clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Trump’s compromises on guns, explained

Trump didn’t mention gun control in his initial response to the Florida shooting. But he’s come around to limited policies.

President Donald Trump. Alex Wong/Getty Images

The day after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, President Donald Trump wouldn’t even acknowledge gun control — leaving the topic out of his speech responding to the shooting, which killed 17 people, altogether.

More than a week after the shooting, though, Trump seems to have come around to some action on guns. Based on recent comments by Trump and the White House, he now backs three specific policies:

  1. The White House last week said that Trump supports the Fix NICS Act, although potentially with some tweaks to the measure’s language. The bill, which has so far stalled in Congress, pushes federal agencies to better report criminal records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) with the threat of financial penalties, and encourages states to do the same with financial incentives.
  2. Trump on Tuesday signed a memo directing the attorney general to propose regulations that “ban all devices that turn legal weapons into machine guns,” like the bump stocks a gunman used to kill 58 people and injure hundreds more in Las Vegas in 2017.
  3. Trump also supports raising the minimum age for buying assault weapons from 18 to 21.

On Wednesday, Trump reiterated his support for these policies, tweeting, “Congress is in a mood to finally do something on this issue - I hope!”

The measures are improvements on current gun control laws, but they’re also fairly mild. Two focus more on enforcing existing law, or at least the spirit of existing law, rather than imposing brand new restrictions on firearms. The third imposes a narrow restriction only for people who are 18 to 20 years old. So these policies could have possibly averted some tragedies, or potentially made them less deadly, but it’s not clear if they’ll do anything to significantly reduce gun violence in the US.

That’s in large part because America has such a big gun problem that milder measures can only go so far. To seriously confront its extraordinary levels of gun violence, the research suggests that America will need to do something to reduce the number of guns in circulation right now — as other countries have done in response to mass shootings. So measures that better enforce current gun laws or slightly improve them, while welcome, simply won’t come close to addressing the full scope of the issue.

In the US, an 18-year-old can buy an assault weapon

Each of the measures Trump supports first came in response to a specific mass shooting.

The proposed age restriction on buying assault weapons, for example, would’ve stopped the shooter in Florida from legally purchasing an AR-15–style rifle. Even if that led him to try to buy the gun illegally, black market guns can be much more expensivehundreds or even thousands of dollars more — which may have put the gun out of a 19-year-old’s budget. And if he opted to legally buy another kind of gun instead, that may have forced him to buy a weapon that’s less deadly.

Under federal law, licensed dealers may not sell a handgun to anyone below the age of 21, according to the Giffords Law Center, which advocates for gun control. But the limit is only 18 for these same licensed dealers when it comes to long guns (shotguns and rifles, including assault weapons).

Notably, these federal requirements do not apply to private, unlicensed sales — think, for example, someone selling firearms one-on-one online or at a gun show. In these cases, the minimum age for handguns is typically 18, but there’s no minimum age for long guns. It’s unclear if a new law raising the minimum age on assault weapons would address this gap.

Some states impose tougher age requirements. Florida technically does, since it requires a minimum age of 18 for all long gun sales, even for those who aren’t licensed dealers. But its law still lets people as young as 18 legally buy an AR-15–style weapon.

Raising the age is a fairly straightforward way to limit access to guns, but it’s unclear just how much of an impact this would have on overall gun violence. A broader ban on assault weapons, which was in place from 1994 to 2004, did not, based on a review of the evidence, reduce the number of gun crimes in its time (in large part due to loopholes in the law), although the researchers cautioned that it may have made shootings less lethal if it had remained in place for longer.

At the very least, a stricter age requirement would have prevented the Florida shooter from legally buying the gun that he used to kill 17 people.

Background checks in the US are underresourced

The Fix NICS Act, meanwhile, came in response to reports that the gunman in last year’s Sutherland Springs, Texas, shooting, which killed 26, had been able to obtain a firearm because the Air Force failed to send criminal records to the background check system that could have stopped him from obtaining a gun. As ProPublica reported last year, this has been a problem in the military for a long time — going back to a 2015 Pentagon report — but the issues have persisted.

In general, the federal background check system is also notoriously underresourced, allowing red flags to slip through.

For example, although there are no waiting periods under federal law, a check that turns out inconclusive can be extended for three business days for further investigation. But these three days are a maximum for the government — and sometimes, the three days lapse without the FBI completing its check, and a buyer can, at that point, purchase a gun without the completed check.

The FBI admitted that something like this happened for the shooter who killed nine people at a predominantly black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015: Roof should have failed a background check for a handgun purchase after admitting to illegally possessing controlled substances in the past, but the FBI examiner did not obtain the shooter’s record in time.

The Fix NICS Act wouldn’t fully address this problem, but it could help — by improving reporting to the background check system from both federal agencies and states. The question now is if Congress will pass the bill.

Meanwhile, Trump’s other proposals could make this particular problem worse. As ABC News reported, Trump’s 2019 budget would actually cut federal grants “that help states improve the completeness of the records they report to the federal database” from $73 million to $61 million.

Bump stocks flout the spirit of federal law

Trump’s effort to potentially ban bump stocks also comes in response to a mass shooting. Last year, the Las Vegas shooter used a modified gun to kill 58 others and injure hundreds more. He might still have carried out the shooting without bump stocks, but the devices at least made the shooting much deadlier — by turning his semiautomatic weapons into guns that closely simulated automatics.

Automatic weapons are what many Americans think of as machine guns. They can continuously fire off a stream of bullets by simply holding down the trigger — making them very deadly. Semiautomatic weapons, by contrast, fire a single bullet per trigger pull. The difference between an automatic and a semiautomatic effectively translates to firing hundreds of rounds a minute versus dozens or so in the same time frame.

Under federal law, fully automatic weapons are technically legal only if made before 1986, when Congress passed the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act. So it’s illegal to manufacture new automatic weapons for civilian use.

Bump stocks, which are legal, offer a way around that, as the Associated Press explained shortly after the Las Vegas shooting:

The device basically replaces the gun’s shoulder rest, with a “support step” that covers the trigger opening. By holding the pistol grip with one hand and pushing forward on the barrel with the other, the shooter’s finger comes in contact with the trigger. The recoil causes the gun to buck back and forth, “bumping” the trigger.

Technically, that means the finger is pulling the trigger for each round fired, keeping the weapon a legal semi-automatic.

There are other modifications that achieve a similar effect, including a crank that replaces the trigger and turns a gun into what a gun aficionado channel on YouTube called “a mini Gatling Gun.”

Trump’s memo calls on the Department of Justice to try to ban these devices.

There’s a big question, however, whether this would be possible. The Justice Department and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) already initiated the rule-making process for potentially banning bump stocks late last year. But they concluded at the time that federal law likely does not allow them to ban bump stocks and other similar devices by themselves — meaning they would likely need Congress to pass a new law to act.

If this holds up, Trump’s memo will essentially have no effect — since federal agencies simply won’t be able to ban bump stocks. Although Congress could still ban the devices through new legislation.

America needs to go much further than these few policies

Even if all of Trump’s efforts are successful — so the Fix NICS Act is enacted, bump stocks are banned, and the minimum age for assault weapons is increased — it’s unclear just how much of an effect this would all have, because these measures do little to quickly address the core problem behind US gun violence.

The US is unique in two key — and related — ways when it comes to guns: It has way more gun deaths than other developed nations, and it has far more guns than any other country in the world.

The US has nearly six times the gun homicide rate as Canada, more than seven times as Sweden, and nearly 16 times as Germany, according to UN data compiled by the Guardian. (These gun deaths are a big reason America has a much higher overall homicide rate, which includes non-gun deaths, than other developed nations.)

A chart shows America’s disproportionate levels of gun violence. Javier Zarracina/Vox

Mass shootings actually make up a small fraction of America’s gun deaths, constituting less than 2 percent of such deaths in 2013. But America does see a lot of these horrific events: According to CNN, “The US makes up less than 5% of the world’s population, but holds 31% of global mass shooters.”

The US also has by far the highest number of privately owned guns in the world. Estimated in 2007, the number of civilian-owned firearms in the US was 88.8 guns per 100 people, meaning there was almost one privately owned gun per American and more than one per American adult. The world’s second-ranked country was Yemen, a quasi-failed state torn by civil war, where there were 54.8 guns per 100 people.

Gun ownership by country.

Max Fisher/Washington Post

Another way of looking at that: Americans make up less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet own roughly 42 percent of all the world’s privately held firearms.

These two facts — on gun deaths and firearm ownership — are related. The research, compiled by the Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center, is pretty clear: After controlling for variables such as socioeconomic factors and other crime, places with more guns have more gun deaths.

“Within the United States, a wide array of empirical evidence indicates that more guns in a community leads to more homicide,” David Hemenway, the Injury Control Research Center’s director, wrote in Private Guns, Public Health.

This chart, from researcher Josh Tewksbury, shows the correlation between the number of guns and gun deaths among wealthier nations:

Josh Tewksbury

Guns are not the only contributor to violence. (Other factors include, for example, poverty, urbanization, and alcohol consumption.) But when researchers control for other confounding variables, they have found time and time again that America’s high levels of gun ownership are a major reason the US is so much worse in terms of gun violence than its developed peers.

This is in many ways intuitive: People of every country get into arguments and fights with friends, family, and peers. But in the US, it’s much more likely that someone will get angry at an argument and be able to pull out a gun and kill someone.

Gun control measures can help address this by reducing the amount of people who own guns, whether over time or immediately.

And the research supports gun control: A 2016 review of 130 studies in 10 countries, published in Epidemiologic Reviews, found that new legal restrictions on owning and purchasing guns tended to be followed by a drop in gun violence — a strong indicator that restricting access to guns can save lives.

But not all gun control is made equal. Consider the specifics of the US: If the key problem is that America has too many guns, then it needs to do something to reduce the number of guns in circulation quickly — something akin to Australia’s response to a mass shooting in the late 1990s, when the country passed sweeping restrictions on firearms and enacted what was effectively a gun confiscation program for certain types of weapons. That policy not only cut the amount of guns in circulation, but, based on the research, may have cut the firearm homicide and suicide rates too.

The policies Trump has backed wouldn’t achieve that. They could over time reduce the number of guns in circulation — by imposing barriers that future would-be buyers won’t be able to overcome — but they don’t do anything to immediately take guns out of circulation. In fact, this is typical in US policy responses to guns: After the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that killed 26, the bill Congress considered (but didn’t pass) would not have implemented even universal background checks, and it certainly wouldn’t have created a mandatory buyback program like Australia’s.

Now, some states have had success with smaller changes. Connecticut’s law requiring gun purchasers to first obtain a license, for example, was followed by a 40 percent drop in gun homicides and a 15 percent reduction in suicides. Similar results — in the reverse — were reported in Missouri when it repealed its own permit-to-purchase law. It’s difficult to separate these changes from long-term trends (especially since gun homicides have generally been on the decline for decades now), but at least some of them are likely linked to restrictions on guns — and that means these measures potentially saved lives.

But if America wants to get to the levels of gun deaths that its European peers report, it will likely need to go much further.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.