Sacramento California, May 26, 2022: Americans Against Gun Violence extends our heartfelt sympathy to the families, friends, classmates, and colleagues of all the victims of the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas on May 24. We also send sincere wishes for a prompt and complete recovery to the victims who suffered non-fatal injuries. As the late Senator Thomas Dodd stated more than half a century ago, though, in June of 1968:

Pious condolences will no longer suffice….Quarter measures and half measures will no longer suffice….The time has now come that we must enact stringent gun control legislation comparable to the legislation in force in virtually every civilized country in the world.[1]

In order to prevent horrific mass shootings like the one that occurred in Uvalde yesterday, as well as to stop the epidemic of gun violence that claims more than 110 lives on an average day in our country, the United States must adopt the following measures:

  1. Change the guiding principle for gun ownership in our country from a “permissive” one to a “restrictive” one.[2]

The United States is the only high income democratic country in the world in which the guiding principle for firearm acquisition is that a person who seeks to acquire a gun can legally do so if the person is of a certain age and can pass a rudimentary background check, done instantaneously by computer in most cases, to see if the person is on a perennially incomplete database of people who meet one or more limited criteria for being prohibited from owning a gun.[3] This guiding principle is termed, “permissive.” In all other advanced democracies, the burden of proof is on the person seeking to acquire a gun to prove that he or she has a good reason to own one and can handle one safely. This guiding principle is termed, “restrictive.” And recognizing that there is no net protective value in owning or carrying a gun, many other democratic countries, including Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, do not accept “self defense” as a legitimate reason for acquiring one.[4]

 

  1. Ban civilian ownership of all automatic and semi-automatic long guns, with no grandfather clause that would allow people who already own these kinds of weapons to keep them.

The United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand all promptly banned civilian ownership of all automatic and semi-automatic long guns, with no grandfather clause, after mass shootings committed with these kinds of weapons in 1987 in Hungerford, England; [5] in 1996 in Port Arthur, Australia; [6] and in 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand. [7] While the New Zealand ban is too recent to fully assess its effect, there have been only three mass shootings in the UK since 1987 and one in Australia since 1996.[8]

A federal “assault weapon ban” (AWB) was in effect in the United States from 1994 until it was allowed to sunset in 2004, but it is doubtful that it had much effect in preventing mass shootings or other firearm related deaths. The AWB defined an “assault weapon” as a semi-automatic firearm that could accept a detachable magazine and that had at least two other features typically included on military weapons, such as a pistol grip, a thumb-hole in the stock, or a bayonet mount. The ban grandfathered in millions of “assault weapons” that were already in circulation, and it specifically exempted 86 different makes of semi-automatic firearms that did not meet the definition of an assault weapon, but that were potentially just as deadly. Moreover, U.S. gun manufacturers subsequently produced new models of firearms that were just as lethal but that evaded the definition of an “assault weapon.” A report to the U.S. Department of Justice summarized the shortcomings of the AWB as follows: “The [assault weapons] provision targets a relatively small number of weapons based on features that have little to do with the weapons’ operation, and removing those features is sufficient to make the weapons legal.”[9]

Any automatic or semi-automatic firearm can be used to kill and maim large numbers of people in a short period of time, regardless of whether it has other features that give it the appearance of a military style weapon. The United States should follow the examples of the UK, Australia, and New Zealand in banning civilian ownership of all automatic and semi-automatic long guns, not just so-called “assault weapons.”

 

  1. Ban civilian ownership of all handguns, with no grandfather clause.

Handguns are the type of firearm used in the vast majority of all gun related deaths in the United States,[10] including in most mass shootings.[11] Following a mass shooting committed at an elementary school in Dunblane, Scotland in 1996, in which 16 five and six year old students and their teacher were murdered by a man who legally owned the handguns he used in the massacre, Great Britain completely banned civilian handgun ownership, with no grandfather clause. There hasn’t been another school shooting since the ban went into effect.[12] The mass shooting at Robb Elementary School was the 27th U.S. school shooting this year,[13] and the overall rate of gun related deaths in the United States is 60 times higher than the rate in the Great Britain.[14]

Prior to 2008, there was no constitutional obstacle, Second Amendment or otherwise, to the adoption of stringent gun control laws of the type described above.[15] In the rogue 2008 Heller decision,[16] though, a narrow 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court reversed over two centuries of legal precedent, including four prior Supreme Court opinions,[17] in ruling for the first time in U.S. history that the Second Amendment conferred an individual right to own guns unrelated to service in a “well regulated militia.”  The late Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger had described such an interpretation of the Second Amendment as “one of the greatest pieces of fraud – I repeat the word, ‘fraud’ – on the American public by special interest groups” that he had ever seen in his lifetime.[18] The late Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who authored a dissenting opinion in Heller, described the Heller majority opinion as “unquestionably the most clearly incorrect decision that the Court announced during my [35 year] tenure on the bench.”[19] Now, though, in order to change the guiding principle for firearm ownership in the United States from a “permissive” one to a “restrictive” one, to ban handguns, and to avoid any possible constitutional challenge to banning all automatic and semi-automatic long guns, the Heller decision must first be overturned.

