If comprehensive background checks on firearm purchasers and gun violence restraining orders were properly designed, widely enacted and adequately implemented in the U.S., many lives lost through mass shootings, as well as the increasing rates of suicides and homicides, could be prevented, according to a perspective article by Garen Wintemute published Sept. 27 in the New England Journal of Medicine. The journal also produced an accompanying podcast featuring an interview with Wintemute on state and federal policies that could prevent firearm-related deaths.
Comprehensive background check policies work at the population level, identifying groups of people who are prohibited from purchasing or having a firearm. These include felons, individuals convicted of domestic violence or certain other violent misdemeanors, and others at risk for violent behavior. Gun violence restraining orders identify gun owners who pose an imminent danger to themselves or others and prevent them from having a firearm for a short period of time.
Wintemute highlights several recent mass shootings where a communication breakdown or lack of reporting prevented background check policies from achieving their maximum potential for safeguarding people and communities. The Federal Bureau of Investigation had received credible threats of violence about the former student who eventually shot and killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. The shooter who killed 25 and wounded another 20 at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, should have been prohibited from purchasing firearms because of a prior domestic violence conviction. The tragedies at a South Carolina church, Arizona supermarket, Colorado movie theater and Virginia university similarly were also preventable, Wintemute wrote.
“Using background checks to prevent those prohibited from owning firearms is associated with a reduction of at least 25 percent in their incidence of arrest for a firearm-related or other violent crime,” said Wintemute, a professor of emergency medicine and director of the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program. “But in many states, transactions between private parties are exempt from background check requirements, and 22 percent of all firearm transfers nationwide proceed without a check being done.”
Wintemute considers the lack of reporting of information that would prohibit high-risk people from purchasing firearms as the most important barrier to overcome, along with clarifying the definition of prohibiting events in U.S. law.
Gun violence restraining orders allow courts to have firearms removed temporarily from individuals who pose an imminent threat. They also prevent the purchase of a new firearm. In California, the policy prevented the purchase of firearms in two instances where individuals threatened mass shootings. Thirteen states have adopted these policies and many more are considering them, Wintemute wrote.
“While comprehensive background checks and gun violence restraining orders may not function perfectly, it doesn’t mean that we should not enact these measures,” Wintemute said. He lists specific actions that can be taken to strengthen policies for maximum effect, including:
- enacting background check requirements for private-party firearm sales and committing to adequate enforcement
- requiring the rapid and complete reporting of prohibiting events
- enacting gun violence restraining order policies
- having Congress update the language in relevant statutes, enforce existing reporting requirements, support state efforts to submit records, enact federal background check requirements for all firearm sales
“Mass shootings are changing the character of public life in the U.S. and creating unprecedented demand for action,” Wintemute writes. “The policies described here are not ‘gun control,’ whatever that term means. They uncouple harmful behavior from its consequences and help preserve our fundamental right to live safely in a free society,” he said.
The UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program is a multi-disciplinary program of research and policy development focused on the causes, consequences and prevention of violence. Studies assess firearm violence and the connections between violence, substance abuse and mental illness. VPRP is home to the University of California Firearm Violence Research Center, which launched in 2017 with a $5 million appropriation from the state of California to fund and conduct leading-edge research on firearm violence and its prevention.