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A fruitless and predictable myopia tends to take over political discussion after gun-spawned tragedies like the massacre in Uvalde.
Already deeply entrenched in their positions, politicians mostly argue over the particulars of the most recent tragedy, and how it might have been prevented. A background check? A locked door? In narrow debates, policies are touted or decried based on how applicable they are to the latest killing.
Left aside is a broad range of gun policy proposals that experts in criminology, public health and law enforcement have for years believed are practical solutions to at least part of the nation’s enduring problems with gun violence.
And while those experts acknowledge that some of the relatively minor changes might not have prevented the massacre freshest in the public’s mind, they can reduce mass shootings. Even more, the policies could greatly reduce gun violence overall, which kills more people in the United States than car crashes.
“The idea that gun laws won’t have an impact in reducing mass shootings and school shooting violence is a myth,” said Louis Klarevas, a research professor at Teachers College at Columbia University who studies gun violence.
Simply requiring guns to be stored safely, for example, or outlawing high-capacity magazines wouldn’t eliminate mass shootings, he said, but “the idea is to reduce the gun violence.”
Texans and other Americans support many of the proposals, according to recent polling. What gets in the way, various experts said, is politics.
In the nearly two weeks since a gunman killed 19 elementary schoolchildren and two teachers and injured 17 others in Uvalde, Texas’ Republican leaders have shunned possible gun restrictions. They say common proposals like universal background checks and red flag laws won’t work. In recent years, the GOP-controlled Legislature’s most common response to mass shootings has been loosening gun laws so more people can carry weapons in more places.
“The narrative in our country is that there’s a great divide by gun ownership or political party on solutions to gun violence, and that’s why we can’t get anything done,” said Cassandra Crifasi, associate professor of health policy at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, which conducts regular polling on gun violence solutions. “I say gun policy is mostly political among politicians. Americans, including the majority of gun owners, support evidence-based policy.”
For example, a majority of Texans support requiring background checks for gun purchases, including at gun shows or through private sellers — which aren’t regulated in Texas — according to a 2021 poll by the University of Texas at Austin. In February, 43% of Texans surveyed told the university that the state should strengthen gun laws, with only 16% seeking looser gun laws.
Studies and experts from various fields say less controversial steps short of an assault weapons ban would have an impact on all gun violence. Those include raising the age for legal purchase of a long arm from 18 to 21, as is typically the case for handguns, or banning large-capacity magazines, a move studies have shown can at least limit fatalities in mass shootings.
Experts also point to successes with red flag laws, which allow courts to temporarily take guns away from people judged to be a danger to themselves or others, and safe storage laws that require firearms to be locked when stored. They have also urged implementing universal background checks.
James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University who has long studied mass killings, said the policy changes are the right things to do, but not only for mass shootings.
“If we reduce mass shootings by 10%, we can reduce homicides by 20%,” he said.
After the Uvalde massacre, like the ones before it, a groundswell of support from the left rose for gun restrictions ranging from raising age requirements to assault weapon bans. It was immediately met with a clamor from the right to protect individuals’ right to bear arms, echoed by Texas leaders. Laws won’t stop bad guys from getting guns, they say, so the best solutions are increasing mental health resources in a state notoriously lacking access to such initiatives, fortifying schools and, of course, more good guys with guns.
“What stops armed bad guys is armed good guys,” U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said at the National Rifle Association’s convention in Houston days after the Uvalde shooting.
In Uvalde, however, the gunman waited until the law allowed him to purchase particularly lethal weaponry — buying two AR-style rifles shortly after his 18th birthday after he failed to convince his sister to buy him one earlier, police said. The armed police staged outside the classrooms where students and teachers were dead and dying for more than an hour before killing the gunman.
Klarevas at Columbia University said the law enforcement response in Uvalde this month knocks down the argument that good guys with guns are the solution to shootings. He hopes lawmakers and policymakers can find compromise by shifting their framework for debate.
“What we really want isn’t good guys with guns stopping bad guys with guns,” Klarevas said. “What we really want is bad guys without guns. That’s a better strategy.”