Adopting the kinds of definitive gun control laws described above, though, need not be a lengthy process. The Supreme Court could overturn the Heller decision tomorrow. The Court heard oral arguments last November in the case of New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen,[20] in which the gun lobby is claiming that New York’s requirement for a special permit to carry a concealed handgun violates the Second Amendment. The gun lobby’s case is based entirely on the Heller decision and its progeny. The Court will be issuing a decision in this case soon. While it’s likely, given the current composition of the Court, that it will rule that the New York law violates the Second Amendment, should the majority of justices unexpectedly put the history and text of the Second Amendment, prior legal precedent, reason, and the public good ahead of politics and the interests of the gun lobby, the Supreme Court could rule that not only is New York’s requirement for a special permit to carry a concealed handgun entirely within constitutional boundaries, but that the 2008 Heller case was wrongly decided and is therefore reversed. Once Heller is reversed, it shouldn’t take Congress any longer that it took Australia and New Zealand (two weeks) to completely ban civilian ownership of all automatic and semi-automatic long guns; and given that Great Britain has already provided the precedent, it should take Congress less than the two years it took Britain to completely ban civilian ownership of all handguns.

If the United States doesn’t promptly take the steps described above to stop our country’s shameful epidemic of gun violence, we shouldn’t be surprised when the next horrific mass shooting occurs or when the CDC reports that the annual number of gun related deaths has again hit a new high.

 

Click on this link for a downloadable version of this press release in PDF format.

References

[1] Thomas Dodd, “Text of Speech by Senator Thomas Dodd on Floor of U.S. Senate: The Sickness of Violence and the Need for Gun Control Legislation” (Office of Senator Thomas Dodd, June 11, 1968), http://thedoddcenter.uconn.edu/asc/research/gun_control.htm#; Thomas Dodd, “Press Release: Pious Condolences Will No Longer Suffice” (Office of Senator Thomas Dodd, June 10, 1968), http://thedoddcenter.uconn.edu/asc/research/gun_control.htm#.

[2] George D. Newton and Franklin E. Zimring, “Firearm Licensing: Restrictive v Permissive,” Firearms & Violence in American Life: A Staff Report Submitted to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, January 1, 1969).

[3] “Gun Law and Policy: Firearms and Armed Violence, Country by Country,” GunPolicy.org, accessed July 1, 2021, http://www.gunpolicy.org/.

[4] “Gun Law and Policy: Firearms and Armed Violence, Country by Country.”

[5] Michael J. North, “Gun Control in Great Britain after the Dunblane Shootings,” in Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 185–93.

[6] Rebecca Peters, “Rational Firearm Regulation: Evidence-Based Gun Laws in Australia,” in Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 195–204; Philip Alpers, “The Big Melt: How One Democracy Changed after Scrapping a Third of Its Firearms,” in Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 205–11; Joel Negin et al., “Australian Firearm Regulation at 25-Successes, Ongoing Challenges, and Lessons for the World,” New England Journal of Medicine 384, no. 17 (2021): 1581–83.

[7] Josh Hafner, “Gun Control Bill in New Zealand Passes in Early Vote Following Attacks,” USA Today, April 2, 2019, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2019/04/02/gun-control-bill-new-zealand-vote-parliament-mosque-attacks/3341240002/; “2019 Firearm Law Changes (Arms Amendment Bill 2),” New Zealand Police, accessed August 27, 2020, https://www.police.govt.nz/advice-services/firearms-and-safety/2019-firearm-law-changes-arms-amendment-bill-2.

[8] For the purpose of this comparison, a mass shooting is defined as a single incident with 5 or more fatalities. North, “Gun Control in Great Britain after the Dunblane Shootings”; Negin et al., “Australian Firearm Regulation at 25-Successes, Ongoing Challenges, and Lessons for the World.”

[9] Christopher S. Koper, Daniel J. Woods, and Jeffrey A. Roth, “An Updated Assessment of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban: Impacts on Gun Markets and Gun Violence, 1994-2003; Report to the National Institute of Justice, United States Department of Justice” (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Jerry Lee Center of Criminology, University of Pennsylvania, June 2014), 1–2, https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/204431.pdf.

[10] Josh Sugarmann, Every Handgun Is Aimed at You: The Case for Banning Handguns (New Press, 2001).

[11] Mark Follman, Gavin Aronsen, and Deanna Pan, “US Mass Shootings, 1982-2018: Data from Mother Jones’ Investigation,” Mother Jones, accessed May 31, 2018, https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/12/mass-shootings-mother-jones-full-data/.

[12] North, “Gun Control in Great Britain after the Dunblane Shootings.”

[13] “School Shootings This Year: How Many and Where,” Education Week, May 25, 2022, sec. School Climate & Safety, https://www.edweek.org/leadership/school-shootings-this-year-how-many-and-where/2022/01.

[14] “Gun Law and Policy: Firearms and Armed Violence, Country by Country.”

[15] John Paul Stevens, The Making of a Justice: Reflections on My First 94 Years (New York: Little, Brown, 2019), 481–87.

[16] District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 US (Supreme Court 2008).

[17] United States v. Cruikshank, 92 US 542 (Supreme Court 1876); Presser v. Illinois, 116 US (Supreme Court 1886); U.S. v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174 (1939) (n.d.); Lewis v. United States, No. 55 (U.S. 1980).

[18] Warren Burger, PBS News Hour, December 16, 1991, c.

[19] Stevens, The Making of a Justice, 482.

[20] New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, Inc, et al v. Bruen, et al, No. 20-843 (n.d.).