How Better Gun-Control Laws Could Have Stopped the Tucson Massacre

By
Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Much of the debate surrounding the massacre in Tucson over the weekend has focused on why Jared Lougher did it — whether violent political rhetoric, madness, or a combination of both motivated him to go on a deadly rampage. But an equally important discussion taking place revolves around how America's gun laws allowed him to do it. Scrutiny has fallen on two potential flaws in the nation's gun control system.

First, the ability of Loughner to buy an extra-long magazine for his Glock, one that can hold 33 rounds, which would have been outlawed by the 1994 assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. Long Island congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, who got into politics after her husband was gunned down in the Long Island Railroad massacre, plans to introduce a bill soon that would outlaw such high-volume clips. "That’s not what a hunter needs," says Illinois congressman Mike Quigley. "That’s not what someone needs to defend their home. That’s what you use to hunt people.”

If the ban had already been in place, it wouldn't have stopped Loughner from getting a gun and killing people with it if he so chose to, but it could have made him much less efficient and deadly. "Without that extended magazine you would not have seen the body count as high," a "federal law-enforcement official" told The Wall Street Journal. Similarly, Paul Helmke, the president of the Brady Campaign and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, tells CNN, "He could still have injured a lot of people, but having fewer bullets to shoot before having to pause to reload would have meant fewer people killed and injured." In fact, it was precisely when Loughner paused to reload his bottomless clip that a gutsy woman, Patricia Maisch, managed to grab his fresh magazine and prevent him from shooting even more people.

The second issue is Loughner’s ability to pass a background check despite his obvious mental instability. Part of the problem is that states have been less than thorough in reporting relevant mental records for inclusion in a national database. As Time's Nate Thornburgh reports:

Saying that unstable individuals are disqualified from buying firearms is meaningless if the national background-check system, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), has no record of their illness. That's why the Brady organization was proud to announce on Friday, just a day before the Tucson shootings, that the number of records of mental illness in the NICS database had more than doubled since Virginia Tech, to more than 1 million records. But there's a problem with that: there should be more than 2 million records in that database, if all the states cooperated fully.

But another part of the problem is who is included in these records in the first place.

In 2008 President George W. Bush signed a law expanding the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which registered gun dealers use, to include more comprehensive reporting of mental health records. Under the current law, it is illegal for anyone who has been “adjudicated as a mental defective or committed to a mental institution” to purchase a firearm, according to the FBI’s website.

However, Loughner did not fall into either of those categories....

A background check of Loughner would never have discovered that his former school, Pima Community College, asked him to get a mental evaluation after it suspended him for repeated disruptions that required the attention of campus police.

There's the question of privacy — what personal information should the government have access to and be allowed to consider when you try to buy a gun? But perhaps there are further ways to expand the background check without being overly intrusive. As Helmke says, "Before a teenager gets a job at McDonalds, he has to give a couple of references and they call a teacher or neighbor. But to buy a gun, nobody calls anybody."

Whether anything is actually done to strengthen gun control remains to be seen. As Chris Cillizza notes in the Washington Post, public support for more restrictive gun control laws has steadily declined over the past two decades. And you can bet that the influential and deep-pocketed NRA will do their best to convince Congress that people, not guns, are what ultimately kill people. Perhaps the particularly shocking nature of an assassination attempt on one of their own will make them less susceptible to such arguments this time.