It has become an all-too-familiar cycle in American civic life: A community experiences a mass shooting incident, devastated local citizens mourn, politicians offer their thoughts and prayers, gun safety advocates renew their calls for firearms controls, and gun owners resist attempts to enact new laws and regulations.
Then another shooting occurs and the cycle repeats.
In the two weeks since the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting that left 21 students and teachers dead there have been more than 30 additional mass shootings, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a Lexington-based website and research group that tracks firearms use in murders, suicides, and other incidents.
Bipartisan talks are underway in Washington to find any legislative options that could actually pass Congress.
“No single proposal is going to be sufficient to deal with the issue of gun safety,” says Rep. John Yarmuth (KY-3). “So we have to pass a variety of them.”
The Louisville Democrat says the House of Representatives is considering eight different proposals, including expanded background checks, a ban on assault weapons, age restrictions on semi-automatic weapons purchases, limits on bullet magazine capacities, and so-called red flag laws that create a judicial process for the temporary removal of firearms from unstable individuals. But Yarmuth acknowledges that these bills would have little chance of passing the Senate, which is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. He also says no law can prevent every gun crime.
“The question is, do we sit back and say we’re helpless to do anything, or do we take steps that will reduce the likelihood or at least reduce the frequency of these tragic events,” says the Congressman.
While many of the House proposals enjoy overwhelming public support, according to Yarmuth, that has done little to move Republican lawmakers to support them.
“Weakening the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens will not bring an end to the violent evil that persists in this country,” says Republican Congressman Hal Rogers (KY-5).
That political stalemate is frustrating for gun safety advocates like Whitney Austin, who survived a 2018 mass shooting in Cincinnati in which she was hit 12 times.
“We can do a lot [but] we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface because politics gets in the way in the way of us coming together and solving this issue,” she says.
An Option to Temporarily Remove Guns from Individuals in Crisis
Austin is the cofounder and executive director of Whitney/Strong, an organization that advocates for responsible firearms ownership and evidence-based solutions to gun violence. The group lobbies for safe storage laws, and a proposal they call crisis aversion and rights retention (CARR). That would create a process by which a judge can order the temporary removal of firearms from the possession of someone deemed to be a threat to themselves or others due to a mental health condition, substance abuse, or other issue. Austin says CARR requires evidence for a removal order, maintains due process rights for the gun owner, and encourages treatment to help them with their problem.
“Let’s get them to a place in which gun ownership is safe so that they’re not taking their own life with their firearm or they’re not harming others,” says Austin.
Such risk protection orders are proven to prevent suicides and reduce the incidence of gun violence, according to Austin.
Edwin Nighbert of the League of Kentucky Sportsmen says mental health problems seem to have driven many recent mass shooting incidents. But he says even when it was clearly evident through social media that a potential shooter was a threat, nothing was done to stop that individual.
“Mental health is a major problem,” he says, “and getting to the level where you can be involuntarily committed is very high.”
Nighbert adds he doesn’t think any National Rifle Association member would oppose Austin’s CARR proposal as long as it’s very carefully crafted to protect responsible gun owners. He also says a waiting period on gun purchases is “not a bad idea.”
David Burnett, an attorney, ICU nurse, and self-defense advocate in Lexington, says he appreciates the due process protections in CARR, but he remains unconvinced that the proposal would prevent mass shootings.
“I’m wary of a law that would require someone to go in and justify their ongoing possession of a firearm,” says Burnett.
In reviewing any gun safety proposal, Burnett says he looks to see if it would reduce gun violence, do more harm than good, and be something that criminals would obey. He contends most proposed firearms restrictions would result in little positive benefit, put responsible gun owners at risk, and be impractical to implement.
“We need to have more of a holistic conversation than just focusing in on the firearms,” says Burnett. “It’s very tempting to search for emotionally satisfying, impulsive solutions rather than look for the empirical numbers and look for the rational basis.”
Instead of limits on guns, Burnett recommends early interventions for people with mental health problems and stronger security in public places like schools.
Millions of Weapons in Circulation
There are about 400 million firearms in circulation in America today, according to Shawn Morrow, special agent in charge of the Louisville division of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.
“When you consider that the U.S. has a population of just over 335 million people, certainly that’s a lot of guns,” says Morrow.
Kentuckians are well-stocked with firearms as well. Morrow says last year alone, officials conducted 3.5 million background checks on firearms purchasers in the state.
From the perspective of law enforcement, guns become a problem when they fall into the hands of someone who has criminal intent. Morrow says that can happen when illegal buyers acquire a firearm through a straw purchase, from an unlicensed dealer, or by theft. About a quarter of guns Louisville police encounter while investigating criminal activity have been previously reported as stolen, according to Morrow.
“In Kentucky there are about eight firearms a day that are reported stolen to law enforcement, but we know that doesn’t account for all firearms,” he says. “Kentucky is one of the states that doesn’t require mandatory reporting if your gun is taken, so know there’s some thefts that occur that law enforcement just doesn’t know about.”
Austin says that points to the critical need for requiring safe and secure storage of personal firearms, both to prevent theft and to protect children who could be endangered by playing with a gun or a family member who might have suicidal thoughts.
But Burnett argues that even safe-storage laws shouldn’t restrict a gun owner’s access so much that they can’t easily use their weapons to defend themselves or their families if the need arises.
That resistance to something as basic as safely securing guns in the home rankles Mark Bryant of the Gun Violence Archive.
“The one thing the no one seems to want to talk about on the gun rights side is taking responsibility for properly securing your weapons to where they can’t be stolen,” he says, “to where the three-year-old or the two-year-old can’t find daddy’s gun and shoot themselves.”
While high-profile incidents like the Uvalde school mass shooting tend to get the most media attention, Bryant says the vast majority of gun deaths occur on city streets among people using stolen handguns. While 247 Americans have died in mass shootings so far this year, nearly 8,400 have died in gun-involved homicides and murders. Another 10,428 people have taken their own lives using a firearm. Yet Bryant says the NRA-fueled myth of a good guy with a gun being the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun continues to persist in the U.S.
“A lot of the gun rights folks are very responsible. Others do everything they can to strongly avoid having any responsibility for a solution,” says Bryant. “That’s bothersome because… everybody has to help this.”