Mass shootingsAnother mass shooting: An update on U.S. gun laws

Published 1 March 2018

“The problem of mass shootings has been effectively addressed in other countries, with Australia being the most notable success story,” says Stanford Law Professor John Donohue III. “After a devastating mass shooting in 1996, Australia banned all semi-automatic rifles (a move far more stringent than the U.S. federal assault weapons ban), with no grandfathering of existing weapons––it was a real ban. The result is that Australia, which had been averaging close to one mass shooting a year over the prior fifteen years (a rate that was higher than the U.S. rate of mass murder at the time when adjusted for population), has now gone almost twenty-two years without a mass shooting––an astonishing achievement of public policy.” Donohue adds that Australia took many additional gun control steps, such as banning “personal protection” as a reason for obtaining a gun permit. “Importantly, their rates of homicide, suicide, and robbery have all trended down contrary to the assertions and predictions of the NRA,” Donohue says.

Americans are, once again, confronting a mass shooting—this time at a school in Parkland, Florida, where seventeen students and teachers were killed and dozens more injured, some critically, on 14 February 2018. While mass shootings in Las Vegas, Orlando, and Newtown make the headlines, there are many more each year. In a Q&A with SLS’s Sharon Driscoll, Stanford Law Professor John Donohue III discusses gun safety law and legislative developments.

Sharon Driscoll: It has been reported that the suspect in the Florida school shooting purchased an assault weapon legally. Is Florida unusual in that respect—can most Americans purchase this powerful a firearm?
John Donohue
: After the federal assault weapons ban lapsed in 2004, Americans who were at least 18 years of age could buy semi-automatic rifles everywhere in the United States, subject to some restrictions in a relatively small but growing number of states. For example, California, New York, Connecticut, Maryland and a number of other states have passed state assault weapons bans that prohibit at least some semi-automatic rifles, and––perhaps most importantly––restrict the number of bullets in the gun magazine to ten (as the now lapsed federal assault weapons ban had from 1994-2004). For comparison, Canada limits magazine size to five bullets.

Driscoll: After each mass shooting there is a push to better identify mentally ill people and prevent them from purchasing firearms—and to do the same for people convicted of spousal abuse or those prone to violence. Have we had any new laws passed in Congress recently to address these issues and other measures that might help?
: Unfortunately, no. In fact, the Trump Administration and the House of Representatives teamed up to overturn an Obama-era regulation that added 75,000 severely mentally disabled individuals who were collecting disability benefits to the existing background check system, which shows that the frequent NRA invocation that the problem is mentally ill individuals with guns is simply another part of the charade to divert attention from reasonable gun safety measures.