I couldn’t believe the news when I heard it. Another school shooting — really? After Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook, how was this still happening? Even the President seemed personally shaken by this one.
This may sound like Parkland, but it was in fact the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon almost two and a half years ago. Barack Obama was the president, who after years of responding to mass shootings, fulminated against do-nothing members of Congress: “Our thoughts and prayers are not enough. It’s not enough. It does not capture the heartache and grief and anger that we should feel. And it does nothing to prevent this carnage from being inflicted someplace else in America.”
It is easy to look at the parallels between Umpqua and Parkland and fret that nothing has changed. But this would actually be too sanguine. The two deadliest mass shootings on record — Las Vegas and Orlando — have occurred since Umpqua. Members of Congress who supported gun safety have been voted out. Even now, more states are expanding gun rights than restricting them. In short, things have changed — for the worse.
It’s time to end the insanity. As President Obama said, thoughts and prayers will not stop shootings. We need common-sense gun reforms.
First, Congress should pass universal background checks. Currently, unlicensed gun sellers, such as those at gun shows, do not have to perform background checks on prospective buyers. This loophole allows dangerous people to get guns.
Second, Congress should ban military-style assault weapons like the AR-15. These weapons cause incomparable damage to their victims and have no place in civilian life. The assault weapons ban should also include a ban on high-capacity magazines, limiting the amount of damage a shooter can cause in a single incident.
Finally, Congress should enable the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study gun violence as a public health issue. A policy adopted in 1996 called the Dickey Amendment essentially bars the CDC from conducting gun-violence research. It also limits the data the CDC can collect on gun violence, making outside research more difficult. No lawmaker can credibly claim to care about the victims while supporting such a policy.
Do we know these reforms will reduce gun deaths? The evidence for universal background checks is compelling. From 1995 to 2005, Connecticut’s universal background check law was associated with a 40 percent decrease in Connecticut’s firearm homicide rate. In contrast, the repeal of Missouri’s universal background check law in 2007 was associated with a 14 percent increase in Missouri’s murder rate.
The evidence for banning assault weapons is less concrete. There were fewer mass shooting deaths following the 1994 assault weapons ban, but it is not clear the ban directly caused the reduction. This point is true of gun research more broadly, which overwhelmingly finds gun restrictions are correlated with fewer gun deaths without proving restrictions cause fewer deaths.
But “correlation is not causation” is not an excuse for inaction. Empirical research (or lack thereof) is not a substitute for reason. Banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines does not guarantee fewer mass shootings, but not banning them almost certainly guarantees more.
Ultimately, universal background checks, a ban on assault weapons, and more research are the first steps, not the only steps. These policies do not address gun suicides, which account for two-thirds of gun deaths. They do not address the alarming frequency with which toddlers accidentally shoot each other. And they do not address the systemic racism that makes black children ten times more likely to be gun victims than white children.
But we have to start somewhere. Today, Princeton reels from the news about school shootings. Tomorrow, it could be the school in the news. We owe it to our friends, our families, and ourselves to demand lawmakers pass common-sense gun reform.
Aaron Tobert is a second-year graduate student in Economics and Public Policy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org