on enhanced checks in 2016.) In total, 18 states now go above and beyond the federal NICS search for weapons purchases.

On mental health, there’s almost a shared national vision. Since 2004, 48 states have introduced at least one piece of legislation seeking to restrict sales to people with psychiatric problems, with 40 states succeeding in tightening their laws. “It’s narrow and technical, but there’s been a huge amount of activity,” says Goss.

It’s a far cry from the 1970s and ’80s heyday of the gun control movement—when there was serious talk of a blanket ban on pistol sales. But “incrementalism” has become the buzzword for anti-violence advocates seeking to re-establish a sense of momentum and dispel the gun lobby’s aura of invincibility. “They’re focusing on areas where they feel there’s political consensus,” says Goss. “It’s much more strategic.”

The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, for example, is promoting the concept of “buyer power” at the municipal level. The idea is to have cities that are making mass purchases of guns for their police departments pressure manufacturers, and their local distributors, to “self-regulate” and go further than the law requires in terms of background and identity checks. Americans for Responsible Solutions—the group started by former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, after she became a victim in a 2011 mass shooting—advocates overturning a 1996 ban on federal government research into the causes and effects of gun violence. And the Brady Campaign has been coordinating with the mayors of 50 cities, including New York, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles, to pressure the Justice Department to take tougher action on so-called “bad apple” gun dealers—the five per cent of retailers who are the source of 90 per cent of the guns used to commit crime.

Today’s anti-gun movement is both better organized and better-funded than ever before. Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire ex-mayor of New York, has donated $50 million—dwarfing the NRA’s $20 million in annual spending—and created his own grassroots group, Everytown for Gun Safety. (Bloomberg’s cash is going to campaigns, lobbying and a news site, The Trace, among other things.) And there is renewed hope of a path through the courts. In October, a Wisconsin jury handed down a $6-million verdict against a shop that helped an 18-year-old skirt age restrictions and buy a pistol that he later used to shoot two police officers in the head, leaving both with lifelong injuries. It was the first successful gun suit since Congress passed a 2005 law that shields manufacturers and retailers from liability.

Anti-gun advocates are finding new ways to capture the public’s attention. On Dec. 1, the day before the San Bernardino attack, Missouri state Rep. Stacey Newman filed a bill that would make gun buyers jump through the same hoops as women seeking an abortion. Among the proposed changes, purchasers would have to travel at least 120 miles away from their homes, watch a half-hour video on fatal gun injuries, undergo counselling and wait 72 hours to complete the deal. “Our gun laws are really lax, we don’t have background checks, we don’t have licences, we barely have anything,” explains Newman. In contrast, the state has just one abortion clinic, and the Republican-controlled legislature has enacted a number of laws to restrict access to the procedure. “To me, it was a way to highlight the absurdity of our situation. It was born out of frustration,” she says.

It’s almost a certainty that the bill will languish, never even making it to the floor for debate. But Newman says it’s already working, generating debate about the state’s considerable gun problem: St. Louis and Kansas City both rank in the top 10 for shootings. “Most of us are elected by less than 30 per cent of the eligible votes,” notes Newman. “People are connecting the dots. Now, they’re finally getting angry.”

America has never been short on rage. Perhaps it can be channelled constructively.

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