texas school shooting

What the Senate Gun Bill Could Actually Do

Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

Calls for action on gun control in Congress have played out the same way for years: A massacre is followed by talks of reform (mostly among Democrats), a failure to reach an agreement, and a return to the status quo until the horrible cycle resets. The reason is fairly straightforward. Unwilling to offend their base or lose the support of a radicalized gun lobby, Republicans have opposed measures they say would punish law-abiding gun owners while failing to stop criminals.

But following the murder of 19 children and two adults at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, there’s hope among a bipartisan group of senators working on a gun-control proposal that they will get at least ten Republican votes and pass the first federal firearm reform in years. But even if they are delivered, the options on the table hardly represent a dream bill for Democrats. To get past an expected Republican filibuster, lawmakers are not considering President Joe Biden’s wish list of banning assault weapons, limiting high-capacity magazines, or setting up a comprehensive expansion of background checks.

The developing legislation appears centered around four policies: funding state-level “red flag” laws, funding mental-health resources, expanding school security, and expanding background checks. To understand how these restrictions would affect the epidemic of gun violence in the United States — where mass shootings like the ones in Uvalde and Buffalo represent less than one percent of gun deaths — we spoke with experts from the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy.

Red-flag laws.

Extreme Risk Protection Orders, more commonly known as red-flag laws, have proven successful at stopping people in crisis from using a gun, including in acts of suicide. In the 19 states where they currently exist, red-flag laws allow either law enforcement or loved ones to file a request with a judge when they fear a person who legally owns a gun is going to harm themselves or others. If the judge approves the ERPO, the weapon or weapons in question will be taken away by police officers for a set period of time. One study examining Connecticut’s red-flag law found that the total number of suicides is reduced by one for every ten to 20 red-flag orders issued.

These laws were at the center of a state-level gun-control push following the Parkland shooting in Florida. From 2018 onward, red-flag laws were enacted in Florida, Vermont, Maryland, Rhode Island, Delaware, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Washington, D.C. The presence of Florida on that list is particularly inspiring for reform: The state’s law, which has taken guns from 8,000 individuals in crisis, was drafted by a Republican-controlled legislature and signed into law by then-Governor Rick Scott, who is now among the senators working on a compromise. The federal bill is reportedly expected to include grants to allow more states to enact red-flag programs.

While the laws stop people who have threatened violence from having access to their firearms, many states do not require treatment to manage the violent behavior itself. And as Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy director Shannon Frattaroli says, they require that local officials buy into the system. “In Florida, thousands of ERPOs have been issued since 2018, when the law went into effect,” she says. “But there are a lot of counties which have issued zero orders. And that’s generally true across the states — we see high-utilization counties and lower-utilization counties. The impact is not so much in the details of the policy but in how it’s being implemented.”

Mental-health funding in schools.

Although they’re not as directly effective as limiting access to firearms, mental-health programs can decrease gun violence. Johns Hopkins professor Daniel Webster, who studies policies to reduce gun violence, told ABC, “Those public health approaches can go a long way in preventing these horrible tragedies.”

But just as red-flag laws require cooperation at the local level, increased funding for mental health for students requires that the right care be provided with that money.

Take Florida’s post-Parkland law, which enacted a three-day waiting period for purchasing guns, a provision raising the age to buy assault rifles to 21, an expansion of funding for school security, and $69 million in mental-health funding for school districts. As the Tampa Bay Times notes, the legislation does not mention suicide prevention programs at all, though it is the second-leading cause of death for Americans under 35. School districts spent millions on mental-health personnel, but only a few districts crafted specific suicide-prevention programs, while 17 counties did not mention suicide in any form.

To stop teenagers from mass-shooting sprees, experts suggest a long-term process for engaging with a young person who has shown threats of violence. Frank Straub, the director of the National Policing Institute’s Center for Targeted Violence Prevention, told CNN that after a school conducts a threat assessment to determine if a student is dangerous, there needs to be a follow-up program. “One of the things that we see as a shortfall is that assessment is a continuous process,” Straub said. “You don’t do one threat assessment and say if an individual is at risk or not and then release him.”

Expanded school security.

The preferred method of reform for Republicans in the wake of school shootings, increased funding for school security is one of the less effective measures to prevent violence, experts say — aside from the simple measure of keeping school and classroom doors locked.

“I can point to no evidence that law enforcement on school campuses has led to a reduction in school shootings,” says Johns Hopkins professor Odis Johnson, the author of a forthcoming paper that finds surveillance measures lower students’ academic performance and likelihood of going to college.

“There are federal data that suggest the occurrence of students bringing weapons to school has declined over time,” Johnson says. “But the severity of the outcome when there’s gun violence, with those metrics we’ve seen in the last seven years, the number of injuries and deaths related to gun shootings on campus has gone up. We can’t really argue that these policy previsions or security features are effective in lowering those rates of injury and death.”

The Uvalde school district is a tragic example of a failed security plan that included a police force, threat-assessment teams, perimeter fencing, and staff training. Over the past two years, budget records show that the school system’s spending on security doubled. But breaking protocol can undermine expensive measures, from a friendly stranger getting past a security system to a school-district police chief reportedly failing to bring a radio to the scene of an active shooter.

Limited expansion of background checks.

The National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which passed Congress in 1993, is now woefully insufficient. Predating the widespread use of internet shopping by well over a decade, background checks are not required for online purchases on websites like Armslist. One investigation by Everytown for Gun Safety found that as many as one in nine people purchasing a gun on Armslist is not legally allowed to own firearms. Nor are private sellers required to conduct background checks at gun shows. According to the nonprofit Brady organization, one in five guns in the United States is purchased without a background check. In 2019, after failing a background check at a firearms dealer, the shooter in a West Texas rampage killed seven people with a gun he had purchased online without a background check.

It’s unclear at this point what form of background checks the Senate is considering, though the presence of Republican Pat Toomey and Democrat Joe Manchin at the negotiating table suggests it could bear some resemblance to the 2013 effort from the two senators. That bill demanded background checks at gun shows and for online sales but did not require them when family and friends sold or gave one another firearms. The amendment gathered four Republican votes despite Mitch McConnell whipping against it, but it ultimately failed. Expanded background checks have been a goal of reform-minded legislators for many years, and though the new bill will presumably have the support of the Republican senators in the talks — Toomey, Susan Collins, Bill Cassidy, and John Cornyn — it needs six more votes from a party devoted to the status quo. As the most ambitious measure reportedly considered in the bill, it is also the first on the chopping block.

Even if the policy makes it to the Senate floor, expanded background checks at the state level don’t necessarily equate to lower homicide rates, according to Webster. “We do see filling that gap does significantly reduce gun trafficking,” he says, noting that all background-check systems are not created equal. “What we find is when you couple comprehensive background checks with a licensing system is where you tend to see beneficial effects. Or in some cases you see beneficial effects when adding a waiting period to the background-check process. The long story short is that just doing the background check by itself only takes you so far.”

What the Senate Gun Bill Could Actually Do