Making Government Work

5 Policies That States Are Using to Curb Gun Violence, With Encouraging Results

September 12, 2017
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5 Policies That States Are Using to Curb Gun Violence, With Encouraging Results
Attendees inspect handguns at the NRA Annual Meetings and Exhibits in Louisville, Ky. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images
Local communities are increasingly taking matters into their own hands.

On average, nearly 34,000 people are killed in the U.S. each year due to gun homicide, suicide or accidents, with another 81,000 who are shot but survive. But zeroing in on the causes of gun violence, in order to thwart them, is no easy task. It’s not just about a glut of available firearms or how easy it is to obtain one. As the Center for American Progress pointed out in its 2016 Progress Index, there is a connected web of social and economic issues that can impact rates of violence in a community — persistent poverty and a lack of employment, to name a few.

That’s led several communities to take novel approaches to curb the bloodshed, either by expanding existing federal law or implementing new ideas altogether. Below, five policies put in place by cities and states around the country whose smart governance on guns is changing the landscape for the better.

THE POLICY: A BETTER BACKGROUND CHECK

Federal law already requires licensed firearms dealers to perform criminal background checks on prospective buyers. But unlicensed private sellers — who are responsible for about 40 percent of all gun sales in “no questions asked” transactions — are not legally bound to follow the same rules.

Since the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., six states (Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Oregon and Washington) have successfully closed this gap by passing and implementing these so-called universal background checks on every sale and transfer within their borders (including those purchased at gun shows and online) for all classes of firearms, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Nevada could soon be the seventh, but the state is currently undergoing a procedural dispute over the implementation of the measure.

THE POLICY: DENYING GUNS TO DOMESTIC ABUSERS

Research has repeatedly shown a lethal link between domestic violence and gun violence in the U.S. In 2011, nearly two-thirds of women who were murdered were shot and killed by their intimate partners. “It’s a huge epidemic,” says Hannah Shearer, staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Under federal law, people convicted of a felony or domestic abuse cannot buy or own a gun. But there are some limitations to that measure, like defining a domestic abuser only as a spouse. To protect more women, some states, including six in 2017 alone, have strengthened federal law by expanding that definition to also encompass former dating partners.

THE POLICY: LICENSING AT THE LOCAL LEVEL

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives requires a federal license for those in the business of selling guns. But the law doesn’t mandate that dealers perform background checks on their employees, says Avery Gardiner, co-president at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “They also don’t train them to recognize signs of illegal gun trafficking, nor is a gun store even required to lock up its inventory at night,” she says.

In response, 15 states, along with Washington, D.C., have made state-issued licenses mandatory for gun dealers. Additionally, six states — California, Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, Virginia and Washington — now require gun stores to do background checks on employees.

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THE POLICY: A FOCUS ON INNER CITIES

“Sometimes gun deaths in cities that are ethnically diverse get overlooked,” Shearer says, adding that instead, there’s a tendency to focus on mass shootings and rare events. But the reality is that deaths by guns happen every day across the country.

The Law Center published a report last year on promising approaches being implemented nationwide to reduce urban gun violence. One such city that’s seen success: Richmond, Calif.

In 2007, the Bay Area city was considered one of the country’s most dangerous. So officials there enacted intervention programs and policy reforms in response. They created a new agency, the Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS), to treat violence as a communicable disease and connected vulnerable residents to social services. As ONS’s director DeVone Boggan, a 2015 NationSwell AllStar, described the agency’s mission: “You’ve got to understand the nature of [violence], and you’ve got to understand the drivers of it” in order to combat it.

The results were impressive, with homicides in Richmond dipping by 2010. Three years later the city saw its murder rate fall from more than 40 homicides a year to 16, its lowest number in more than three decades.

THE POLICY: DETERMINING WHO’S TOO DANGEROUS TO HAVE A GUN

A measure designed to keep guns away from people perceived at risk of harming themselves or others allows police, and sometimes family members, to ask the courts to intervene. Provided with enough evidence, a judge might temporarily deny a person’s access to guns if he or she is deemed to be a significant danger.

Connecticut was the first state to enact a version of this order in 1999, followed later by Indiana, California and Washington State. Others, including Oregon, are considering adopting similar bills. In 2016, researchers from Duke University led a study that found a measurable reduction in Connecticut’s suicide rate as a result of its risk-warrant policy.

“These laws have a huge potential for saving lives,” Shearer says, “because family members often notice warning signs that somebody is suicidal or homicidal before something really bad happens.”

Homepage photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

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