At the congressional level, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has been able to push minor gun safety policies after mass shootings — like legislation meant to improve background checks after the gunman in 2017’s Sutherland Springs slaying was able to purchase a gun despite a domestic violence conviction. Cornyn is again leading bipartisan talks, but many of his Republican colleagues said they will only support measures that would have made a difference in Uvalde.
“We’re reactive, that’s human nature,” Fox said, though he encouraged lawmakers to look at the bigger picture.
Beyond difficulties in looking at gun violence with a broader lens, a major hurdle for Texas policymakers is agreeing that changes to gun policy should be part of the solution at all. Focusing exclusively on mental health initiatives or fortifying schools won’t adequately address the problem if gun access isn’t also restricted, a variety of experts agreed.
“A challenge we face here is that everybody is looking for one answer, one thing. That doesn’t exist,” said Jaclyn Schildkraut, associate professor of criminal justice at State University of New York at Oswego. “We’re dealing with very complex phenomena that go in spider webs in so many different directions but all weaved together.”
Jimmy Perdue, president of the Texas Police Chiefs Association, said last week he agrees with the argument that those with ill intent will find a way to get guns. He argued that mental illness and a societal devaluation of the sanctity of life are causes of mass shootings. Still, he said, access does matter.
He said “the time has come” for the state to make it harder for some people to get firearms, especially with a continuing rise in gun violence in Texas and throughout the country.
“There are certainly measures that could be put into place that limit access, whether that be raising the age or some sort of background checks or waiting periods,” Perdue said. “No one thing is going to prevent it from happening, but I tend to come down on the side of if we can put some measures in place that can prevent one or two, it’s better than nothing.”
Going through background checks or having to wait several days to buy a gun, he argued, isn’t an infringement on someone’s Second Amendment rights.
“Guns are a part of our natural fabric of being Texan, but some things have changed,” he added. “Society’s changed, and we’re at the point where we’ve got to look at it from a total complexity perspective.”
Klarevas said an effective response to prevent future gun violence would include layers of checks and barriers aimed at preventing different types of bad actors from getting their hands on guns that could inflict mass damage. A background check may not stop all potential shooters, he said, but laws limiting their access to assault weapons or large-capacity magazines can decrease the fatality rates.
“One law is good, but it’s just a starting point,” he said. “The more laws you have, the more effective your framework will be. If you want to do the best job possible, you have to take a comprehensive approach.”
For public health researchers, a helpful guide is looking at car crashes. While the rate of gun deaths has increased over the years, the rate of people killed in motor vehicle accidents has steadily fallen, according to Charles DiMaggio, an injury epidemiologist at New York University. That’s in part because states have adopted a more uniform approach to driving safety, like seatbelt laws and drunken driving penalties.
“The other issue is that there was a willingness and acceptance that motor vehicle crash injuries [and] pedestrian injuries are in fact a public health problem, and it requires public health approaches,” DiMaggio said. “I don’t think there’s that kind of consensus for gun violence.”
Sheldon Jacobson, a professor of computer sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said the idea of creating layers of gun policies to prevent future mass shootings is similar to the work he did in creating risk-based assessments that led to the development of Transportation Security Administration PreCheck in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks of 2001.
“One thing [TSA does] really well is layers,” he said. “They look for multiple ways to mitigate risks, and when you put them together you come up with a fairly impenetrable fortress.”
The PreCheck process expedites airport screening for frequent travelers. In exchange, those travelers submit themselves to background checks that allow the government to vet them ahead of their travels. As a result, those travelers get less-intrusive screenings when entering their terminals.
But the agency is not limited to background checks on travelers who sign up for the program. Regular travelers have a more intrusive screening process, and TSA has cameras at terminals that monitor for suspicious activity. It also limits the items that can be taken on planes, including guns.
“Have we seen incidents? We have not,” Jacobson said. “And that’s because there are layers.”
Jacobson also sees another parallel to the gun debate. In trying to implement different kinds of security screenings for different passengers, the TSA got political pushback.
“To do differential screening meant you had to treat people differently. That’s a bit of a sticky wicket, to say the least,” he said. “But the fact is if you can justify doing that on the basis of the well-being of the population, it got through.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.