The murder of 17 students and educators at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida by a 19-year-old shooter has hit home a fact we already knew: our gun control laws are failing us. And something’s got to give.
Talking about gun control policy is tricky, because a lot of it happens at the state level, and strengths of policy vary greatly between states. Places like California and Massachusetts clean house when it comes to progressive gun control policy, while states like Missouri and Louisiana fail to offer stringent gun control regulations despite shocking rates of gun violence deaths.
State laws build on groundwork laid at the federal level. This includes requiring all licensed firearm dealers to run background checks on prospective buyers and maintain sale logs indefinitely, specifying minimum age of sale based on firearm category, and prohibiting the sale of firearms to individuals convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence offense (with limitations) or holding a criminal conviction resulting in more than one year in jail.
“There’s a widespread perception that our gun laws are stronger than they are."
But Robin Lloyd, Director of Government Affairs at Giffords, a gun violence protection group started by former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, points out that gaps in policy coverage can make it difficult for federal gun control measures to regulate firearm possession, sale, and use without supportive state policies.
“There’s a widespread perception that our gun laws are stronger than they are,” Lloyd, told VICE Impact. “So when it comes to legislative solutions, there are many. Because we really have a lot of loopholes in our laws, particularly at the federal level that we really can do more to address.”
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For example, under federal law, a person must be at least 21-years-old to purchase a handgun or handgun ammunition from a licensed firearms dealer. For “long guns,” the age minimum drops to 18. This category of sale covers rifles and shotguns, including semi-automatic models, such as the one used in the Parkland, Florida shooting spree.
Things become even murkier when you look beyond licensed dealer transactions, such as sales made at many gun shows and through private parties. Without a licensed retailer, the minimum age for handgun sales drops to 18, and long gun sales, including semi automatic rifles, are sold without age restrictions at all. Unlicensed gun dealers may also sell without a background check, resulting in more than 40 percent of Americans making their most recent firearm purchase without formal review.
It’s these loopholes that may allow 18-year-olds to purchase semi-automatic rifles, permitted the purchasing of a firearm before a completed background check, and allowed convicted domestic abusers to continue carrying a gun, despite regulations barring new firearm purchases.
“The federal law really provides the floor. It’s kind of the bare minimum. I think it’s really the state laws that have the biggest impact because they go above and beyond federal law,” Laura Cutilletta, Legal Director at the Giffords Law Center told VICE Impact. “I think that it would be a really smart idea for Congress to work on closing the last loopholes in the laws that we already have.”
Fortunately, many states have stepped in to fill gun control policy gaps left at the federal level. 12 states require background checks at the point of transfer, and seven require all transfers to be made through, or processed by, a licensed dealer requiring a background check. Fourteen states have also gone beyond minimum requirements to actually authorize or require the surrendering of firearms or ammunition from individuals with a domestic abuse conviction, in addition to barring additional gun purchases.
"I think it’s really the state laws that have the biggest impact because they go above and beyond federal law."
Laws to bolster federal policies on licensing, registration, age requirements, and other gun control methods are also present on a state-by-state basis. Beyond that, a growing number of lawmakers have also raised concerns about the need for Extreme Risk Protection Orders, a preventative measure already in place in California, Washington, Oregon, and awaiting a final signature to become law in Florida.
“It gives law enforcement and families a tool to temporarily remove firearms from somebody who may be exhibiting signs of dangerous behavior,” Lloyd said. “So that’s a newer area, but that is certainly a gap in our current laws, and that gap was really highlighted by what happened in Florida.”
Policies to decrease gun violence are being proposed left, right, and center across federal and state levels, and public support for major gun reform is at its highest in recent history. 66 percent of Americans are calling for stricter gun control overall, and 97 percent support universal background checks, according to a Quinnipiac Poll conducted in late February. Nevertheless, the influence of the gun lobby, particularly the National Rifle Association, has remained strong in recent policy discussions, including legislative efforts to ban bump stocks.
Even in the face of NRA pressure and legal loopholes, lawmakers continue to push for stronger, safer gun control methods.
“Right away there was broad bipartisan support. People all across the aisle, up at the Hill, were saying, ‘hey, we’ve got to ban these, hey, we’ve got to address them, there’s no place for these types of devices in our society,’” Lloyd said. “And then the NRA said, ‘hey, the Department of Justice can take care of it, and by the way, Congress should pass Concealed Carry Reciprocity.’ So immediately, the breaks were put on.”
But even in the face of NRA pressure and legal loopholes, lawmakers continue to push for stronger, safer gun control methods. The bipartisan Fix NICS Act, introduced by Republican Senator John Cornyn from
Texas, hopes to increase the effectiveness of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System by penalizing agencies that don’t comply, and rewarding those who do. Also on the Senate floor is the Background Check Expansion Act, which seeks to close the gun show and private sale loophole by implementing a universal background check system.
But perhaps most impactful is the revolutionary push for gun control reform happening at the grassroots level. Thousands of students walked out of their classrooms to protest gun violence and to stand in solidarity with the seventeen people killed at Stoneman Douglas High School in February. On March 24th, students, families, and allies took to Washington D.C. for the collective March For Our Lives.
Ready to join the fight for stronger gun control policy? Join a local chapter of one of many national gun violence protection organizations like the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence or Moms Demand Gun Violence . It’s also important to make your voice heard, especially at the state and local level. Demand safe storage facilities in your community at your next local government meeting, and let your state representatives know that universal background checks and appropriate age-of-purchase limits are a priority for you. Tell our national leaders that you’re fed up with the status quo.