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Pittsburgh passes stricter gun laws — after state and federal governments wouldn’t

The city council acted in response to last year’s synagogue shooting.

A woman stands at a memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue after a shooting there in October 2018 killed 11 people.
A woman stands at a memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue after a shooting there in October 2018 killed 11 people.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

After the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooting last year in which an anti-Semitic shooter killed 11 people, Pennsylvania and Congress didn’t do anything to address gun control. So this week, Pittsburgh’s City Council did.

On Tuesday, the City Council passed three gun control bills in a 6-3 vote. The measures ban the use of some assault weapons as well as most uses of armor-piercing ammunition and high-capacity magazines, and let courts confiscate guns from people within city limits who are deemed an “extreme risk” to others or themselves.

Mayor Bill Peduto has promised to sign the bills.

“We have not been able to get any movement in Harrisburg and Washington, and the answer is just don’t do nothing,” Peduto said, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “We’ve seen what doing nothing has done. It has led to an escalation in severe mass murders. And we’re going to take action on a local level.”

The shooter used an AR-15, an assault rifle, and other weapons in the Pittsburgh shooting.

One sticking point: Pennsylvania law blocks cities from regulating guns. But Pittsburgh officials argue they’ve found a workaround by prohibiting the “use” of such weapons, not “possession.” Still, the National Rifle Association already promised to challenge at least one of the laws in court, with local activists planning legal action as well.

It’s unclear how effective Pittsburgh’s legislation will be. Assault weapon and high-capacity ammo bans don’t have strong evidence behind them for reducing gun deaths overall, although some experts argue that they could make mass shootings less deadly. Extreme risk laws, also known as red flag laws, do have some early evidence behind them, particularly in reducing suicides.

Even if the laws are effective, they’ll be limited by local boundaries. Across the US, that limitation has made it difficult for any city to act on its own in the face of gun violence. For example, strict gun laws in Chicago are stymied by the fact someone can simply cross the border to gun-friendly Indiana and buy a gun much more easily, often not even leaving a paper trail.

But as the federal and state governments fail to act on this issue, officials in Pittsburgh felt like they had no other option to address America’s unique gun violence problem. The US has higher levels of gun violence than any other developed nation, and it has the highest levels of civilian gun ownership in the world and the weakest gun laws in the developed world. The research indicates that these weak gun laws and high rates of firearm ownership help drive the nation’s greater levels of gun violence.

America’s gun problem, briefly explained

America’s gun problem comes down to two basic issues.

First, America has uniquely weak gun laws. Other developed nations at the very least require one or more background checks and almost always something more rigorous beyond that to get a gun, from specific training courses to rules for locking up firearms to more arduous licensing requirements to specific justifications, besides self-defense, for owning a gun.

In the US, even a background check isn’t a total requirement; the current federal law is riddled with loopholes and snared by poor enforcement, so there are many ways around even a basic background check. And if a state enacts stricter measures than federal laws, someone can simply cross state lines to buy guns in a jurisdiction with looser rules. There are simply very few barriers, if any, to getting a gun in the US.

Second, the US has a ton of guns. It has far more than not just other developed nations but any other country, period. Estimated for 2017, the number of civilian-owned firearms in the US was 120.5 guns per 100 residents, meaning there were more firearms than people. The world’s second-ranked country was Yemen, a quasi-failed state torn by civil war, where there were 52.8 guns per 100 residents, according to an analysis from the Small Arms Survey.

A chart showing civilian gun ownership rates by country. Small Arms Survey

Both of these factors come together to make it uniquely easy for someone with any violent intent to find a firearm, allowing them to carry out a horrific shooting.

This is borne out in the statistics. The US has nearly six times the gun homicide rate of Canada, more than seven times that of Sweden, and nearly 16 times that of Germany, according to United Nations data for 2012 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

The research, compiled by the Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center, is also pretty clear: After controlling for variables such as socioeconomic factors and other crime, places with more guns have more gun deaths. Researchers have found this to be true not just with homicides but also with suicides (which in recent years were around 60 percent of US gun deaths), domestic violence, violence against police, and mass shootings.

As a breakthrough analysis by UC Berkeley’s Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins in the 1990s found, it’s not even that the US has more crime than other developed countries. This chart, based on data from Jeffrey Swanson at Duke University, shows that the US is not an outlier when it comes to overall crime:

A chart showing crime rates among wealthy nations.

Instead, the US appears to have more lethal violence — and that’s driven in large part by the prevalence of guns.

“A series of specific comparisons of the death rates from property crime and assault in New York City and London show how enormous differences in death risk can be explained even while general patterns are similar,” Zimring and Hawkins wrote. “A preference for crimes of personal force and the willingness and ability to use guns in robbery make similar levels of property crime 54 times as deadly in New York City as in London.”

A chart showing homicides among wealthy nations.

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 during an argument and be able to pull out a gun and kill someone.

To put it another way, America does not have a monopoly on crime, mental health issues, bigots, extremists, or other factors commonly blamed for gun violence and mass shootings; what is unique about the US is that it makes it so easy for people with all sorts of motives to obtain a gun.

Researchers have found that stricter gun laws could help. 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. A review of the US evidence by RAND also linked some gun control measures, including background checks, to reduced injuries and deaths. A growing body of evidence from Johns Hopkins researchers also supports laws that require a license to buy and own guns.

That doesn’t mean that criminals, bigots, and extremists will never be able to carry out a shooting in places with strict gun laws. Even the strictest gun laws can’t prevent every shooting.

And guns are not the only contributor to violence. Other factors include, for example, poverty, urbanization, alcohol consumption, and the strength of criminal justice systems. But when researchers control for other confounding variables, they have found time and time again that America’s loose access to guns is a major reason the US is so much worse in terms of gun violence than its developed peers.

So America, with its lax laws and abundance of firearms, makes it uniquely easy for people to commit mass shootings. Until the US confronts that issue, it will continue to see more gun deaths than the rest of the developed world.

For more on America’s gun problem, read Vox’s explainer.

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