After years in which massacre after massacre has been met with congressional indifference and inaction, the past few weeks have been a welcome change.
Senate Democrats, led by Chris Murphy, launched a filibuster that forced a Republican-run Senate to vote on gun control measures, against all odds. Even after those votes failed, House Democrats staged a sit-in, a largely unprecedented tactic in legislative bodies, putting pressure on congressional Republicans in that body.
Symbolism is important, and the image of members of Congress refusing to do nothing in the face of the Orlando shootings is powerful, especially to LGBTQ Americans who have repeatedly been given the message by policymakers that their lives don’t matter. We should never denigrate the importance of that validation.
But there’s something dishonest about the way the response is being framed. Congressional Democrats want to spread the message that they are actually doing something that will put a dent in gun deaths in America, unlike Republicans. They actually are willing to do what’s necessary.
This is wrong. No one is willing to do what’s necessary. An actual plan to bring US gun violence down to European levels would involve the large-scale confiscation of millions of guns. It would require actions that are dramatic and hugely unpopular. Now, let’s not make false equivalences: Democrats are definitely willing to do more than Republicans are to reduce gun deaths.
But let’s not kid ourselves either. Nothing being brought to a vote in the House or Senate will solve our gun violence problem. At best, they’ll save a handful of lives each year. At worst, they won’t fix anything at all and could exacerbate problems with racial profiling and surveillance.
Banning terrorists from buying guns is a joke policy that applies to a tiny handful of people
Democrats have been pushing for two changes: requiring background checks for all gun sales, including ones with private sellers and at gun shows; and letting the Department of Justice block gun sales to suspected terrorists.
The latter has become the rallying cry of the event, with many Democratic House members employing the hashtag #NoFlyNoBuy:
As my colleagues Dara Lind and Jeff Stein explain, banning no-fly list members from buying guns is not actually what the bill does. Rather, Sen. Dianne Feinstein's (D-CA) amendment would expand the number of people whose gun purchases result in notifications to the FBI; and it would allow the Department of Justice to block people from buying guns if they have a "reasonable suspicion" that they represent a "threat to public safety."
We have no idea how the Department of Justice would use this power. In a Republican administration you could imagine the attorney general deciding not to block any gun purchases on these grounds. But even if DOJ chose to block every "known or suspected terrorist" in the Terrorist Screening Database, that'd apply to a very small number of people. "This list is reported to have included around 800,000 names as of September 2014," FiveThirtyEight’s Andrew Flowers notes, "of which only a tiny fraction (perhaps a few thousand) are American citizens."
How many try to buy guns? Well, last year about 244 tried to, and 223 were approved. By contrast, the FBI processed more than 23 million background checks last year. The 244 from suspected terrorists represent about 0.001 percent of the total. Even accounting for the fact that people on the watch list might be more inclined to use their weapons for nefarious purposes, there’s just no way that that will make a dent in the firearm homicide or suicide rates.
And that’s leaving aside the fact that Democrats’ proposal lacks basic due process protections, and would give the Justice Department a power that would probably be disproportionately applied to Muslims. Even if you don’t like anybody owning guns, the idea of restricting access beyond the norm for a particular religious minority is ugly.
Background checks work, but they’re nowhere near enough
What about background checks? Those might actually make a dent. Preliminary research from the Harvard School of Public Health indicates that about 40 percent of guns are purchased without a background check; the "gun show loophole" is very large indeed. And the evidence does suggest that background checks can save lives.
But the effects are not large enough to solve the problem. Take the example of Connecticut, the home state of Senate Democrats’ lead gun filibusterer, Chris Murphy. In 1995, the state enacted a comprehensive law requiring licensing for all handgun purchasers; to get a license you needed to pass a background check. Studies by Johns Hopkins's Daniel Webster and colleagues in 2015 found that the law reduced firearm homicides by 40 percent and firearm suicides by 15.4 percent.
That’s impressive, but becomes less so when you remember that there are twice as many firearm suicides as homicides. If a national background check law had the same effect, you’d expect to have saved about 7,744 lives in 2013. That's big, no doubt, but it would still leave the US with a huge gun violence problem relative to every other rich country.
The overall reduction in gun death implied by the Connecticut figures suggests that US gun death rate would from 10.54 per 100,000 (in 2014, the last year with numbers) to roughly 8.1 per 100,000. By contrast, the most recent gun death rate on record for France is 2.83 per 100,000; in Canada it's about 2 per 100,000; in the UK, it's 0.23 per 100,000.
And again, this is assuming that universal background checks would save as many lives as the Connecticut law. There are a lot of reasons to be skeptical that’s true. For one thing, a number of states have restrictive gun laws already, including large ones like California and New York. One wouldn’t expect gun deaths to fall in those states as a result.
What’s more, Connecticut’s is a licensing law, whereas Senate Democrats are only proposing universal background checks. As Webster told NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben, being required to get a permit from law enforcement might be a bigger deterrent to straw purchases (buying guns expressly to give to people who can't buy them legally) than being required to get a scan from a friendly gun store clerk.
So I’d actually expect universal national background checks to prevent substantially fewer than 23 percent of gun deaths per year. It’s a good policy, unlike the #NoFlyNoBuy plan, but it’s nowhere near enough.
What would be enough? Taking the guns away.
So what’s actually up to the task of getting US gun deaths down to European levels? There are some options — but Senate and House Democrats aren’t going to like them.
Option number one is all-out gun confiscation, Australia-style. After a 1996 mass shooting, Australia seized about 20 percent of its guns and banned semiautomatic and automatic rifles and shotguns. The canonical study on the law, by Andrew Leigh of Australian National University and Christine Neill of Wilfrid Laurier University, found that it led to a 74 percent statistically significant decline in firearm suicides and a 35 to 50 percent decline in gun homicides (albeit not a statistically significant one).
Taking the lower-bound estimate for homicide, that would translate into 19,592 lives saved in 2013 from reduced homicides and suicides. That starts to get the US in the ballpark of our rich country peers.
This would probably be constitutional, law professors Adam Winkler (UCLA) and Sanford Levinson (UT Austin) have said. But it’d be a huge, huge political lift, and no one in the Democratic Party is calling for anything remotely like it.
And it really does seem like confiscation would be necessary. The most influential study of DC’s now-defunct handgun ban found that it coincided with declines in age-adjusted suicide and homicide rates in the range of 15 to 20 percent. That’s good — but the Australian experience suggests the fact that DC merely made existing handgun owners re-register, rather than confiscate their weapons, limited the ban’s effectiveness.
Perhaps the best evidence for the idea that confiscation is important is the fact that there is a strong correlation between levels of gun ownership and suicide/homicide rates. States with more guns have more suicides and more homicides — even if you take non-gun homicides and suicides into account. In fact, gun ownership is the main reason for variation between states in suicide rates. Countries with more guns have more homicides. Americans who die by suicide are more likely to live in households with guns than Americans who don’t.
It’s therefore pretty intuitive to conclude that reducing the level of gun ownership is the best way to reduce gun deaths. The most effective version of that is confiscation. You could imagine less dramatic measures, like taxes on gun manufacturers and gun purchases, or ongoing voluntary buyback programs paying above-market rates. But you have to be talking about taking the guns away.