Maybe the American experience with gun violence doesn’t have to follow a dispiriting, predictable cycle after all.
The cycle itself runs like this: a terrible mass shooting shocks the nation. Outrage ensues. Gun control advocates vow that this time they’ll get legislation through Congress. Then, due to the political power of the gun lobby and the cohesiveness of gun owners, nothing happens. The experience divides voters and leaves many deflated and angry.
But observers note there are things the United States can do to try and reduce its scourge of gun violence that don’t depend on polarized national politics. They range from state efforts to take guns from domestic abusers to intensive intervention with urban gangs. Many are ongoing today across the land.
Other issues as models
The US can reduce shootings as it reduced teenage driving fatalities, says Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore. A multi-faceted approach – a higher drinking age, increased license standards, stiffer penalties for intoxication – has lowered a teen’s chance of dying in a car crash by 69 percent since 1978, he says. A combination of limited efforts might have the same effect with guns.
In 2014 Dr. Webster predicted that the US could see a 30 to 50 percent reduction in its gun murder rate over time. He’s no longer that optimistic, due largely to the changing landscape of American politics. But he still has hope.
“I do sense changes in the conversation, changes in the manner [the US deals with guns] I hoped for and cautiously predicted,” Webster says in an interview.
More gun owners are stepping forward to say the National Rifle Association does not speak for them, according to Webster. That is important because any comprehensive approach to controlling gun violence will need to include them, given the national split on the issue and the deep urban/rural, red/blue US political divide.
“Whenever I talk to groups advocating stronger gun laws, I say you are not going to reach your goals without including gun owners,” says Webster.
States take action
Meanwhile, some states are taking action where Washington isn’t. The move to limit gun access for domestic abusers is a case in point. Since 2013, 22 states have passed laws expanding on existing federal curbs on this issue, according to figures compiled by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a gun-control group formed after the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012.
In some cases these laws require those convicted of domestic abuse to turn in guns and ammunition to law enforcement. (Enforcement remains a difficult issue.) Others expand the definition of who qualifies as a “domestic abuser” and require inclusion of this status in databases used to check eligibility for gun purchases.
Mass shootings involving domestic partners can be deadly. In many such incidents, an angry male storms into a wife or girlfriend’s workplace and attacks her and co-workers. A New York Times analysis of mass shootings in 2015 found that 31 percent of fatalities occurred in connection with domestic partner violence.
Rhode Island is the most recent state to move a domestic abuser gun bill. The Protect Rhode Island Families Act, signed into law by Gov. Gina Raimondo last week, prohibits gun possession by those subject to restraining orders as well as people convicted of misdemeanor cyberstalking.
“The interesting thing is that these changes in policy are really across the board in blue, purple, and red states,” says Webster of Johns Hopkins. “That’s encouraging.”
Big reductions in US gun violence, however, will require attacking a larger and more complex problem: urban gang shootings.
While the current rate of firearm violence is still far lower than the peak of the early 1990s, at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic, battles over turf and drug profits in cities such as Chicago have helped push the US rate of gun killings up 32 percent between 2014 and 2016.
Yet there are some proven ways to address gangs and guns, say experts. In particular, there are two models, one dubbed “Focused Deterrence” and another “Cure Violence,” which aim to contain and stop gun violence by dealing directly with those at most risk – the gang members themselves.
The “Cure Violence” method is now in use in about 25 US cities, said Caterina Roman, an associate professor of criminology at Temple University and a leading expert on gangs and guns, at an October seminar hosted by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. It involves hiring outreach workers – former gang members, former prisoners, or others who know the streets – to meet and mentor younger gang members. The outreach workers try to stop the cycle of shootings and retaliations by helping to settle disputes and weaning away weakly committed gang youths. They offer social services and use unconventional means, such as turning off illegal electricity hook-ups, to tweak or get the attention of at-risk youths.
“Cure Violence is aimed at changing norms, attacking the code of the street, changing roles and behaviors with former gang members working to model new behavior,” said Dr. Roman.
“Focused Deterrence” involves faster, direct law enforcement intervention. After shootings, possible retaliators are identified and called in for meetings at which police say all means will be used to stop escalatory killings. The point is to treat gun shootings as infections that must be contained and cured.
“You get quick wins. A lot of that may come from removing individuals from the street,” said Roman.
Both approaches have showed some promising success, though neither is a panacea. The big problem might be scaling up – expanding these pilot approaches into larger efforts that can make a dent in overall US gun violence statistics.
Possible national changes
As for more traditional national gun control efforts, it appears possible that in the wake of the Las Vegas shootings Congress may act on some sort of ban on bump stocks, the device used by shooter Stephen Paddock that turned his semi-automatic rifles into fully automatic, faux machine guns.
Both Democrats and some Republicans have seemed open to new controls on the devices. The NRA, however, now says it opposes a legislated ban, and favors more limited regulations that may remove bump stocks from the market.
It’s unlikely that Congress will consider expanding requirements for background checks on gun purchases to private sellers, as President Barack Obama tried, and failed, to do in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy. Background checks, an assault weapons ban, and other big moves seem off the table in the Trump era, says Kristin Anne Goss, an associate professor of public policy at Duke University in Durham, N.C., and author of “Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America.”
Today’s gun violence prevention movement is composed of many more groups than the gun control lobby of the past, says Dr. Goss. It has more money – Michael Bloomberg, wealthy ex-mayor of New York City, is a big benefactor. Parents of Sandy Hook victims and others with personal connections to gun violence are newly prominent spokespeople.
This more diverse movement is in part the driving force behind the decentralized, state-level approach to gun prevention, she says. At the same time, the issue of guns remains a good window through which to look at and understand US politics at large. Ideas about guns have long been polarized; other issues are now heading in the same direction.
“Partisan sorting, the fact of politics being deeply about identity, the urban/rural divide – all of these things have been present in the gun debate for decades,” she says.