Gun control is back on the agenda after Friday’s horrific shootings in Newtown, Conn., in which, police say, Adam Lanza used an AR-15 made by Bushmaster to kill 20 children and six adults. President Obama has called for action, and even Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat so pro-gun that he ran an ad showing himself using climate-change legislation as target practice, said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe Monday that the issue should be on the table.
But what does that mean in practice? Of the ideas that are under consideration, which ones might actually reduce gun violence—not just the kind of high-profile mass killings we saw Friday, but the steady toll of less publicized incidents that has left more than 30,000 Americans already dead this year?
Here’s what’s being discussed:
Renewing the Assault Weapons Ban: Already, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Sunday she’ll introduce legislation to renew the ban on military-style weapons, which went into effect in 1994 and expired in 2004, at the start of the next Congress in January. And gun-control advocates say the issue is a top priority.
But don’t look for a renewed ban to be a panacea. A 2004 University of Pennsylvania study described the ban’s success in reducing the criminal use of such weapons as “mixed.” It found that any assessment of the ban’s impact was premature, because millions of assault weapons made before the ban went into effect were exempted. Citing more recent data, Christopher Koper, the lead investigator on that study, estimated to MSNBC.com that renewing the ban now might result in a decrease in gunshot victims of anywhere from one to 4 or 5 percentage points. But even that effect, he said, would likely only be discernible over the long term, as the number of pre-ban weapons available gradually declined.
Banning Large-Capacity Magazines: Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who’s retiring at the end of the year, has proposed targeting Large-Capacity Magazines (LCMs), which were used in the Newtown, Tucson, and Aurora shootings, among others, and which allow the user to fire 30 or more shots without pausing to reload—potentially upping the number of casualties in any one incident.
Experts say the LCM ban was the most effective component of the Assault Weapons Ban. “That was the important part,” of the Assault Weapons Ban, said Koper. “It had the potential to affect a much larger set of crimes.”
Background checks for all gun purchases: The 1994 Brady Act required instant criminal background checks, but it applies only to those weapons bought through licensed firearms dealers. That means guns can be bought through private sales (at gun shows, through newspaper ads, on the internet, for instance) without checks—a massive weakness in the law.
“’Loophole’ is something of an understatement,” Ben Van Houten, a managing attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, told MSNBC.com. “Forty percent of gun sales are done through private sales, that’s a real big concern from a public safety standpoint.” Gun-control advocates say closing that loophole is essential, to ensure that people with a history of mental illness or a criminal record can’t access weapons.
Beefed-up reporting systems: But background checks are only as good as the reporting systems that go into them. Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, had a history of mental health problems and had been ruled a danger to himself by a judge. So when he tried to buy a handgun, he should have been flagged by the National Instant Criminal Background Check (NICBC) system. But because Virginia disqualified people from buying firearms only if they‘ve been involuntarily committed to a mental hospital, he wasn’t. the state has since changed its procedures, but many other states’ are still too lax.
That’s why gun-control advocates also want to strengthen the reporting requirements for NICBC, rather than leaving it up to the states as to who they report. “The whole thing is a joke,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. “The system is designed not to regulate.”
Regulating Ammunition: The Aurora shooter, James Holmes, bought 6,000 rounds of ammunition online. That likely wouldn’t have been possible between 1968 until 1986, when ammunition was regulated like guns. But after lobbying from the NRA, Congress loosened the law, and today even armor-piercing bullets—which aren’t needed for hunting—can be bought online. While it’s feasible for someone to manufacture a gun in their own home, it would be very difficult to make bullets at home—and they’re not mentioned in the Constitution. Could that be the next path for gun-control advocates?