ON FEBRUARY 14, 2018, Nikolas Cruz opened fire at his former school in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 and injuring 14 others. This tragedy adds to the list of recent high-profile mass shootings, joining the ranks of Sutherland Springs (26 killed), Las Vegas (58 killed), and Orlando (49 killed). America has been home to five of the six deadliest mass shootings of the past six years; in each case, a semi-automatic AR-15 style rifle was the weapon of choice for the killer. Every successive shooting pushes gun-control groups' demands for increased regulations; many even advocate for an outright ban on guns. On the other hand, gun supporters defend their right to bear arms—a right enshrined in the Second Amendment. While a plethora of measures—from improving criminal and mental background checks to arming teachers—are proposed and discussed, tangible changes have yet to be seen.
In wake of the shooting
In the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, public uproar railing against gun violence has soared. The survivors of the attack and the families of the victims have gathered at massive anti-gun rallies, delivering impassioned speeches calling for bans on guns to be imposed. Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and any politicians directly or peripherally affiliated with the organization, notably President Trump, have been lambasted and condemned. A youth-led anti-gun movement, under the slogan of #NeverAgain, has organized massive walkouts from schools across the nation, gathering outside the U.S. Capitol to protest. The White House has even hosted some of these teens to discuss policy.
A few days after the shooting, news network CNN organized a nationally televised town hall, where relevant politicians and organizations joined school members and the local community in a politically-charged discussion. While President Trump and Florida Governor Rick Scott declined the invitation, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch chose to attend. Throughout the meeting, the audience applauded provocative statements, suggesting that gun supporters are “enablers of murder” with “blood on their hands.” Only a few days after the shooting, the platform provided the victims’ loved ones a public outlet to direct their emotions. Though their anger has not provided ground for a civil discussion, less talk and more action seem to be what the nation is clamoring for.
Both conservatives and liberals have rallied to the side of the affected youth, proposing vastly contrasting solutions. And while it’s unfortunate that these tragic events are exploited to make political capital, that has become inevitable. Herein we see a common sight: a politicized tragedy divides the nation and people take their respective positions, refusing to shift their stances. Yet is compromise possible, or even desired? How can sides with such different perceptions of the world ever agree on a meaningful solution?
Law and regulation
Let’s first examine America’s gun laws. The legal basis for gun possession is enshrined in the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, which states: *A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.* Though the amendment initially mentions a militia, several landmark cases have protected an individual’s right to possess and carry firearms within the latter half of the amendment. The nationwide age to legally purchase a shotgun or rifle is 18, while to purchase a handgun one must be 21. Because practically all automatic guns are illegal*, the majority of guns sold are semi-automatic handguns and rifles.
On a federal level, background checks are required of all persons buying a gun from a licensed provider. Each state has further enacted regulations and laws regarding who may own or possess firearms, with different states allowing for a varying degree of gun control severity. According to the *Giffords Law Center*, though more than 90% of the American public supports background checks for all gun sales, 33 states do not restrict private sellers. This secondary market of private sellers is commonly referred to as the “gun show loophole,” and the sellers are able to sell guns without conducting a background check or even verifying the buyer’s age. Harvard University estimated in a 2017 survey that over one in five gun transactions occur in a private sale, where only the seller’s discernment acts to guard against any possible dangerous dispositions of the buyer.
Specifically, in Florida, permits or licenses are not required to buy guns, nor is registering your firearm necessary. There is a three-day waiting period to buy handguns, but anyone who passes a basic background check can immediately walk out with a rifle**. And of course, the gun show loophole makes illegal gun purchases possible.
Regardless of technicalities, Cruz passed his background check and legally purchased his guns, as he had no criminal or mental health issues on record. And in almost two-thirds of the mass shootings—incidents where four or more people are shot and killed, not including the killer—between 2009 and 2016, *Everytown for Gun Safety* finds that shooters purchased their guns legally.
