What can be done to address gun violence in America? A lot, actually.

What can be done to address gun violence in America? 

American gun violence is complicated. While there is no one single law that will forever end it, there are many evidenced-based policies that can reduce the number of people, including children, shot and killed every year in mass shootings, homicides, domestic violence shootings, firearm suicides, and unintentional shootings.

Here are some:

Expand background checks – Although licensed dealers are legally required to conduct background checks on firearm purchasers, private sellers are not.  Private sellers include people who sell guns via online gun exchanges like Armslist (which operates like a Craig’s list for firearms and accessories.) Although most gun show vendors are licensed dealers that require background checks, there are also private sellers selling guns at gun shows without background checks.  I know this because I bought a gun from one of them at the Nashville gun show.  No ID required.  No way to know whether or not I was a felon, under an order of protection, or adjudicated by a court as being “mentally defective.”  We know that criminals and gang members are known to buy guns at gun shows. Background checks expansion is favored by around 94-96% of Americans and around 83-84% of Tennesseans.  Law enforcement supports expanding background checks as well.

Gun violence restraining orders/emergency risk protection orders – These would allow an immediate family member or member of law enforcement who believe a person is an imminent risk to themselves or others to petition a judge to have that person’s firearms temporarily removed from their possession and to temporarily put them on on a prohibited purchasers list.  Several states have enacted these laws in the last few years and they’re supported by the American Bar Association. As it stands now in most states, if you believe your loved one may be a danger to themselves or to the public, there is no legal mechanism in place to intervene and remove their guns. 

Raising the age to purchase a rifle – In most states, including Tennessee, you only have to be 18-years-old to purchase a long gun – shotgun, hunting rifles, and military-style rifles – including those with high capacity magazines.  If you’re too young to legally purchase a beer, you’re too young to legally purchase an AR -15.

Ban “assault rifles” – Most gun violence in this country is perpetrated with handguns.  However, most all major mass shootings are perpetrated with semi-automatic military-style assault rifles equipped with high capacity magazines.  The only key difference between these rifles and the fully-automatic type carried by soldiers is the way the trigger is pulled.  These weapons are designed for one thing – killing as many humans as possible as quickly as possible.

Limit magazine capacity size – A magazine is the ammunition storage and feeding device within or attached to a repeating firearm.  The now-expired Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 included limits regarding magazines that could hold more than ten rounds.  The Sandy Hook shooter used 30-round magazines to murder 20 first graders and 6 teachers.  In the Tucson shooting that injured Rep. Gabby Giffords, the shooter emptied a 33-round magazine in half a minute, killing 6 and injuring 13. Inside the Aurora movie theater, the shooter used 40- and 100-round magazines to injure and kill 70 victims.

Require gun stores and pawn shops to take measures to prevent theft – “Smash and grab”  gun thefts from licensed dealers (gun stores and pawn shops) are on the rise nationally and in Tennessee.  In Tennessee, and many other states, licensed dealers are not required to take reasonable measures to prevent gun theft, such as locking up inventory at night or having bars on windows and doors.  In the last twelve months, over 350 guns have been stolen from licensed dealers in Tennessee.  Those guns end up being sold on the street and used to commit crimes.  Many in end up in the hands of young people.  Our state’s firearm preemption laws prevent cities from enacting ordinances to require dealers, even those that are repeatedly broken into, from taking preventative measures.

Require stolen guns to be reported – many states, including Tennessee, do not require gun owners to alert law enforcement if their firearm is lost or stolen.  Authorities should be notified that a stolen gun is on the street.  Any reported number of stolen guns in Tennessee is an undercount and reflects only those where the gun owner reported the gun stolen.

Require guns to be safely stored, at home and in vehicles – Safe storage of guns, secured in a safe or with a trigger lock, not only prevents unintentional shootings involving kids, it can also prevent gun theft and it can prevent teens and tweens from using them to take their own lives.  Suicides in Tennessee in the 10-19 age group are on the rise.  Many use their parents guns.  Keeping guns locked and secured also prevents kids from taking guns to school.  Many school shooters use guns from home, guns (and ammunition) they have easy and unfettered access to.

