The Cost of Postponing Gun Control

by Lex Kang


On October 1st, 2017, Stephen Craig Paddock, a 64-year-old white man, gambler, and wealthy former accountant wounded 527 and killed 59 by opening fire into a crowd of music festival goers at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. This atrocity was the deadliest mass shooting incident in all of US history.[1] Shortly after causing the damage, Paddock, a guest at the Mandalay Hotel, killed himself in his room before police officers could arrest him. His room was later discovered to contain over 40 firearms.[2]


Following Paddock’s killing spree, the controversy around gun control laws in the United States has been more heated than ever, with many wondering how Paddock, a man without any obvious reason to possess so many firearms, could obtain so many weapons, and transport them weapons into public places like hotels so easily.[3] This concern is justified; according to BBC, there were 372 mass shootings in the US in 2015, with 64 of them occurring at schools. Across these incidents, “some 13,286 people were killed….according to the Gun Violence Archive, and 26,819 people were injured.”[4]


The severity of gun violence in the US is beyond compare. The most recent statistics from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) are from 2012: gun murders per capita in the US in 2012 were 2.9 for every 100,000, whereas the UK only had 0.1. With 60% of murders in the US being by firearm compared to 31% in Canada, 18.2% in Australia, and just 10% in the UK[5], guns and random mass shootings are a serious threat to public safety and security in the United States. Naturally, the spotlight for legal scrutiny is on gun control laws in US states where the most gun violence has occurred.


Gun laws in Nevada are some of the most lenient in the country. There is no waiting period before the final purchase of a weapon, no requirement for a gun license, and no limit on the number of firearms someone can own. Handguns, automatic assault weapons, and machine guns are all available for purchase; the latter two must be registered, though handguns are not subject to that rule.[6] Large magazines of ammunition can also be purchased. Open-carry in public places, including polling areas, casinos, and bars, is legal for all without a permit. The only areas where the law explicitly bans guns are in schools and on university campuses. With a license, even concealed handgun carry is permitted.[7] Licenses are granted by the sheriff, who must distribute one to anyone who “is not a felon, drug addict or illegal immigrant who has never been judged mentally ill or committed of been convicted of a crime of domestic violence.”[8] Essentially, the state of Nevada puts up few restrictions that could stop someone from carrying weapons into a large crowd of people and using them.


Though it wouldn’t be fair to say that these gun laws directly caused the mass shooting, the incredible accessibility of guns in the state of Nevada is undeniable. We know that the United States has a history of violent shootings, from the Newton School in Connecticut to the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. We know that all other developed countries have found feasible solutions to large-scale gun violence[9]. One can only conclude that gun violence is a preventable tragedy, and that steps must be taken before the crisis worsens. So what is standing in the way of better gun control in the United States?


For one thing, many Americans do not see the utility of gun control legislation; in fact, “6 in 10…did not think [gun law] changes would curb gun violence,” according to a CNN poll.[10] For this reason and others, public support for tougher gun laws is only slightly above a majority at 55%, despite the countless shootings that have reached public attention in the past decade.[11] Many Americans believe firmly in protecting the right to bear arms, and as a result do not support the idea of restricting access across the board.


However, support for specific measures in regulating gun accessibility is much higher, with “92% saying they wanted expanded background checks, 87% supporting a ban for felons or people with mental health problems and 85% saying they would ban people on federal watch lists from buying guns.”[12] The support for limitations but not blanket bans suggests that the public believes the US has a problem with gun violence, but opposes strict regulations as an unnecessary infringement on their constitutional rights.


The nuances of public opinion have long plagued legislators who’ve aimed to pass stricter gun laws at the federal level, as exemplified by the failure of the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban. The Ban was full of logistical problems, beginning with its failure to clearly define which weapons would be prohibited. “Assault weapon” was not defined as either fully automatic or semiautomatic weapons, but rather 18 specific examples of firearms and some additional features on that guns may have. This laundry list of specifications left many loopholes. Manufacturers could easily make modifications to gun models to make them fit under the requirements. For example, the Colt Ar-15 used in a shooting in Aurora, Colorado, was soon replaced by a similar model, the Cold Match Target Rifle, which was not subject to the ban.


In addition, the Ban only outlawed the manufacture of “assault weapons” for sale to private citizens, meaning any guns manufactured before 1994 was entirely legal to own, sell, or resell. During the 10 years that the ban was in place, approximate 1.5 million assault weapons were still in the hands of American citizens.[13] Finally, there was a lack of sufficient data regarding the ban’s impact, so its effectiveness could not be assessed satisfactorily. The confluence of these factors meant that Ban was deemed a failure, and Congress showed no willingness to revive or revise it.[14]


The failure of Federal legislation is only one consideration, as guns are also regulated at the state level. Some states have much stricter laws than others. California is notorious for their relatively strict gun laws: they require a background check, a ten-day waiting period, and a written gun safety test administered to a person who would buy a gun. Most assault weapons are illegal to own, and purchasing or selling large magazines of ammunition is prohibited. Gun purchases must be made through a licensed dealer, and private sales are prohibited. An individual is limited to purchasing one gun per month.[15] New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, also stricter states, have elements of the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban written into state law. By contrast, states like Nevada do not even require a permit.


