One hundred and sixty three people have died in school shootings since the government began counting in the early 1980s. Needless to say, “never again” is hardly a controversial idea — no one wants another school shooting.
The controversy begins when politicians start talking solutions. At the crux of the arguments: What laws would keep students safe while maintaining citizens’ Second Amendment rights? With varying levels of support, ideas currently debated in Florida include: an “assault weapons ban,” red flag laws, stronger background checks and waiting periods, age limits for weapons purchases, and banning bump stocks.
A look at the deadliest school shootings in United States history shows that no single idea —from the right or left — would have prevented every school shooting. But each proposal may have prevented at least one of them, experts say.
The Sandy Hook shooter who killed 27, including himself, stole the rifle from his mother, so a better background check and a three-day waiting period that included mental health reviews wouldn’t have prevented the possibly schizophrenic young man from having a weapon. The Virginia Tech shooter who killed 33, including himself, in the deadliest school shooting in history used two pistols, not a rifle, so the “assault weapons ban” as it’s being called, wouldn’t have changed anything. He was also 23, so no proposed age limit would have stopped him either.
“The only thing that would actually stop school shootings is if you got rid of guns in America, and that is not feasible or possible in this moment,” said Mike McLively, an expert on the Second Amendment at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a nonprofit named after then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot and seriously wounded in 2011 outside a grocery store in Arizona. Six people died.
But that’s no excuse for nonaction, McLively said. “Any one of these policies may not have stopped the Parkland shooting, but any one of them might also stop the next shooting that happens somewhere else.”
So how would the major gun reform proposals being argued in Tallahassee work? Would they have stopped the shooters in the deadliest shootings in history?
ASSAULT WEAPONS BAN
Semiautomatic rifles seem to be the weapon en vogue for mass shooters — Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, the Pulse nightclub and the list goes on.
In response, Stoneman Douglas survivors have been clear — they want an “assault weapons ban,” as do most Floridians, according to a recent poll. But the school safety bill moving through the Florida Senate doesn’t include such a ban.
Banning “assault weapons” is not easy, firearms expert and Global Journalist Security consultant Michael Limatola pointed out. And the problem is in large part technical. First, there is no agreed-upon definition of “assault weapons” and the term is often misused to imply semiautomatic rifles. Outlawing all semiautomatic rifles would, by definition, also ban millions of hunting rifles, making the idea too broad for many to consider.
Laws like the now-defunct 1994 federal “assault weapons” ban (which some politicians want to bring back) defined an “assault rifle” as any rifle that could accept a detachable magazine, and had at least two parts on a list of mostly cosmetic features associated with military weapons — a telescopic stock, for example. The law also banned specific guns by name.
That last part didn’t work: Manufacturers just renamed the rifles. And the definition of “assault rifle” didn’t prevent manufacturers from producing deadly semiautomatic rifles for civilian sale either. “The problem with banning cosmetic features is that they can be removed,” said Limatola. Even without those features, the rifles remain essentially the same.
The semiautomatic rifle used in the Columbine massacre was legal under the 1994 assault weapons ban, which was in force at the time. The Bushmaster XM15-E2S used to kill kindergarteners at Sandy Hook in 2012 was also an AR-15 rifle modified to be legal under the 1994 ban.
Some states, like California and New York, have narrowed the “assault weapons” definition to one feature on the list, not two, and include some semiautomatic handguns and shot guns. As part of its ban, California also restricts the size of the magazine that a civilian can buy to 10 rounds.
“There’s a critical moment when someone has to pause to reload,” said McLively. “With a smaller magazine, they are going to have to reload multiple times. So that presents an opportunity to tackle the person or run away.” The gun of Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland shooter, is reported to have jammed, forcing him to stop shooting.
But at the end of the day, experts agree that an assault weapons ban would not have prevented all, or even most, of school shootings. Why? Because semiautomatic handguns, not rifles, are still the weapon of choice in most mass shootings. In the 2015 Umpqua Community College shooting where nine were killed, the shooter favored a smaller handgun, never firing the rifle he brought to the Oregon campus. Many other shooters didn’t carry a rifle at all.
“We have too many firearms and even if they are not assault weapons, you can shoot and kill a lot of people,” said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy & Research.
‘RED FLAG’ LAWS/ GUN VIOLENCE PROTECTION ORDERS
The problem with preventing school shooters usually isn’t a lack of warning signs. The problem, said McLively, is that in many states, law enforcement officials don’t have the legal framework to take guns away from individuals who appear to be a danger to themselves or others.
The answer proposed by Florida legislators: a so-called “Red Flag” law, or a gun violence protection order.
A “Red Flag Law” allows a family member or law enforcement official to petition a court for a restraining order that would temporarily prohibit an unstable or dangerous individual from owning or possessing a gun. Essentially, if a family member could show the court that their loved one was a danger to themselves or others, that person’s guns could be taken away. It would happen quickly. And it would be temporary, extended past 12 months only if the court found adequate reason.
