WASHINGTON — The recent mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., which took the lives of 17 people, has intensified calls for gun control legislation. Even Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and President Trump himself have signaled that they might be open to increasing restrictions on gun ownership in the United States.
However, not all of these restrictions would have prevented the events of the Parkland shooting or the other mass shootings of the past five years. Critics of proposed restrictions argue that many could be circumvented by would-be shooters; regardless, it seems that a patchwork of new legislation would be necessary to substantively prevent the mass shootings that have become commonplace in the United States.
Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where the shooting took place, have spoken openly with the media and at nationally televised town halls about their belief in the necessity of stricter gun control laws.
“The guns have changed but our laws have not,” said Stoneman Douglas student Emma Gonzalez in a speech last week. “In Florida, to buy a gun you do not need a permit, you do not need a gun license, and once you buy it you do not need to register it. You do not need a permit to carry a concealed rifle or shotgun. You can buy as many guns as you want at one time.”
Gonzalez is one of many students, both at Stoneman Douglas and around the country, who have been advocating for tighter gun restrictions in the wake of the Parkland shooting.
In response to these calls, the president has said that he wants to ban bump stocks, a piece of equipment that can enable a semi-automatic weapon to mimic automatic fire; raise the age of long gun purchase from 18 to 21; and push to strengthen background checks.
Some of the policy changes for which gun control activists advocate might have prevented the massacre at Stoneman Douglas and other recent mass shootings from unfolding as they did.
Raising the Rifle Purchase Age to 21
The Stoneman Douglas high gunman, Nikolas Cruz, was 19 at the time of the attack. He was also 19 when he purchased the gun used in the shooting — a Smith & Wesson M&P 15 military-style rifle. Under federal law, handguns can only be sold to people 21 and over, but rifles and long guns can be sold to anyone over 18.
In a break with the National Rifle Association, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, announced Friday that he supported increasing the rifle purchase age to 21.
Critics of this policy argue that those under 21 who wish to obtain a gun but are banned from doing so legally will simply acquire weapons by other means. Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old who murdered 27 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, used weapons legally owned by his mother. When 19-year-old Robert Hawkins killed 8 people at a Nebraska mall in 2007, he reportedly used an AK-47 that he had stolen from his stepfather.
Universal Background Checks, Improving Background Check Protocol
Cruz purchased the weapon used in the shooting after successfully passing a background check. That check examined whether he had ever been found “mentally defective” by a court.
Advocates for universal background checks want to close the “gun show” loophole, which allows people to avoid taking a background check if the gun is purchased at a show. Sales without background checks can also occur when someone buys a gun secondhand, such as off of eBay or Craigslist. These sales allow people to purchase guns who might otherwise have been prevented from doing so.
The couple that committed the San Bernardino shooting bought two handguns legally but also acquired two assault rifles from their neighbor.
Adherence to proper background check protocol might have prevented a shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, that claimed the lives of 25 people in 2017. Shooter Devin Patrick Kelley, 26, had been convicted of domestic violence while serving in the military, but the Air Force failed to notify the FBI of the conviction. Kelley’s background check should have prevented him from being able to purchase a gun, but without the Air Force conviction he was able to do so anyway.
Shooter Dylann Roof, who murdered 9 people at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, should have been prevented from buying a gun due to a previous drug conviction, but a records error permitted him to purchase the weapon, a .45 caliber Glock handgun, anyway.
Preventing the Mentally Ill from Buying Guns
Despite Cruz’s history of disciplinary problems and mental illness — he was expelled from Stoneman Douglas and had previously sought psychiatric treatment — his background check came back clear.
One of the problems of banning the mentally ill from purchasing guns is determining how to quantify mental illness.
Federal law bans the mentally ill from purchasing guns only if they were committed involuntarily to an institution or legally declared mentally unwell. Cruz’s prior treatment did not raise flags on his background check because the exact way in which “mental health issues” were codified — namely, being declared mentally unwell by a court — did not apply to him.
Hawkins, the 2007 Nebraska shooter, had received residential mental health treatment at an Omaha facility for several years prior to his attack. He had also been charged with assault and drug crimes, had threatened to kill his stepmother and was hospitalized twice for psychiatric issues.
Banning Bump Stocks
A semiautomatic weapon, such as an AR-15, AK-47, or the M&P 15 rifle used by Cruz, requires the user to pull the trigger once per shot. Outfitting such a weapon with a bump stock enables the gun to fire continuously as long as the trigger is held.
Scott, the Florida governor, and Trump have both voiced their support for a ban on bump stocks in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, although there’s no evidence that Cruz used bump stocks in his February massacre.
But bump stocks were a key component of the deadliest shooting in American history — the October 2017 attack on the Harvest Festival country music show in Las Vegas, Nevada. Shooter Stephen Paddock, who shot at concertgoers from a high hotel room, reportedly modified several semiautomatic weapons with bump stocks, causing them to mimic automatic fire.
After the Las Vegas shooting, which claimed the lives of 58 people and injured over 500, many in Congress called for a prohibition on bump stocks. The effort stalled late last year, but Trump has reportedly renewed it by calling on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to propose a rule that would ban bump stocks.
Preventing People on the No-Fly List from Buying Guns
Nikolas Cruz does not appear to have been on a federal no-fly list. However, the concept of banning people who are on the no-fly list from purchasing guns gained traction in 2016, after what was then the deadliest shooting in American history — the massacre at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Gunman Omar Mateen had been investigated twice by the FBI, during which time he was on terrorist watch lists.
However, Mateen was off any FBI list by the end of 2014. He purchased his weapons — including a Sig Sauer .223 caliber assault rifle – legally from a local store in 2016.
San Bernardino shooters Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, who posted a pledge of allegiance to ISIL on Facebook before their rampage, were also not on terrorist watch lists prior to their massacre.
In 2015, Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., proposed legislation that would have banned people on the no-fly list from purchasing guns, but the bill was voted down in December of that year.
The no-fly list reportedly has 47,000 names, fewer than 1,000 of which are American citizens. Other FBI terrorism watch lists include over 1 million people, including 25,000 American citizens.
Banning Assault-Style Guns
Even the definition of the term “assault weapon” inspires heated debate, with some gun owners’ groups arguing that AR-15 style guns do not qualify as assault weapons or assault rifles.
But AR-15-style rifles are exactly what proposed bans are intended to prohibit, including the Smith & Wesson M&P 15 .233-caliber that Cruz used in the Parkland attack.
The popularity of a proposed “assault weapons” ban has increased in the United States in the wake of the Florida shooting. According to a Quinnipiac poll released Feb. 20, 67 percent of Americans are in favor of a ban on the sale of assault weapons, up from 56 percent in 2013.
Indeed, these rifles were among the weapons used in the vast majority of the largest mass shootings of the past decade, including the Pulse shooting (Sig Sauer .223 caliber), San Bernardino (Smith & Wesson M&P and a DPMS Panther Arms rifle), Sutherland Springs (a Ruger AR-15 variant), and Las Vegas (47 guns including several AR-15-style rifles).