gun control

Could the Senate Gun Bill Have Stopped Past Mass Shootings?

Some of the proposed gun-control legislation might have had an impact.

Photo: Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Photo: Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

There appears to be a good chance that Congress will pass meaningful gun-control measures for the first time in decades, following a nationwide outcry after the horrifying attacks at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and a supermarket in Buffalo, New York. But how much could these bipartisan reforms, as currently outlined, have done to prevent those and other mass shootings in the U.S.?

The legislation is still being written, could still be derailed, and is far from perfect. (According to a framework released by Senate negotiators, it will not address the availability of semi-automatic rifles, which have been used in eight of the ten deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history.) But the bill could still have an impact not just in reducing the terrible background rate of gun violence in America but possibly in preventing at least some of the notorious mass shootings like the ones in Buffalo and Uvalde. Below, a look at the six measures put forward by Senate negotiators and their potential impact, including how they might or might not have altered history when it comes to some of the worst mass shootings at schools and other public places over the past decade.


Incentives for states to pass and implement red-flag laws

In a red-flag state, a police officer or a family member of a person in crisis can petition a court to temporarily seize that person’s firearms; if the person is deemed to be a threat to themselves or others, the guns can be taken for a period of time ranging from weeks to a year. The framework for the Senate gun-safety bill includes providing substantial funding to states that already have passed, or would be willing to pass, these laws.

Many mass shooters show warning signs prior to their attacks. Police were called to the home of the Parkland shooter 39 times in incidents involving him or his brother in the seven years prior to the 2018 assault on his former school. If a red-flag law — like the one passed by Florida Republicans after Parkland — were in place at the time, it’s possible that a state court could have seized his legally purchased guns after he made direct school-shooting threats if the police filed such an order.

But red-flag laws are not a cure-all in the 19 states where they have been passed. And as Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy director Shannon Frattaroli said in an interview, they require cooperation at the ground level. “The impact is not so much in the details of the policy but in how it’s being implemented” by local judges and law enforcement, she said. They also may not be broad enough to apply in some cases. After the Buffalo-supermarket shooter said in school that he planned to commit a murder-suicide, police did not file a red-flag petition because the threat wasn’t specific enough, and a mental-health evaluation at a hospital concluded he was not dangerous.


Closing the “boyfriend loophole”

Federal law bans convicted domestic abusers from owning guns if they have been married to, have a child with, or have lived with their victim. The “boyfriend loophole” refers to those domestic abusers who are not in those three categories being able to own guns. In 2017, Everytown for Gun Safety found that 23 percent of over 150 evaluated mass shootings involved a perpetrator with a reported history of domestic abuse. In addition, a 2017 CDC study found that more than half of the female homicides across 18 states over more than a decade involved domestic violence, illustrating the lethal threat that armed domestic abusers pose to individuals as well.

Closing the loophole could stop violent offenders from going on to commit mass shootings or other acts of gun violence, but it would also require an increase in official reports of domestic violence — a difficult and complex public-health issue in its own right. The Pulse shooter abused his wife for years, but the violence was never reported, and he was able to legally purchase the guns he used to kill 49 people at the gay club in Orlando in 2016.

The restrictions on domestic abusers owning guns also require the system as it currently operates to work properly. The shooter who killed over two dozen people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, should not have been able to legally buy the rifle he used in the attack because he had previously been convicted of domestic assault for attacking his wife and cracking his toddler’s skull while in the Air Force. However, the Air Force failed to file his criminal records in the national database, which would have banned him from purchasing a gun.


Enhanced background checks for gun buyers under 21

Many recent shooters have been old enough to buy the guns used in their attacks but too young to drink. While the Senate framework does not include raising the legal age to buy a firearm, it does propose expanding the information evaluated in background checks for gun buyers who are under the age of 21.

The framework includes adding, for the first time, a requirement that the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which is run by the FBI, also search juvenile-justice and mental-health records for gun buyers under 21. Senators are reportedly still debating how much extra time law-enforcement officials would have to conduct these checks.