Pass “MaKayla’s LawMaKayla’s Law is named after an 8-year-old little girl who was fatally shot by an 11-year-old boy when she refused to let him play with her puppy.  The boy used his father’s loaded, unsecured shotgun to shoot MaKayla from a window of his family’s trailer.  The boy was convicted of murder.  His father was not charged with any crime.  MaKayla’s Law would hold adult gun owners responsible if their choice to not secure their firearm results in a child accessing the gun, firing it, and injuring or killing themselves or another person.  The NRA has prevented the laws passage during both the 2016 and 2017 legislative session. Tennessee led the entire nation in children injured and killed due to negligent firearm storage last year – 31 total shootings resulting in 13 deaths, double the number of deaths from the previous year.

Improve firearm dispossession procedure – Domestic abusers and those under orders of protection are prohibited from possessing firearms.  They are instructed by a judge to dispossess their guns (sell their guns or give them to someone).  However, there is no mechanism in place to ensure that the offender complies.  In other words, we tell a domestic abuser that he must give away his guns, he says he will and we just take his word for it.  According to most recent data, Tennessee is fourth in the nation for women murdered by men. Most are killed with firearms.  And most all of them are murdered by a man they know, generally a current or former intimate partner.

Address preemption lawsOur state has very strong firearm preemption laws. State preemption statutes prevent local governments from implementing customized solutions to gun violence in their communities. By mandating a “one-size-fits-all” approach to firearms regulation, preemption statutes strip control over these public safety issues from local authorities – city councils, mayors, and local law enforcement – who best understand their communities.  Clearly, a large city like Memphis or Nashville may need to approach gun violence differently than a small, rural town.

Repeal the ban on federal funding of gun violence research in 1996, an NRA-written policy known as the “Dickey Amendment” was enacted that mandated that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”  The result of this action is that there is no federally funded research being done on gun violence or gun violence prevention, despite the high rate of gun violence in our nation.  After his retirement and prior to his death, Jay Dickey, the Congressman behind the amendment, had a change of heart and regretted the freeze on funding and worked to overturn the ban.  However, the ban remains in place.  All research done on gun violence and gun violence prevention comes from foundations and the dedication of those researchers who are passionate about better understanding the issue.

Ban bumpstocks – While they have only been associated with one mass shooting, the Las Vegas shooting that occurred in October was the largest mass shooting in our nation’s history.  Armed with multiple military-style assault rifles, high capacity magazines, and bump stock devices, a single man was able to kill 58 people and injure 851.  Just re-iterating those numbers – 58 people were killed and 851 were injured – all in a matter of minutes.  There is no reason that anyone needs a device that simulates automatic gunfire.  Senator Lee Harris and Representative Dwayne Thompson have filed a bill in Tennessee to prohibit these.  The legislature should pass it.


Demand that lawmakers consider the unintended consequences of the laws they pass – In 2014, Tennessee legislators passed “guns in trunks” a law to allow individuals to keep guns their vehicles, even on private property (including employers) even if the employer is posted as prohibiting firearms. The bill was opposed by the business community, but passed because the NRA supported it.  Since that time, gun thefts out of vehicles have skyrocketed. In Memphis, in the year prior to “guns in trunks” taking effect, there were 378 guns stolen from cars.  In 2016, two years later, there were 851 guns stolen from cars.  Those guns end up on the street being used to commit crimes.  The Memphis Police Director has repeatedly blamed passage of this law for the increase in gun thefts.  Memphis broke a homicide record in 2016.

Reject the strawman argument that anyone calling for gun law reform or policy changes wants to take away everyone’s guns or repeal the second amendment – There are many responsible gun owners that support common sense gun laws. No legitimate gun violence prevention organization, the large national ones or the smaller grassroots groups, are calling for guns to be confiscated from law abiding gun owners or for a repeal of the second amendment. The “strawman strategy” is a technique to undermine an argument that you have no response to and to sow division.  Don’t fall for it and call it out when you see it.