Controversy continues over what and who to regulate; exclusion of convicted felons, the mentally ill, and people on the federal no-fly list varies. Even as gun laws are inconsistent throughout the nation, enforcement of existing laws seems to be in flux. Several states that passed stricter background checks have reported a failure in enforcing the new measures, and the more immediate failures of law enforcement have never been more apparent than in the Parkland shooting. The FBI received at least two credible tips advising them to check on Cruz and the local sheriff’s office received dozens of warnings regarding his behavior from his family, neighbors, and classmates prior to the shooting. Because of the numerous red flags, the authorities’ inaction deserves heavy blame. Another failure, albeit disputed, was the inability of the school resource officer to stop the shooter. Instead of engaging the shooter, the officer stood outside the school for four minutes, during the bulk of the attack. In statements written by his lawyer, however, the officer defended his actions by stating that he believed the shots to be coming from outside and followed protocol by waiting for backup to arrive.
In the aftermath of the shooting, a supermajority of Democrats signed a bill called the “Assaults Weapons Ban of 2018”—a measure that calls for a ban on both “semi-automatic assault weapons” (select rifles, pistols, and shotguns) and “large capacity magazine feeding devices” (magazines holding more than ten rounds). Since it bans not only rifles but also pistols and shotguns, gun supporters claim that it’ll be counter-productive, restricting the ability of law-abiding citizens to protect themselves while allowing criminals to access these weapons. A bill like this is constitutional as it does not entail a blanket ban, but only bans guns with any additional features (e.g. threaded barrel, attachable magazine) under the “assault” category. However, with Congress being controlled by Republicans, the bill is sure to fail.
Since AR-15s and similar assault-style rifles have been used in the majority of mass shootings, many have demanded that, in the least, these rifles be banned. Considering how easy it was for a 19-year old student to buy an AR rifle, it seems absurd that no guns have been banned since the shooting. After all, though semi-automatic rifles are commonly used for home defense, hunting, and shooting practice, they are adapted models of their military counterparts, able to injure hundreds in mere minutes.
Though vilified as an instrument of war, the AR-15 perhaps does not live up to its infamy; the *Uniform Crime Reporting* division of the FBI produced data showing that all rifles accounted for only 3% of firearm homicides in 2014, killing fewer people than shotguns. This number compares to almost 70% of firearm homicides with handguns. Admittedly, semi-automatic rifles are the weapon of choice for many mass killers, but most criminals prefer to use handguns. Though the idea of banning all semi-automatic weapons has been proposed before, it was struck down in court, and now lies outside even the Democratic mainstream. Instead, gun-control supporters have focused their efforts on expanded checks and bans on certain gun parts and guns with “military-style” features.
Thus, Florida decided to push new legislations against rifles, prohibiting sales to under 21-year olds and requiring a three-day waiting period after the purchase of any gun. The state has also banned bump stocks—an accessory used to speed up the rate of fire of semi-automatic rifles, famously used in the Vegas shooting—and has given police the power to temporarily confiscate weapons from people who are deemed a threat.
On the other hand, gun supporters decry the focus of the Democrats, claiming that gun bans do not reduce crime. Supporters cite a 2013 study, conducted by academic journal *Applied Economics*, that examined the effects of assault weapons bans and conceal-carry laws on state murder rates between 1980 and 2009. The study found that bans on assault weapons did not significantly affect homicide rates, but instead resulted in higher gun-related murders. Furthermore, giving citizens the ability to own concealed-carry permits saw a marked decrease in the number of homicides. Journalist John Stossel explains the study, “Criminals don't obey the law… Without the fear of retaliation from victims who might be packing heat, criminals in possession of these [illegal] weapons now have a much easier job.”
However, trying to find the correlation between gun laws and states is not altogether straightforward. The FBI *Uniform Crime Reporting* database records that several states, including California, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York, have the strictest gun control measures and the lowest rates of gun-related deaths. Conversely, states that do not regulate guns, such as Alabama, Alaska and Louisiana, have the highest. Still, as Lisa Foderaro and Kristin Hussey have reported for *The New York Times*, “Cities like Chicago and Baltimore, with rigorous gun laws, also have two of the highest murder rates in the country. The black market for illegal guns has thrived in those cities, with gang members and criminals turning to the streets to get firearms.” As stated, policing commercial guns will not deter criminals, who commit most firearm murders. Instead, the fear is that expanding checks and limiting the purchase of guns will only serve to inconvenience citizens, and not accomplish the ultimate purpose of thwarting crime.
