June 14, 2013 marked the six month anniversary of the tragic events in Newtown, Connecticut in which 20 children and six adults were killed by a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School. In an average year, approximately 15,000 Americans are killed by gunfire in a six month period. This includes suicides, homicides and accidental deaths.
Following the Newtown shootings, the public, media, and policy makers focused a level of attention not seen in many years on preventing gun violence. State legislatures debated numerous bills. And the U.S. Senate, generally reluctant to even take up new gun-related measures, debated and actually voted on a proposed change to the rules about how guns are bought in the U.S. The last major change to these federal rules, the Brady Gun Violence Prevention Act, was enacted in 1993. The Brady Act requires a criminal history background check to be conducted of the buyer whenever a gun is purchased from a licensed gun dealer. But under current federal law — and the law of most states — no background check is required when a gun is bought from someone who isn’t a licensed dealer. Best estimates suggest that perhaps 40 percent of all gun transactions each year occur in this largely unregulated “private” market. The Senate bill would have required background checks (with a few exceptions) of all gun buyers. The bill ultimately garnered 54 votes in the Senate, six less than needed to overcome opponents’ objections.
But for those who favor changes to our nation’s gun laws, there remains cause for optimism. The Brady Law was not enacted in the first year of its introduction. Momentum built over time. Supporters of universal background checks have already vowed to reintroduce the legislation in Congress.
Perhaps more importantly, a number of state legislatures enacted substantial new laws during their 2013 legislative sessions. For example, in Maryland a new law will require prospective gun buyers to obtain a license and be fingerprinted to verify their identity. Maryland also banned the sale of certain military-style assault weapons and limited the permissible capacity of an ammunition magazine to a maximum of 10 rounds; so-called “high capacity” ammunition magazines have been used in several recent mass shootings. New York State also banned high capacity magazines and made it more difficult for persons with a history of dangerous mental illness to purchase a gun. Connecticut stiffened its background check system and added new restrictions on assault weapons and high capacity magazines. And Colorado — which experienced a mass shooting last year at a movie theater in the town of Aurora — adopted a universal background check law for all gun purchases and limited magazine capacity to 10 rounds.
I write this blog on July 4th, 2013. As our nation celebrates the anniversary of its Declaration of Independence, firearm ownership is a cherished right for many Americans. And most firearm owners are law-abiding citizens who will never misuse their gun. But some high-risk persons will harm themselves or others with firearms, and the public health consequences are staggering. Laws designed to make it harder for high-risk people to acquire guns, or to obtain especially high-risk weapons, have been overwhelmingly (with just a few exceptions) upheld by the courts since the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller affirmed an individual’s Second Amendment right to own a handgun in the home.
From a constitutional perspective, it is eminently possible to strike a legal balance between protecting public safety and recognizing individual interests — even in the contentious area of gun policy. Polls show that a majority of gun owners support a number of policies designed to keep guns away from high-risk people. In next year’s state legislative sessions, and in Congress, policy makers will no doubt continue to wrestle with this balance.
This post was prepared by Jon S. Vernick, J.D., M.P.H., Associate Professor and Associate Chair, Department of Health Policy & Management; Co-Director, Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy; and Research Deputy Director, Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state. The views expressed in this post do not represent those of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.