As the next mass shooting looms

James Alan Fox 2:37 p.m. EST
June 19, 2015

New gun laws likely won't prevent massacres, but there are other good reasons to pass them.

It has become semi-automatic that any large-scale mass shooting will spark furious discussion concerning the role of guns and regulations governing their sale and ownership. The higher the body count, the more heated the debate between those demanding more gun restrictions and those wanting more gun rights.

With over four dozen killed and even more wounded at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, it is no surprise that gun control groups and gun lobbyists alike are exploiting the tragedy as fodder to advance their respective agendas. Despite the passion behind their arguments, both sides overstate the potential impact on future rampage killings.

Given that assault weapons were used in the Orlando shooting as well as in the 2012 Newtown, Conn. school massacre, the obvious and logical response for many Americans is to urge a ban on the sale of such powerful killing machines. Several petitions are circulating online and a Democratic filibuster forced Senate leaders to schedule votes on gun measures this week.

Bill Clinton and other political leaders have blamed the scourge of mass shootings on the expiration of the 1994 federal assault weapons ban. However, the 10-year prohibition failed to produce any real reduction in shootings in which four or more victims were killed. The average number of mass shootings annually was 16.9 in the decade prior to the ban, 19.2 during the ban, and 21.6 in the decade after the ban lapsed — a gradual increase essentially paralleling the nation's population growth.

There was an increase after the ban in the average victim count: 4.5 victims killed on average before and during the ban, and then up to 5.0 in the 10 years following the ban, an increase mainly the result of the especially large body counts at Virginia Tech in 2007 and Sandy Hook in 2012. Of course, prohibiting the sale of assault weapons may still be a reasonable move, yet there are millions of them already in circulation for anyone determined to obtain one through a private transaction.

Despite their unparalleled firepower, most mass murderers actually do not use assault rifles, but instead rely on more easily transported and concealed semi-automatic handguns. The assailant at Virginia Tech, for example, was able to execute 32 students and faculty with a pair of semi-automatic pistols. Although high capacity magazines allow for dozens of shots without reloading, the same can be accomplished with multiple weapons.

Gun control groups are also calling for universal background checks, including closing the gun show loophole. Unfortunately, keeping dangerous guns away from dangerous individuals is far easier said than done. Most mass killers are not on terrorism watch lists and do not have criminal records or a history of psychiatric commitment, and thus are able to purchase their guns and ammo legally. Even if denied, they can always beg, borrow or steal the weapons needed to perpetrate a bloodbath.

On the flip side of the gun debate, champions of right-to-carry provisions point out that mass shootings usually occur at so-called “soft targets” where victims are expected, by virtue of gun restrictions, to be unarmed. But then again, most places are soft. Florida’s concealed carry law, for example, excludes establishments primarily devoted to alcohol consumption, such as the Orlando night club. Keeping guns from inebriated people makes good sense: We really wouldn't want to mix vodka with anything more potent than tonic water.

Of course, there have been a handful of shootings in which citizen intervention may have reduced the carnage. Beyond anecdotal evidence, the effect of an expanded carry right is an empirical question that was best answered by criminologist Grant Duwe. His research found that concealed firearms laws have no measurable impact on public mass shootings.

Then there is the risk that a shootout involving an assailant and armed citizens would claim more lives. For example, had moviegoers in Aurora, Colo. pulled out concealed weapons inside the darkened theater, the chaos could have been magnified with many more victims potentially caught in the crossfire. Unlike the gunman who, by virtue of planning, is calm and steady, others are caught by surprise.

On balance, there are many reasonable strategies that we should pursue, including enhanced background checks as well as limits on certain guns and accessories that increase their deadliness. Mass shootings do tend to create legislative momentum, if only for a short while.

Strengthening gun-control laws may have many benefits in addressing the dozens of firearm homicides that that take place daily in the U.S., but will do little to curtail murder in its most extreme form. Nevertheless, if the latest episode becomes the impetus for needed change, then at least it is the right thing to do even for the wrong reason.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors. He is co-author of Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder.