States have strengthened laws and missing mental health records have been added to the background check system, among other steps aimed at saving lives
Nearly five years after a mass shooter murdered 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook elementary school, Republican politicians are still blocking any attempt to pass tougher federal gun control laws.
The lack of congressional action has prompted outrage, despair and a sense that the gun debate is intractable.
But outside Washington, at the state and local level, the fight to prevent gun violence is anything but over. Here are 10 victories since 2013 in the fight to prevent gun deaths and save lives – including a major effort led by the gun industry itself.
1. At least 25 states have passed tougher domestic violence gun laws
Laws designed to keep guns away from domestic abusers have advanced across the country since 2013, including in conservative states such as Alabama, Louisiana, Utah, North Dakota and South Carolina. In some cases, the National Rifle Association has quietly supported the legislation, marking a rare point of bipartisan agreement on laws that multiple studies have found prevent murders and save lives.
2. Gun stores are leading an industry-endorsed movement to prevent suicide
In a single week in 2009, a gun store in New Hampshire sold three guns to people who used them to commit suicide. Shaken, the gun store’s owner teamed up with mental health and suicide prevention experts to develop the Gun Shop Project, an effort to educate gun store workers and customers about what they can do to prevent gun suicide, which claims more than 20,000 American lives a year. Variations on the model have spread nationwide. Early this year, the approach got a major endorsement from the gun industry’s association, which announced it was partnering with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, hoping to save thousands of lives through education and outreach. As one gun rights advocate in Vermont put it: “This is not an anti-gun or a veiled anti-gun campaign – this is strictly us helping ourselves.”
3. Google’s philanthropic arm is funding efforts to advance police reform and gun violence prevention in communities of color
In early 2013, the pastor Michael McBride led a group black ministers to Washington to press, unsuccessfully, for the Obama administration to make a major investment in preventing gun violence among young men of color. The Live Free Campaign argues that tougher gun laws alone are not enough: violence prevention also requires criminal justice reform, police reform and community-based strategies. The campaign received a $2m boost from Google.org this summer, with some of the funding going to community efforts in eight cities, including San Bernardino, which suffered from everyday gun violence long before it became famous as the site of a mass shooting. “People are starting to see that we can prevent gun violence in urban communities, which have the largest share of homicides, without getting bogged down in a second amendment fight,” McBride said.
4. After worried family members failed to stop a 2014 mass shooting, California passed a new ‘gun violence restraining order’ law
Weeks before he murdered six people and injured 13 more in a rampage across a California college town, Elliot Rodger received a visit from local law enforcement. His mother had seen the disturbing videos he posted on YouTube and requested a welfare check. Rodger would write about the incident later, noting that he had firearms hidden in his apartment. The local sheriff’s department would defend its officers’ lack of options in dealing with an apparently calm, polite young man. Later that year, California passed a law creating a “gun violence restraining order”, which gives family members and law enforcement a way to petition a judge to temporarily bar a high-risk person from owning or buying firearms. Washington passed a similar law last year and advocates have launched a joint effort this year across 20 states to pass similar extreme risk protection order laws.
5. Many states have added missing mental health records to the US gun background check system, though huge gaps remain
In 2011, a gun control group analyzed the records in the national background check system, and found that 23 states had submitted fewer than 100 mental health records to the federal database – and some had submitted none at all. This meant, as happened with the Sutherland Spring shooter this month, that high-risk people disqualified from legally owning guns were still able to walk into gun stores and buy them. Today, the number of mental health records in the database has nearly quadrupled, and, as of last year, only three states – Montana, Wyoming and New Hampshire – had submitted fewer than 100 records, according to William Rosen, the deputy legal director at Everytown for Gun Safety. More effort is still needed. The Department of Defense is investigating whether the air force’s failure to submit the Sutherland Springs shooter’s domestic violence record was part of a broader problem in military reporting.
6. New York City is investing millions in ‘violence interrupters’ in a public health strategy to reduce gun violence
After a pilot program funded by the justice department showed promising results, New York City invested $12.7m in expanding a strategy that uses neighborhood “violence interrupters” to monitor and defuse conflicts before they turn fatal. An in-depth evaluation of this “Cure Violence” approach, which tries to work directly with the people at highest risk, found steeper declines in violence in neighborhoods with the program than without it. The program is now active at 18 sites as part of a broader violence prevention strategy. New York City saw shootings hit a record low in 2016.
7. A group of Sandy Hook families created a training program on how to prevent school shootings and other violence. More than 2 million people have been trained
Sandy Hook Promise, a not-for-profit group formed by family members of some of the victims of the 2012 shooting, has developed free training programs to help schoolchildren and adults recognize the signs of at-risk behavior and know how to respond. More than 2 million students and adults have taken part, including students in large public school districts in Miami and Los Angeles.
8. 10 states have passed laws expanding background checks on gun sales
After Sandy Hook, parents of the children murdered joined with the Obama administration to make a major push to close loopholes in the national requirements for conducting background checks on gun buyers. Despite support from a majority of the Senate, the legislation failed. Since then, 10 states have passed universal background checks or expanded background check requirements, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, part of a laborious, costly effort to close the federal loopholes one state at a time. What safety benefit these new laws have had at the state level alone is not yet clear: a new study found that in at least two states, the new laws had little measurable effect, probably due to a lack of enforcement and the failure of citizens to comply with the new regulations. In Nevada, the new background check law passed last year has yet to be enforced, sparking a standoff between gun control advocates and the state’s Republican attorney general, an NRA ally.
9. Massachusetts banned bump stocks
It’s hard to ban any kind of gun or firearms accessory in the US – even “bump stocks”, a dangerous toy with zero self-defense value that allows semi-automatic rifles to be fired more quickly, mimicking fully automatic fire. After the Las Vegas mass shooting, the deadliest in modern American history, officials said the shooter had multiple bump stocks. Some congressional Republicans and even the NRA said they would consider tougher regulation of the gimmicky device. But bump stock ban legislation went nowhere, even as the company that manufactured the devices announced it was accepting new orders. Massachusetts became the first state since the Las Vegas shooting to ban the device.
10. Gun control advocates have convinced some private retailers, such as Starbucks, to oppose gun-carrying in their stores
One way that new gun control advocates found quick wins in the months after national reform failed in 2013 was to focus on pressuring corporations to oppose gun-carrying in their stores. Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America has celebrated Starbucks, Chipotle, Target and other stores for asking customers not to bring guns into their stores (with the exception of law enforcement officers). As Starbucks’ CEO put it, this is “a request and not an outright ban”, but the consumer battles have given gun control advocates a symbolic way to respond to the expansion of America’s gun-carrying culture.