For years, gun control advocates have been wondering what it will take to pass new laws limiting everyday Americans' easy access to deadly weapons. In the aftermath of the Orlando nightclub shooting, we may have our answer: When an obviously disturbed man who had been previously investigated by the FBI for terrorism connections is able to buy guns and use them a few days later to slaughter 49 people, that's a problem no one can deny.
On Thursday, after Senate Democrats filibustered for 15 hours, their Republican colleagues agreed to hold a vote on two measures. One would ban people on the federal terrorist watchlist from buying weapons; the other would require all gun purchasers to undergo background checks, even those who buy firearms over the internet or at gun shows. The latter has long been on liberal wish lists, and even Donald Trump is in favor of the former. Also this week, Fox News hosts Gretchen Carlson and Bill O'Reilly surprisingly came out in support of a ban on assault weapons, saying that the reason the Orlando shooter was able to kill so many people was because of his powerful weapon.
The fate of all these reforms is up in the air—even if the watchlist ban bill passed the Senate, it would still have to go through the Republican-dominated House, and that's the most modest of all the suggested reforms. (Last year, only 244 gun purchases from registered dealers were attempted by watchlist suspects.) And the focus on high-profile but rare mass shootings often excludes other aspects of gun violence, like accidental shootings, suicides, and the everyday killings that make up the lion's share of the 11,000 or so annual firearm homicides in America.
To talk about measures that could chip away at that, VICE spoke to Laura Cutilletta, the managing attorney for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a California-based gun control group. Here's what she had to say about background checks, assault weapons, and how to cut down on gun suicides.
VICE: What do you think of the proposed ban on firearm purchases by people on the terrorist watchlist? Do you support it?
Laura Cutilletta: We do support this. It's something that's only been enacted so far in one state, New Jersey. We think it makes good sense because if these are individuals who have already been identified as possibly dangerous, and we don't allow them to fly on airplanes. It certainly makes sense that they wouldn't be permitted to purchase a weapon.
What about the other thing the Senate will vote on, universal background checks?
Universal background checks is something that we've devoted a lot of time and resources to. Without universal background checks, any law that you have on the books is harder to enforce because without a background check, you don't know whether the potential purchaser is prohibited. [Currently] federal law only requires a background check if you're buying from a licensed dealer. If you buy from someone who doesn't have a license, you don't have to have a background check, and there's evidence saying that's about forty percent of gun sales. That's at gun shows or over the internet or through going to someone's house or going to the back of their car. It could happen in a number of ways. This is the most important law that can be enacted because it's the foundation for many other laws that are on the books.
The other thing that is kind of in the air at the moment is an assault weapons ban, which Bill O'Reilly of all people has endorsed. There was a 1994 ban on these guns that lasted until 2004, but it's efficacy has been hotly debated. Where do you guys stand on it?
The old assault weapon ban had a lot of compromises made at the time that law was passed. The definition of "assault weapon" in that ban was weak. The ineffectiveness of that ban really was due to the problematic language in the law itself. The way that you define "assault weapon" should really be about the function of the weapon. It's important not to include features in the definition that are more about cosmetics or how dangerous the gun looks. What you really want to get to is what makes the weapon different from other firearms. The type of stock, the pistol grip, the types of magazine—all of these features were designed for military use. The idea is to be able to control the weapon easily while you're firing a high volume of rounds so that you can kill as many people as possible. What distinguishes an assault weapon from a sporting weapon is that ability to spray fire.
The NRA and other gun rights activists always claim that more guns, more concealed carry permits, will make us safer because there will be more "good guys with guns." What's the evidence on that?
The most recent data on that is by John Donohue from Stanford. His research showed that not only does [more concealed carry] not make a state safer, but there is an actual increase in assaults. If you go to our website on the concealed weapons policy summary, we have some other studies, like the Los Angeles Times and the Orlando Sentinel looking at crimes committed by concealed-carry permit holders. The Violence Policy Center has an analysis of CCW permit holders that have killed people. Those are not as rigorous academic studies in the way the Donohue study is, but they're very enlightening. The gun lobby is always saying, "It's the law-abiding citizens that want to carry a gun," but data shows that's not always the case.
I know suicides are the majority of gun deaths. What sort of measures do you support that would reduce this?
Waiting periods are effective because it gives people a chance to cool down, go to a therapist, have family or friends intervene. Also, the way that guns are stored in the home has a large effect on this because a lot of suicides are committed by teens, and they're often using guns found in the home. If a gun is harder to get to, or locked, or in a safe, it can deter an impulsive act by a teenager. If you attempt suicide and you don't use a gun, you're less likely to succeed. If you can keep people who may be suicidal away from accessing guns, it could save their lives.
Besides background checks, what are some of the most effective reforms we could enact?
We think that domestic violence is a really important area because when you have a firearm in a domestic violence situation, it's twelve times more likely that a violent assault will result in death, if the assault involves a firearm. We really strongly advocate for laws that are aimed at keeping abusers unarmed. That means if they have been the subject of a restraining order, or if they have been convicted on a domestic violence misdemeanor, not only prohibiting them but actually putting mechanisms in place to force them to surrender the gun [they already own.]
We also think it's very important to require gun dealers to be regulated. There's a bill pending in Illinois that would require dealer regulation. Chicago has this huge gun problem, and they have been able to identify that those guns are coming from corrupt dealers, some of them are in Illinois. Chicago has strong gun laws and regulates dealers but the state [of Illinois] does not. They really have no way to stop those guns from coming in so legislators are pushing for this law that would help Chicago out.
Another one would be reporting loss or stolen firearms. If you are a gun owner and you lose your gun or it's stolen, you should be required to report that within a short amount of time.
Do you think that generally the way to pursue these policies is at the state level opposed to the federal level?
We do. We've always been focused at the state level. The reason is it's always easier to get things done at a smaller level of government. Start with your local city council member then you move up. The best way to get good policies enacted is to work at the state level. It's sometimes the only way. If the federal government won't act, state legislators are left with no other option.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.