The gun laws we ought to have

After our Monday editorial imploring Texas officials to at least consider new gun laws in the wake of last week’s school shooting there, a reader wrote to challenge us. That happens a lot whenever we write about gun control, but his criticism was more specific. We bemoaned the unwillingness of Congress and most states to pass meaningful gun control measures for fear of angering the National Rifle Association, but with one exception (stricter requirements for locking up guns in the home when children were present) we didn’t say what we think would actually make a difference. Fair enough. Here, then, is a list of several measures that, if enacted nationwide, could not only reduce the risk of more tragedies like the one at Santa Fe High School but also the ones that occur on the streets of Baltimore and other American cities every day.

  • Truly universal background checks. Thanks to years of effort by former White House press secretary Jim Brady following the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, Congress passed a law in 1993 requiring background checks for gun purchases from federally licensed firearms dealers. However, that leaves a major loophole: purchases from individuals, whether at a gun show or, increasingly, over the Internet, aren’t covered. Congress has debated extending so-called Brady checks to private sales since at least the Clinton presidency, and public polling puts support for the idea at 85 percent or higher, yet it still has not been enacted. Eight states and the District of Columbia require background checks on all firearms purchases, and two others (including Maryland) do for handguns, but guns easily cross state lines. We need a national system.
  • Effective background checks. Most states rely on the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, known as NICS to determine whether an individual is prohibited from buying a gun, but the system is only as good as the data. We’ve seen time and again that failures to upload information that would have prevented someone from getting a gun have ended in tragedy. The quality of reporting varies significantly from state to state and is particularly poor in the areas of mental illness and domestic violence — the former was an issue in the Virginia Tech mass shooting of 2007, and the latter in last year’s Texas church shooting. Some states (Maryland included) require additional searches of state-level databases that tend to be more complete, but improving the national system is the best solution. Dating to the George W. Bush administration, the federal government has sought to incentivize states to report more records, but we need to devote more resources to that effort and create enforceable national standards in areas where state reporting practices are inconsistent, particularly in regard to mental health.
  • Handgun licensing. One of the most important laws Maryland passed in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012 was a provision requiring prospective handgun purchasers to be licensed by the state — a process that includes both training and fingerprinting. The law is designed to cut down on so-called “straw purchases,” that is, cases when a person who is legally able to buy a gun does so on behalf of someone who isn’t. A Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research study found a 14 percent increase in Missouri’s murder rate after it repealed a similar law. Another study found that Connecticut’s licensing law was associated with a 40 percent reduction in that state’s firearm-related homicide rate. But as with background checks, the policy would be much more effective if enacted nationwide.
  • Assault weapons ban. Handguns are responsible for most gun violence, but assault weapons play a disproportionate role in mass shootings, and for good reason. They are civilian, semi-automatic versions of military rifles, which means they are designed specifically for combat, not self-defense, hunting or sport. They have features that enable a shooter to fire a large number of rounds rapidly and over an extended period of time. They often are designed to make it more difficult to spot the shooter, and they typically cause much more severe injuries than handguns. There is simply no good reason for them to be legal, and they weren’t for a decade. Maryland and several other states have since banned their sale, but new national laws are necessary.
  • Limits on magazine size. In some mass shootings, killers have used drum-style magazines that can hold as many as 100 rounds, but more common extended magazines can hold up to 30. The larger the magazine, the more rounds can be fired without pausing to switch guns or reload. Maryland limits magazine size to 10 rounds, which is more than sufficient for self-defense.
  • Secure storage. Only one state (Massachusetts) generally requires firearms to be locked up when not in use, but such a provision could go a long way toward reducing theft of guns, their use by an intruder or their accidental or intentional use by a child. (The accused Santa Fe school shooter reportedly took the guns he used from his home, as has been the case in a number of other mass shootings.) Twenty-seven states and Washington, D.C., have laws regarding safe storage of guns in homes with children, but their effectiveness varies widely. The best, in California, imposes a criminal penalty if a minor is likely to gain access to an unsecured firearm whether he or she does or not.
  • Federal funding for gun research. Strictly speaking, the federal government never banned the Centers for Disease Control from funding research into gun violence. But in 1996, after some studies the gun industry and the NRA disliked — finding, for example, that the presence of a gun in the home increases the risk of homicide — Arkansas Rep. Jay Dickey introduced an amendment to an appropriations bill forbidding the CDC from using its funding to “advocate or promote gun control.” Though it wasn’t a ban, it might as well have been; the federal government has funded very little gun research for more than two decades. Both the Obama and Trump adminsitrations have issued guidance to the CDC to clarify that gun injury research is allowed, but that’s no substitute for repealing the provision and increasing funding for the research so we know as much about gun injuries as we do about traffic deaths.

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