What causes this disparity on the state level? Partisan dominance of state legislatures plays a role; Republican-dominated states have tend to have looser restrictions than Democrat-dominated states[16]. There is a fundamental bipartisan divide regarding gun rights: “91% of Republican gun owners say owning a firearm is essential to their freedom vs. 43% of Democratic gun owners,” and only 20% of Democrats own guns while 44% of Republicans do[17]. As a result, 78% of Democrats want more restrictions, while 68% of Republicans oppose them.[18]


In addition, many states with stricter gun laws lack large populations who engage in gun-related recreational activities. For example, hunters tend to oppose any form of regulation on gun usage, and are “very upset with the National Rifle Association,” who they see as limiting their rights.[19] Finally, more populous states and those with larger urban areas tend to use guns less.


Given these factors, Nevada’s lax gun regulations are not surprising. Though it is slowly becoming more liberal, the state is historically red, and its legislature skews conservative. Most “western states with large rural populations”[20] have a strong cultural support for guns, with more residents who use guns recreationally for hunting and shooting at practice shooting ranges[21], which leads to support for lax gun laws from both civilians and politicians.


Nevada finally passed the regulation to require background checks for prospective gun buyers last year, with a bare minimum majority of 50.4% in favor, and even this was mostly due to the contribution of the liberal urban population concentrated in Las Vegas. Las Vegas, according to Ian Bartrum, a constitutional law professor based in Nevada, is the “only places in the state where you’ll find some broad support for gun certain control measures.” Even so, “shooting ranges and other gun tourism…[is] a big of a part of the economy,”[22] and widespread support for strict bans on assault weapons or further regulation on gun retail is still unlikely to materialize. Lawsuits against the background check procedure enacted just last year are already in court. Clark County, Nevada used to be the one county that required registration for gun sales, but even this local legislation was reversed in 2015 by the state legislature, which required the destruction of all records of these registrations in June.[23]


Support for stricter regulation tends to peak briefly in the grieving period immediately following a mass shooting.[24] The difference of opinions between the two sides seems to have no hope in being met in compromise. Gun control advocates want to limit accessibility to preemptively prevent gun rights abuse, while gun rights advocates cannot help but notice that these stricter gun enforcements seem to do little in preventing mass shootings, noted by the shooting in San Bernardino in California and in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, both states with stricter gun laws.[25] The argument also continuously clashes on constitutional rights: gun rights advocates will look at the original text of the Second Amendment and claim all US citizens have the right to bear arms, while gun control advocates point out that all rights must be negotiated in the modern era, especially in relation to protecting the rights of others to safety.


While gun rights advocates are technically correct in claiming there is no direct correlation between frequency of mass shootings and the apparent strictness of that state’s gun laws, mass shootings have not occurred frequently enough for there to be large enough sample size to create a conclusive correlation. What’s more, the poor enforcement of guns laws contributes to the perception that regulation is ineffective. John R. Lott, author of More Guns, Less Crime argues that the background checking system for purchasing guns, had it been properly enforced in state legislature, would have “stopped the Charleston mass shooting from happening.”[26]


Furthermore, gun control advocates look towards the broader goal of increased gun safety, not just preventing mass shootings. Gun violence in general, according to studies by Harvard University, is likely to decrease with stricter regulation on gun ownership.[27] Sure enough, statistics published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Firearm Mortality by State revealed that Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and California, all states with stricter gun laws as referenced above, had firearm death rates below 8.0, while Nevada ranked 14th highest with 14.9, below other states known for relatively lax laws like Louisiana, at a whopping 20.4.[28]


In retrospect, perhaps Nevada would not have experienced such a staggering number of casualties had there been more hindrances to purchasing machine guns, large-capacity ammunition magazines, or firearm carriage in large, open, public spaces. Had Paddock been limited in the number of gun purchases he could make, he would not have possessed dozens of guns. Had there been thorough background checks, it may have been discovered earlier that Paddock had been on Valium and was suffering from mental illness.[29] Had there been a law that prevents the private citizen from purchasing assault weapons or large capacity ammunition magazines, perhaps there would not have been enough bullets to end so many innocent lives.


There are many cultural, legislative, and implementation-related barriers to crafting more effective gun control measures. But on the state and federal levels, we must reckon with the human cost of failing to do so.