More preventable tragedies have left Americans mourning the loss of loved ones. Days before Thanksgiving, a man walked into an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs, Colo., carrying a handgun and an assault-style rifle. He killed five people and injured at least 19 others. Days later, another shooter opened fire on co-workers at a Walmart in Virginia, killing six.
Every mass shooting in America follows a familiar script: A community grieves, politicians send their often empty thoughts and prayers, and the nation’s gun laws remain, by and large, unchanged. It has become such a pattern that it sometimes feels naive to call for, let alone expect, meaningful reform. But earlier this year, Congress proved that there ought not be such hopelessness after it passed the first major federal gun safety bill in nearly three decades. And while that law is a small step — and a far from perfect one at that — it is still a sign of progress.
With Republicans taking control of the House at the start of the new year, however, it’s unlikely that federal lawmakers will again take on America’s gun laws anytime soon. But as has long been the case, the best hope for sensible gun laws rests on the states, which should continue pushing for stricter regulations. And while there’s no single law that can guarantee that the next mass shooter will be stopped, there’s one clear place to start: an assault weapons ban.
That might sound like it’s far too polarizing for lawmakers to touch, but it’s not a foreign concept. In fact, before this year, the last time Congress had passed meaningful gun legislation was the federal assault weapons ban in 1994. While it’s a shame that the ban only lasted 10 years — it was set to expire in 2004 and Congress failed to renew it — it provided an opportunity for a natural experiment. And according to one study, during the time that the federal assault weapons ban was in place, fatalities from mass shootings were 70 percent less likely to occur.
Other research has pointed to similar conclusions: There were fewer deaths from mass shootings in the 10 years that the ban was in place than in the decades prior to and after it. But natural experiments are not perfect, and it’s difficult to control for all other variables. That’s why those studies are perhaps not definitive. But what is common among many of the deadliest mass shootings in America is the type of weapon that’s used. And that is an AR-15 or a similar assault-style rifle that is designed with the explicit purpose to kill quickly — hardly the kind of weapon anyone would need for self-defense or sport.
Some states, including Massachusetts, have implemented their own assault weapons bans. But they consist of a very small minority: Only eight states and the District of Columbia have imposed such a ban. The unfortunate reality is that these bans are far less effective than a national ban because people can simply cross state lines in order to purchase the weapon they want. But that’s all the more reason for other states, including our New England neighbors, to enact assault weapons bans. And while the state bans are certainly not foolproof, they still could prevent would-be shooters from acting on impulse by making it that much harder to purchase a weapon.
Notably, Hawaii, which has some of the strictest gun laws in the country and doesn’t share any land borders, consistently has one of the lowest death rates related to gun violence every year.
On their own, assault weapons bans would only go so far. States must ensure that gun control laws that are already in place are actually enforced. The Colorado Springs shooter, for example, appears to have evaded the state’s “red flag” law, which would have allowed law enforcement to seize his weapons because he was previously investigated for threatening his mother with a homemade bomb. Handguns are also often used in mass shootings — as was the case in the shooting in a Virginia Walmart Tuesday night that left at least six people dead — and an assault weapons ban won’t change that.
But getting military-style guns out of the hands of civilians is just common sense. It has clear pros, like the potential to reduce fatalities, and no real cons — why does any civilian need an assault rifle anyway? It’s a sensible policy goal that more lawmakers should push for. And if Congress isn’t willing to reenact the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004, then it should be more than just a handful of states that impose one for themselves.
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