Understand what the Second Amendment means and the Supreme Court’s interpretation of it – Study the Heller decision, the monumental Supreme Court decision that interpreted the amendment that established a new individual right to “keep and bear arms”.  However, the 5-4 decision, penned by Justice Antonin Scalia, also makes clear that the right is not unlimited, and should not be understood as “a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” The Court provides examples of gun laws that it deems “presumptively lawful” under the Second Amendment, including those which: prohibit the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, forbid firearm possession in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, and impose conditions on the commercial sale of firearms.  The Court makes clear that this list is not exhaustive and also concludes that the Second Amendment is consistent with laws banning “dangerous and unusual weapons” not “in common use at the time.”

Call out the “But what about Chicago?” argument – It is an undisputed fact that gun violence is a serious problem in the Windy City.  Every year, hundreds of people are killed in Chicago.  It’s also true that Illinois has strong good laws and the city of Chicago does as well.  However, Chicago’s gun death rate is not the highest in the nation.  In fact, it’s gun death rate is lower than that of many other cities, including Memphis.  (Click here for an informative chart and click here for more informative charts.) And according to CDC Fatal-injury reports, nationally, Illinois’ gun death rate in 2016 (violence-related gun death) was ranked 37th.  Tennessee’s was 13th.  Chicago is also about an hour’s drive from Indiana, a state with very lax gun laws.  On the other hand, Hawaii – a state with very good gun laws and whose geography greatly limits trafficking, is consistently ranked 49th or 50th for gun deaths.

Reject the “mental health” pivot – While some mass shooters are obviously disturbed, most are not under the care of mental health professionals.  In fact, statistically mentally ill individuals are far more likely to be the victim of violence that they are to perpetrate it.  Mental illness is not a predictor of violence.  Better predictors of violence are factors such as a history of violence, anger management issues, substance abuse.  Simply put, being an angry volatile person, is not a mental illness. However, policies like gun violence restraining orders can allow someone close to an angry, volatile person with guns to intervene and prevent a tragedy.  As a country, we absolutely should focus on better funding for mental health.  No one should oppose that.  But, don’t let politicians and policy makers get away with blaming our country’s gun violence problem on mental illness.  Our country is hardly the only developed nation with mental health issues.  But, we are the only one with epidemic gun violence. 

Understand that a higher number of firearm laws in a state are associated with a lower rate of firearm fatalities in a state, overall and for suicides and homicides individually  This statement is not an opinion, it’s based on peer-reviewed academic research published in journals such as The Lancet and the Journal of the American Medical Association.  Also, understand that right to carry laws are associated higher aggregate crime rates and that making it easy for people to obtain gun permits is associated with higher homicide rates.

Reject the NRA mantra: “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” – In the chaos of the Parkland, Florida shooting, as the shooters smoke bombs filled the hallway and kids were running down the hallways, terrified and screaming, does anyone really believe that a teacher armed with a handgun would be able to compose him or herself, draw their weapon, and take out the shooter? The shooter who was armed with a AR-15. Or at the Pulse nightclub, as music blared in a darkened club, and the shooter, again armed with a high capacity, assault rifle, opened fire, could one of the club goers really be expected to pull out their pistol and successfully take out the shooter with the precision of a sniper?  Lawmakers who offer the “the answer to gun violence is arming more people” should be asked to participate in a law enforcement simulator. It’s easy to go to a firing range and practice.  But, an active shooter situation is a completely different scenario.  And no matter what, the shooter will always have the benefit of the element of surprise.  This is not just the opinion of gun violence prevention advocates, it’s also the opinion of trained infantrymen and has been studied.

Most importantly, when people – especially politicians – say there’s nothing we can do to address gun violence, they are saying they don’t want to do anything. If you are sick of shooting after shooting and hollow condolences, hold politicians accountable.  Seek out candidates who will have the courage to stand up to the NRA and support common sense gun reforms.  If you are sick and tired, tell every single politician asking for your vote – I WILL NOT VOTE FOR YOU UNLESS YOU WILL REFORM OUR GUN LAWS.

As President Obama said, “We know we can’t stop every act of violence, every act of evil in the world. But maybe we could try to stop one act of evil, one act of violence.”  We can’t stop all gun violence, but we can stop some. And that’s something.

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