The nation is reeling yet again from another horrific tragedy: Days after a mass shooting at a Buffalo, N.Y., supermarket left 10 people dead, a teenage gunman slaughtered 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, 80 miles west of San Antonio.
In a prime time address from the White House Tuesday, President Biden mourned the staggering loss of life before asking when the country will take action to stem the tide of gun violence.
“I had hoped, when I became president, I would not have to do this again. Another massacre. Uvalde, Texas. An elementary school,” Biden said, lamenting the “beautiful, innocent” lives taken before he asked, “When in God’s name do we do what we all know in our gut needs to be done?”
What measures could be taken to curb the scourge of gun violence in America — and why has so little changed despite the continued onslaught of mass shootings? Here are four steps federal and state leaders could take now.
Closing federal loopholes and expanding background checks
In March 2021, House Democrats passed two bills aimed at strengthening gun control laws: H.R. 8 would expand background checks for almost all gun sales, including online and gun show transactions between private buyers and sellers, with limited exceptions for family and temporary transfers.
The second bill, H.R. 1446, would close what’s known as the “Charleston loophole,” which allowed white supremacist Dylann Roof to legally purchase a handgun before murdering nine Black parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015.
Roof should have been prohibited from legally purchasing a firearm due to a previous drug arrest, but the sale moved forward by default because his federal background check took longer than three days to complete. H.R. 1446 would increase the period of time in which a licensed gun dealer must wait for a completed background check from three business days to a minimum of 10.
Both measures passed in the House, along party lines, with some Republican support. But the bills have yet to be taken up on the floor of the 50-50 Senate, where 60 votes are needed to break a filibuster. Unless all Democrats, including West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, agree to eliminate the filibuster — or more Republicans vote to support the bills — no new federal gun legislation will head to President Biden’s desk.
Renewing the assault weapons ban
In 1994, former President Bill Clinton signed a federal assault weapons ban, which prohibited the sale and manufacture of certain semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity magazines. The bill was passed in the wake of several mass shootings, including the 1989 shooting at a Stockton, Calif. elementary school, in a which a gunman, armed with a semiautomatic rifle, killed five children and wounded dozens more.
The ban was passed with a sunset provision and automatically expired in 2004. The law has never been restored, despite attempts by Democrats to reinstate it. After the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, California Senator Dianne Feinstein, the original architect of the 1994 bill, introduced a similar ban, but it failed on a 40-60 vote, with opposition from several Democrats and the Republican minority.
There is mixed evidence, however, on the effectiveness of such bans. A 2020 analysis of assault weapon bans by the RAND corporation, a public policy nonprofit, notes the majority of gun crimes are committed with handguns, not rifles that would fall under such bans.
While semiautomatic rifles, such as AR-15s, are used disproportionately in mass shootings, it’s unclear, according to RAND, whether barring these firearms would reduce the frequency of these tragedies or the number of victims targeted.
“Overall, the effects of these policies will depend largely on the design and implementation of the law,” RAND noted. The 1994 ban, for example, contained loopholes for guns made and owned prior to the ban, and was easily evaded by gun manufacturers by modifying previously legal firearms with cosmetic changes.
Nevertheless, restricting large-capacity magazines could potentially reduce mass shooting deaths by 11 to 15 percent, and nonfatal injuries by one quarter, according a research review published in 2020 by George Mason University criminologist Christopher S. Koper.
“Restrictions on large-capacity magazines are the most important provisions of assault weapons laws,” Koper argued, " in part because they can produce broader reductions in the overall use of high-capacity semiautomatics that facilitate high-volume gunfire attacks.”
Adopting red-flag laws
Nineteen states, including Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia have implemented “red-flag” laws, or extreme risk protection orders. Depending on the state, these laws allow police officers, family, or friends to petition the courts to temporarily confiscate firearms from people who are deemed a danger to themselves or others, or prevent them from purchasing new ones.
Most of these red-flag laws were passed after the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in a which a 19-year-old gunman with a history of making threats killed 17 people with a legally purchased firearm. Florida’s red-flag law was invoked more than 3,500 times from March 2018, when it was enacted, through end of 2019, according to the Associated Press.
But red-flag laws are not applied consistently: The white man accused of killing 10 Black shoppers and workers at a Buffalo grocery store this month legally purchased a semiautomatic rifle when he turned 18, despite making threats in the past about wanting to commit a murder-suicide. The gunman, 17 at the time he made the threats, was taken briefly into custody and investigated by law enforcement. But police did not seek an extreme risk protection order that could have barred him from possessing firearms.
The National Rife Association and many conservatives are opposed to red-flag laws, arguing that they infringe upon the Second Amendment rights of the accused without due process.
Pushing for more executive action
President Biden has issued several executive orders aimed at reducing gun violence, including a crackdown on untraceable “ghost guns” assembled from parts online. Biden’s Department of Justice has also launched five gun-trafficking “strike forces” to curb the supply of illegal firearms, and secured $50 million in Congressional funding for community violence intervention and prevention initiatives.
The Biden administration has also drafted model legislation that states can use to write their own red-flag laws.
Biden, however, has argued that his presidential powers are limited, and only Congress can enact meaningful reform.
Gun safety advocates, meanwhile, remain disappointed by the pace of change. According to Politico, a letter sent last week to Biden and Congressional leadership, signed by nearly 40 gun safety advocacy groups, urged the president to create a White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention, among other measures.
“With voters expressing concern about public safety and rising crime, you have a moral and political responsibility to fight for the safer future you promise Americans on the campaign trail every election season,” the letter said.