As one small piece of the puzzle of how to reduce the number of deaths from gun violence, the New York Times examined all 130 shootings in the year 2015 in which four or more people were shot, with at least one fatality, and in which authorities were able to identify at least one attacker. Cases included drug shootouts, domestic violence, and chance encounters.
Exploring what could be learned of how the shooters obtained their guns, they were seeking evidence to inform the question of whether background checks help and whether it is too easy for "dangerously mental ill or violent people" to obtain firearms.
In more than half of the 130 cases, an assailant had obtained a gun even though they were already barred by federal law from possessing a firearm. Most of these were due to a prior felony conviction. If state and local permit violations were also included, 64% of the shootings involved at least one attacker who was violating an existing gun law. In other words, having laws on the books is not a very effective deterrent where so many guns exist; where so many guns are sold without regulation by the existing laws (gun show loopholes, one-to-one sales, online sales); and where many shootings involve guns that were stolen or both illegally or that were bought legally by a family member or friend.
Of the other shooters, roughly 40% had never been in serious trouble with the law and probably could have bought a gun in states with the strictest gun control laws. These typically were cases of men who killed their families and then themselves.
Despite the outsized public debate over assault rifles, only 11% of the 130 shootings involved assault rifles. Most of the others used handguns. This was interpreted to mean that reinstating the ban on assault rifles would have minimal effect on the number of people killed by gun violence. However, my own reaction to that is that this is a statistician speaking. Given that there is no rational reason for a civilian to own a weapon designed for nothing other than killing many people as rapidly as possible, and given that it is easier to get support for such a ban -- why not eliminate that threat? Aren't the lives of those 11% worth saving?
With felons, the problem seems to be the ease with which they obtain guns, despite the laws. With mentally ill or violent people, the problem is identifying who should not have guns, without stigmatizing all people with mental illness, the vast majority of whom are not violent. The legal definition of "mental illness" is a woefully inadequate measure of who is likely to be violent.
At this point, federal gun restrictions based on mental state are limited to those who have been involuntarily committed to an institution. That is a feeble compromise in the attempt to solve a problem we don't know how to deal with: how to predict who will be violent and how to protect people without violating the rights of others who may or may not be dangerous.
The scandal here is not that we don't know the answers; the scandal is that the NRA has convinced politicians that we should not even allow the question to be researched.
Did you know that it is illegal for any of the CDC budget to be used to study gun violence as a public health problem? Or for a CDC official to write a report that says it should be studied? Or that, in some states, it is illegal for pediatricians to ask parents whether there are guns in the home, so that they can counsel them about proper safety measures to keep their children safe?
The nature of this inquiry (shootings with multiple victims) does not include the single largest category of gun deaths -- suicides and accidental shootings in the home. Those should be the easiest to prevent, but the love affairs with guns and the increasing felt need for protection have only increased the number of homes with guns.
Don't look for this problem to get solved during the present political climate in Washington.