Evan Horowitz | Quick Study

What could tighter gun control accomplish?

Investigators searched for bullet casings at the scene of Wednesday’s police shootout in San Bernardino, Calif., on Thursday.
Jae C. Hong/AP
Investigators searched for bullet casings at the scene of Wednesday’s police shootout in San Bernardino, Calif., on Thursday.

In the aftermath of Wednesday’s horrific shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., President Obama made an appeal that has become tragically familiar, urging support for “common-sense gun safety laws.”

Though his words were echoed by all three Democratic candidates for president, along with editorial boards and columnists from around the country, they are unlikely to lead to real change. Public support for gun control barely tops 50 percent. And opposition from conservative legislators and the gun rights lobby has proved remarkably strong.

Imagine, though, if the political opposition to tighter gun laws suddenly melted away. How big a difference would it make, and how many mass shootings would be prevented?


It’s hard to know exactly, but the proposals floated in recent years have all been relatively narrow, with limited applicability to the conditions in which most mass shootings in the United States have occurred.

What types of gun control might the United States pursue?

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Three years ago, after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, it seemed as if Democrats and Republicans might unite behind a new approach to gun control, built around a few key elements: universal background checks, a tighter ban on assault weapons, and a limit on high-capacity magazines.

The moment didn’t last, and each of these initiatives was killed off by stalwart opposition.

In the current political climate, it’s hard to imagine any approach to gun control that might bear fruit. Obama can’t even build support for his effort to keep guns out of the hands of people on the government’s no-fly list — those who are barred from flying on airplanes, because they are considered too dangerous.

Still, the package of reforms proposed after Sandy Hook gives a sense for what the president means when he refers to “common-sense gun safety laws.”

Would those reforms make a dramatic difference?


It’s easy to think of scenarios where these kinds of restrictions could stop, or at least hinder, future killers. Universal background checks, for instance, might keep convicted criminals from being able to purchase weapons at gun shows, from friends, and in other circumstances where checks aren’t currently required. And limiting assault weapons could plausibly throttle the firepower of those committed to violence.

But mass shootings are not regularly committed by people exploiting these loopholes. Often, they’re carried out by people who went through background checks, obtained their guns legally, and still used them for murderous purpose.

Christopher Harper-Mercer, who killed nine people at an Oregon community college, bought his many guns from a licensed dealer. Ivan Antonio Lopez, who killed three and wounded 16 at Fort Hood, likewise bought his gun at a shop. And so did Wade M. Page, who took six lives at a Sikh temple.

Looking at these and other high-profile cases, The New York Times did find several instances where better organized background checks — with smoother sharing of information — might have kept guns out of the hands of future killers, including Dylann Roof. But there’s little evidence that mass shootings would have been radically curtailed by the sorts of reforms discussed after Sandy Hook.

What might end the spate of mass shootings?

Australia provides the classic example. In 1996, after 35 people were killed by a lone gunman at a tourist resort, the Australian government passed a series of far-reaching new gun laws, including requiring gun purchasers to present a “genuine reason” for needing a weapon and requiring registration for all such weapons. And then it went further, with a mandatory nationwide buyback that collected over 600,000 semi-automatic shotguns and rifles.


In the 20 years since, Australia has not had a single mass shooting. Rates of general gun violence have plummeted, too.

It’s hard to imagine similar policies being pursued in the United States, though cities, including Boston, have held voluntary gun buyback programs. Not just because of the power of the gun rights lobby, or the broad popular support for gun ownership, but also because of the Second Amendment, which the Supreme Court now says protects an individual’s right to bear arms. Given that constitutional constraint, a mandatory buyback is likely beyond the legal pale.

There are certainly cases where things like universal background checks, limited access to assault weapons, and smaller ammunition magazines could save lives and keep the deadliest guns out of the hands of the most dangerous people.

But this does seem like one of those cases where small measures are likely to have small results. Recent killers have rarely needed legal loopholes to get their guns and take innocent lives. With roughly 300 million guns already sitting in American homes, access to firepower is rarely an insurmountable obstacle.

Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz.