It is unclear what ties, if any, the killer in Orlando, Florida, had to terrorist groups. What is clear, as it was in the numerous mass shootings that preceded the murders at the Pulse nightclub on Sunday, is that he had easy access to guns.
After previous mass shootings, including the 2012 murders of 20 children and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, lawmakers have talked about changing the nation’s gun laws. After withering criticism — and, for many, political donations — from the National Rifle Association, lawmakers lose their nerve.
Despite a Senate filibuster and pledges to vote on expanding background checks and prohibiting gun sales to those on terrorism watch lists, we don’t have much faith that lawmakers’ resolve will be stronger this time — it is easier to turn attention to “radical Islamic terror” than to stand up to the gun lobby. But, there are several simple changes that can make Americans safer.
After the mass murders last year in San Bernardino, California, a law professor and public health expert spelled out four of them in the Journal of the American Medical Association. They remain relevant and needed today.
First on the list from Lawrence Gostin, professor of law at Georgetown University and director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on Public Health Law and Human Rights, is federal funding for firearms research.
In 1996, Congress passed a budget provision prohibiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using federal funds to “advocate for or promote gun control” and later expanded the provision to include the National Institutes of Health. To prevent criticism from groups such as the NRA, agencies interpreted the prohibition to forbid nearly all types of research into gun violence. A backer of the original legislation now says it was a mistake.
“If we had somehow gotten the research going, we could have somehow found a solution to the gun violence without there being any restrictions on the Second Amendment,” former Rep. Jay Dickey, R-Arkansas, told the Huffington Post in October.
After the Sandy Hook massacre, President Barack Obama lifted the CDC ban on gun research through an executive order. The agency still does no gun research because, it says, it doesn’t have dedicated funding for such work. Congress should, but is unlikely to, appropriate the needed funds.
In January, Obama directed the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security and the U.S. attorney general to study smart gun technology. This is an important step.
Second, in order of ease of implementation, Gostin calls for required gun safety measures, such as biometric gun locks, which could prevent toddlers from firing weapons. And, while mass shooting are horrid tragedies, the majority of gun deaths in the U.S. are suicides, many of which are impulsive. This highlights the need to reduce quick access to guns, whether through a new purchase or more secure storage at home.
Universal background checks are third on Gostin’s list. Maine voters will get a chance in November to vote on extending federal background checks to firearms sold through private sales. Polls show that 90 percent of the public and nearly as many gun owners support universal background checks.
In a 2013 CNN poll, only 54 percent of gun owners polled said they underwent a background check to purchase their guns. The Orlando gunman passed a background check and legally purchased his weapons. So, background checks need to be more rigorous — the FBI had twice investigated the gunman — not just more ubiquitous.
Gostin’s final suggestion, banning assault weapons and armor-piercing bullets, is the most controversial. It shouldn’t be. After a 1989 school shooting in Stockton, California, Ronald Reagan, who had just left office, said, “I do not believe in taking away the right of the citizen for sporting, for hunting and so forth or for home defense. But I do believe that an AK-47, a machine gun, is not a sporting weapon or needed for defense of a home.” The same should now be said of the AR-15, the weapon of choice among mass murderers in the United States and in the Middle East. Wal-Mart stopped selling the assault weapons last year. The inventor of the AR-15, Eugene Stoner, meant for the weapon to be used by the military, not civilians, his family says.
There will continue to be much hand-wringing and finger-pointing after the Orlando shootings. Following these four simple steps won’t end gun violence and won’t prevent all future mass shootings, but these simple steps can help reduce the carnage.