If the time frame is long enough to conduct extensive checks, this aspect of the bill could stop would-be assailants with reported violent or threatening incidents in their past from legally acquiring guns on their own. (A small number of states already bar gun possession for people with certain juvenile convictions, though the practice is far from universal.)

Until more details emerge on what precisely the expanded background check would entail, it’s unclear if this measure could have stopped past tragedies. Though the frequent police calls for the school shooter in Parkland could have potentially stopped him from buying a gun, the shooter in Uvalde had no criminal record and “no history of mental-health care,” according to Texas governor Greg Abbott, despite threatening teenage girls online.


Billions of dollars in funding for mental health and school safety

The most wide-ranging component of the pending bill would include funding for behavioral-intervention programs at schools and for building a nationwide network of community-mental-health clinics. It would also involve money for school security programs and armed officers on campus.

Behavioral interventions in schools, particularly threat assessments, are designed so that a student can change their behavior before they become violent. While it is difficult to gauge how many shootings never happened because they were prevented by such interventions, threat assessments are considered by experts to be an effective measure to predict which students may actually be considering an act of violence. If the shooter at Robb Elementary had been subject to an assessment by administrators following the protocol in place in the Uvalde school district, it’s likely that his obvious warning signs would have been flagged.

Community clinics, on the other hand, appear to be a public-health-level method of addressing America’s mental-health crisis, which could also help prevent instances of gun violence, including mass shootings. To be effective, however, those community centers will require significant cash; at the moment, it is not clear what the funding level will be for this initiative.

School security programs and armed guards on campus, meanwhile, are by and large considered some of the least effective preventative measures, according to experts. “I can point to no evidence that law enforcement on school campuses has led to a reduction in school shootings,” Johns Hopkins professor Odis Johnson said in an interview. Many of the tragic school shootings over the past decade, including Uvalde, have involved security systems designed to stop attacks that have been easily thwarted due to human error.


More sellers registering as federal firearm dealers

As the system currently stands, private sellers at gun shows are not required to perform background checks — nor are individuals who are selling guns at websites including Armslist, the largest online exchange for firearms. According to research by Everytown for Gun Safety, as many as one in nine people who bought from Armslist are not legally allowed to own firearms, and 22 percent of Americans who purchased a gun between 2013 and 2015 did so without a background check.

Though the details in the Senate bill are not yet public, requiring more sellers to register as federal firearms dealers would increase the number of background checks being conducted. Senator Chris Murphy stated that the law would be designed to “make sure all truly commercial sellers are doing background checks” — suggesting it would apply to individuals selling a large number of guns who have not yet registered as proper dealers. If the expansion is big enough, it would have a serious impact on the easiest method for felons to purchase guns today.

While this measure could cut down on the tragic background rate of gun violence in America, it could also have an impact on mass shootings. According to the research branch of the Department of Justice, 23 percent of mass shooters between 1966 and 2019 illegally bought the weapons they used in the attack.


The first federal law against gun trafficking and “straw purchasing”

These two measures appear to be the least focused on stopping events like school shootings. As the U.S. legal code stands, there is actually no statute that specifically refers to interstate gun trafficking. The senators hope that expanding penalties for people moving guns could cut down on gun possession and violence in cities where it’s very difficult to legally own one. Lawmakers in the Northeast often refer to the “Iron Pipeline” of firearms coming up I-95 from less restrictive states further south. The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence observes that, according to gun recoveries during crimes, as many as 87 percent of guns used in New York, Chicago, and Boston were trafficked in from other states with softer gun laws.

Straw purchasing is when a person buys a firearm for someone who is not legally allowed to buy one or for someone who does not want to be traced back to the sale of the gun. According to a 2017 academic study, over 30,000 straw purchases are attempted each year.

Could the Senate Gun Bill Have Stopped Past Mass Shootings?