President Trump and the NRA have a unique proposal of their own: training and arming teachers. To many, this solution appears to be completely absurd. How would arming teachers, many of whom have never owned or used a gun, make schools a safer place? Surprisingly, this proposal resonates with some states. Schools across several states have already implemented the idea of arming educators—in Ohio, teachers can keep guns in safes, and in Texas, teachers can carry guns in holsters. In shootings like the one at Sutherland Springs, as well, the shooter was eventually stopped by a “good guy with a gun.”
Arming teachers, however, is a measure that would only work in select schools and would cause more long-term damage than good. It’s a quick-fix solution, one that becomes relevant only once the shooter is armed and active. It does not resolve the more important issues of stopping people from becoming mass shooters and preventing shooters from arming themselves, or least limiting their destructive capabilities.
For the past few decades, America has consistently ranked first in the number of guns per capita and in 2007, the nation had 12,632 gun homicides (4.19 deaths per 100,000 people). Switzerland and Finland rank third and fourth in guns per capita, respectively, and in 2009 Switzerland had a total of 24 gun homicides (0.31 deaths per 100,000 people) while Finland had 23 gun homicides (0.43 deaths per 100,000 people). Though these European countries possess high rates of gun ownership, their rates of fire-arm related homicide are vastly lower than America’s. This can be attributed to several factors; their history, geography, and ethnic makeup do differ extensively from the United States, but most importantly, both Finland and Switzerland have strict gun acquisition and possession policies. Both nations have a universal background check system, require gun buyers to undergo rigorous psychiatric tests before acquiring a permit, and require a separate purchase of ammunition.
Australia is also commonly compared to the United States. In the Port Arthur massacre of 1996, 35 people were killed and 23 wounded when a gunman opened fire on bystanders with two semi-automatic rifles. Less than two weeks after the event, sweeping gun control legislation was passed, banning all semi-automatic rifles and pump-action shotguns and establishing a system of licensing and ownership. While the already decreasing rate of firearm homicides was not affected, the ban decidedly inhibited mass shootings. Australia has not witnessed a mass shooting of serious magnitude since.
Though America presents a unique case as a nation struggling to find a balance between the 2nd Amendment and its recent violence, it can learn much from the actions and policies of other nations. While gun supporters tout that rifles are used only in a small percentage of homicides in America, the truth of the matter is that they are the primary weapons of mass shooters. Like Australia realized over 20 years ago, banning such weapons deters mass shootings.
In the United States, over a third of mass shooters possess guns illegally, so gaps in gun purchases and background checks must be eliminated. The gun show loophole, however insignificant it may be, must be fixed. As a nation possessing over 300 million guns, the United States must start recording its gun owners through universal background checks. Furthermore, deeper issues—such as the lack of affordable mental healthcare—underlie many of these mass shootings. Several of the perpetrators had no previous criminal record but had significant psychological issues. Thus, creative and practical measures to address mental care are necessary and must be placed into action.
As we’ve witnessed shooting after shooting, the glaring ineptitude of law enforcement has come to light. These agencies must be held responsible to follow up on warnings and prevent possible attacks. Just as Florida has done, restraining orders due to gun violence should be implemented nation-wide.
These measures are far from extreme. They are simply the first step in addressing the problem of guns in America, involving measures that both gun-control supporters and gun owners can safely agree on. Since the Parkland shooting, the *Educators School Safety Network* has reported that American schools face fifty shooting threats a day, a massive increase from the average of ten threats a day. This fact alone bodes dire consequences for American children and calls forth immediate change. Law and policy makers no longer have time to point fingers and disparage their political counterparts, but must seek common solutions to prevent future shootings from taking place.
*The U.S. passed a law in 1986 banning all automatic rifles. So technically, automatic rifles manufactured before 1986 are legal, though heavily-regulated, individually tracked, and recorded.
**A semi-automatic rifle, by definition, is not an assault rifle. A main characteristic of an assault rifle is the selective-switch function, from semi-automatic to automatic, increasing the rate of fire by around ten times. For the sake of simplification, this article places semi-automatic rifles into the assault weapons category, whatever connotations that might hold.