Mass shootings have been a tragic fact of American life from at least the day in 1966 when a sniper armed with several guns climbed a clock tower at the University of Texas in Austin, killing 17 people and wounding 31 others. Since that day, 155 mass shootings by 159 shooters using 299 guns (168 legally obtained, 52 illegally obtained, and 79 of unknown provenance) have killed more than 1,100 people, including 185 children or teenagers. Mass shootings represent a distinctly modern phenomenon–one in which death tolls have risen as the number of bullets that can readily be fired from a gun has increased. In the 50 years prior to that fateful day in 1966, there were only 25 reported shootings that match the FBI definition of “mass shooting:” at least 4 people killed, not including the shooter.
Many mass shootings are marked by common factors. This means that there are steps we can take and laws we can pass that could prevent future mass shootings.
A nationwide study of mass shootings from 2009 to 2016 revealed that in least 42 percent of those incidents, there is documentation that the attacker exhibited dangerous warning signs before the shooting. Someone knew or suspected the shooter was in crisis or was exhibiting violent behavior.
Preventing access to firearms by someone in crisis is critical and has been demonstrated to prevent suicides and potentially mass shootings as well. There are several policies designed to do just that:
- Extreme Risk Protection Orders which allow family members or law enforcement who see disturbing patterns of behavior to petition the court to order the person in crisis to relinquish firearms and be temporarily placed on a “no buy” list.
- Instituting waiting periods before guns can be sold.
- Closing loopholes in our background check systems that allow private sales of long guns without any background check.
- Closing the federal loophole that allows firearms sales to proceed in the absence of a clean background check after 72 hours. We need to protect systems like the Pennsylvania Instant Check System (PICS) which prohibits sales until a clean background check is returned.
Most mass shootings are connected to domestic and family violence, and more than 40 percent of fatalities in domestic or family-violence-related mass shootings were children. Even in cases where the ultimate victims in the mass shooting were not necessarily related to the shooter, the shooter often had a history of domestic violence. The 2017 Las Vegas tragedy is a case in point: one of the only things that we know about the shooter is that he was alleged to have had a history of spousal abuse.
While our recent victory here in Pennsylvania–the passage of Act 79 of 2018 is an important step in disarming abusers, we can and should do more. Again, closing loopholes, removing weapons in all cases of abuse, instituting waiting periods, working with law enforcement and mental health professionals to spot and monitor abusive behavior before these instances of mass violence, and making the process of seeking and obtaining protection from abuse orders easier for victims.
Over the past decade, the deadliest mass shooting incidents have involved the use of assault weapons and/or high capacity magazines. Military-style, semi-automatic assault weapons (AWs, both rifles and pistols) have become “the weapons of choice” of mass shooters. And, the single best predictor of the mass shooting rate in any given state is whether the state has implemented a ban on the sale of large-capacity ammunition magazines. Right now, a shooter using certain magazines can fire 100 bullets in the span of just a couple of minutes, and many of the clips containing these magazines can be fitted into both semi-automatic rifles and handguns.
We should ban the private ownership of magazines that hold more than 15 bullets. We also should ban the sale of any weapon that can fire such magazines–because all weapons that can do so, no matter their appearance, are “assault weapons.”
What You Can Do
Call all of your legislators–state and federal–and ask them to support:
- An Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO) bill
- A ban on high-capacity magazines
- A ban on military-style assault weapons, both rifles and handguns
- A bill that closes the state loophole that allows the private sale of long guns without a background check
- A bill that would impose a waiting period on the sale of any firearm.
1 ‘The Terrible Numbers That Grow with Each Mass Shooting,’ The Washington Post, Sept. 14, 2018.
2 Mass Murder with Firearms: Incidents and Victims, 1999-2013