By Chris Swann
Graphic by Mary Mone
Background checks and the banning of assault weapons with large capacity magazines are not going to be enough to incite real change. In the aftermath of the Boulder and Atlanta shootings, President Joe Biden has made his viewpoint on assault rifles clear to the American people. Gun reform has been a major issue in the nation for more than a decade but has recently been overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic. Now, this issue has taken the forefront once again.
Biden in a speech on March 23 urged Congress to pass legislation banning assault weapons, expanding background checks and closing loopholes. “This is not and should not be a partisan issue,” he said. “This is an American issue. It will save lives – American lives – and we have to act.”
Biden specifically mentioned a Clinton era banning of assault weapons and large capacity magazines (LCM), which brought down the frequency of mass shootings in the U.S. However, that claim is difficult to assess.
The ban only lasted from 1994 to 2004 and the relative yearly count of mass shootings was low, but the impact of the legislation is difficult to determine.
According to a 2004 study for the Department of Justice, the ban’s impact on gun violence was muddled. The report says, “Should [the legislation] be renewed, the ban’s effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement.” The report also mentions assault weapons were rarely used in gun crimes even before the ban.
In fact, the report mentioned the potential for more dangerous individuals to have access to assault weapons with LCMs should the ban be lifted. Saying, “pre-ban assault weapons may lose value and novelty, prompting some of their owners to sell them in undocumented secondhand markets where they can more easily reach high-risk users, such as criminals, terrorists and other potential mass murderers.”
A 2020 report by Christopher Koper, a professor of criminology, law and society at George Mason University and the same author of the 2004 DOJ report, confirmed this by saying, “The federal ban on assault weapons and LCMs of 1994 had exemptions and loopholes that limited its short‐term effects, but its expiration in 2004 was followed by an increase in the use of these weapons in mass shootings and other crimes.“
The low ratio of assault weapons being used in gun violence crimes still carries to this day. According to 2017 FBI Data, handguns are the most commonly used weapons in shootings in the U.S. at 64%. While assault rifles are used in many shootings around the nation, handguns are still the leading weapon in many of these cases. Not to mention that mass shootings are a tiny proportion of all gun deaths in the U.S. According to the BBC, of the 38,658 people who died in the U.S. in 2016, 1,305 were accidental deaths and war casualties, 22,938 were suicides and 14,415 were homicides – of which 71 died in mass shootings. That’s 0.5% of all homicides in the U.S.
Banning assault rifles and LCMs most likely would not result in a decrease of yearly mass shootings in the U.S. If the administration wanted to thoroughly guarantee a decrease in gun-related deaths, a ban of all weapons would have to be legislated – handguns, shotguns, rifles, etc. But such a move in the U.S. is absolutely unthinkable, as 50% of all self-identified Republicans and 18% of Democrats own guns, according to the global analytics firm Gallup. And, of course, the second amendment protects American’s rights to bear arms.
Another aspect the administration has focused on is the background check process. In states with universal background checks, a criminal background check is done every time a sale has been made. It’s up to the state’s legislature to enact universal background checks and not the federal government. Only 22 states (plus the District of Columbia) have laws that require universal background checks for some private sales of firearms, which is part of the problem.
A study published in the Journal Injury Prevention in 2012 found nearly 80% of all firearms used for criminal purposes are obtained through transfers from unlicensed dealers, which are not required to conduct background checks in what’s called the “private sale loophole.” In 2017, a study by researchers from Northern University and the Harvard School of Public Health showed 22% of Americans who had obtained a gun in the previous two years did not undergo a background check process.
While this is an issue, research is mixed on whether or not stricter background checks alone correlate with a decrease in gun-related deaths. For example, the California had enacted universal background check legislation for 10 years. Researchers at UC Davis School of Medicine have studied gun violence in California during that period and found there was no change in the number of gun homicides or gun suicides. Another study by the same authors found the repeal of universal background check laws in Tennessee and Indiana had no effect on gun homicides or suicides in either state.
While research is divided on background checks, and there seems to be no clear answer on how to go about the issue, several studies have shown coupling gun laws together can actually make a difference.
In 2016, a study by researchers at Columbia University found a combination of laws, like licensing/permit requirements, limiting the number of guns you can purchase monthly/annually, minimum age restrictions, mental health screenings and background checks have had success in decreasing gun violence. Examples of such legislation are found in Australia and Maryland with the 1996 National Firearms Agreement and the 1996 Maryland Gun Violence Act, which respectively have had the most successful results in reducing gun-related deaths.
There is still much debate over whether or not stricter gun laws will make a substantial difference in decreasing gun-related deaths and mass shootings. After all, even with strict gun laws, criminals still have alternative methods without guns to cause harm. Like in the Middle East with large scale bombings, or in the United Kingdom with poison gas attacks, just to name a few examples. But sitting idly and not trying to figure out a way to limit the options criminals have will cost many more lives in the future.