The proposal in Florida is more limited in scope and applicability.
In the case of Cruz, a family member tried to have his guns taken by the Broward Sheriff’s Office, which said there was little it could do. “Take Parkland for example, had we been able to limit the shooter’s access to guns, you potentially saved 17 lives with a single restraining order,” McLively said. The same went for Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter. FBI records revealed a neighbor who claimed she told police that Lanza had an AR-15-style weapon and wanted to kill his mother and the children at Sandy Hook Elementary — a chilling premonition he would later fulfill.
In Lanza’s case, he stole the weapon from his mother. Still, McLively said courts could probably also order family members to lock up the weapons, or remove them from the house entirely under a red flag law. There is no precedent.
Critics worry that the Florida proposal could be applied frivolously. McLively, however, says there is no evidence of that being the case. Red flag laws tend to have bipartisan support, although lawmakers argue over who exactly would have the right to petition the court for the restraining order.
AGE LIMIT OF 21
The age limit for buying handguns is already 21 in Florida. The logic: Young adults account for well over a majority of all weapons incidents, according to FBI data. But an 18-year-old can still buy a rifle.
“It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that you can’t rent a car, you can’t drink alcohol at 18, but you can get your hands on a weapon of this kind,” said McLively. “There’s a lot of research out there showing that the human brain isn’t fully developed when it comes to rational decision-making until age 25.”
Some school shooters were under 21, including three out of the top four most deadly — the shooters at Sandy Hook, Stoneman Douglas and Columbine — all of whom used some sort of semiautomatic rifle. Since the Valentine’s Day attack, some politicians including Florida Gov. Rick Scott and President Donald Trump have supported raising the age for buying a rifle to 21.
But many underage school shooters still found a way to buy a firearm. A photo on Cruz’s Instagram revealed that the teen also owned a handgun — something that would already be illegal for a teen under Florida law. But Cruz probably bought the weapon online or from an individual, said Webster from Johns Hopkins, and the law does not require private sellers to run a background check on a buyer — a check that would have revealed Cruz’s age.
THREE-DAY WAITING PERIOD
Right now in Florida, almost any adult can walk into a gun store and walk out 10 minutes later with a semiautomatic rifle. That would include the two-minute background check that screens the buyer for disqualifiers: a criminal record, a history of domestic violence, or a serious and adjudicated mental illness.
The process is convenient, but makes it too easy for a momentarily unstable person — either enraged or suicidal — to gain access to a gun, Webster said. The three-day waiting period would allow that person to cool off, he said.
“In the moment you’re heated and you’re going to do something violent with the gun. But that generally goes away in a few days,” said McLively, of the Giffords Law Center. Most school shooters, however, bought their weapon months in advance or stole it from a family member.
The waiting period would also allow time for a more thorough background check, and is already required for handgun sales in Florida.
COMPREHENSIVE BACKGROUND CHECKS
A more comprehensive background and records check might have prevented some school shootings. The FBI background check system came under fire in 2007 after the Virginia Tech shooter was allowed to purchase his weapon despite mental health red flags that should have prevented him from purchasing a weapon. In his case, it was determined that the records had not been uploaded to the federal system — a shortcoming that has improved in recent years but continues to be a problem, according to experts.
Background checks for weapons sales are required for registered gun stores, but private individuals who sell at gun shows or online are exempt. They can accept a cash payment for a weapon, and take the buyer’s word for the rest.
“Whether we are talking about red flag laws, or assault weapons bans, if you leave really important holes in the system, those measures are going to be less effective,” said Webster. He said most people agree that there are certain individuals who shouldn’t have guns.
Background checks coupled with some sort of licensing or permitting process overseen by law enforcement officials are most effective in keeping guns out of the wrong hands, Webster said.
BANNING BUMP STOCKS
Bump stocks gained infamy when the Las Vegas shooter used them to modify an AR-15 to a crude version of an automatic weapon. The idea that a legal weapon could be turned into an automatic weapon terrified people. That said, bump stocks have never been used in a school shooting. Banning them is popular, since almost everyone agrees they serve little legitimate purpose.
“Those devices are for people who get excited about rapid rates of fire,” McLively said. “Really, at the end of the day, it makes your gun a toy because it makes it shoot faster.”
SCHOOL STRENGTHENING AND ARMING TEACHERS
Most of what has been discussed are proactive policies, aimed at stopping a potential shooter before they take deadly action. But the school safety bill being considered in Florida also includes measures to combat an active school shooter, such as funding for bulletproof glass and metal detectors, mandatory school resource officers, and the most controversial: arming teachers.
McLively remains most skeptical about arming teachers, pointing to the coincidental case of a Georgia teacher who allegedly opened fire in his classroom Wednesday. “It’s a probability game and the chances of something like this are just much more likely than the notion of an armed teacher turned Rambo who saves the day.”
An earlier version of this story misstated the time and place that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot.