Texas school massacre delivers familiar pain, could lead to new gun ideas

“It’s long past time to make Congress act.”

That line popped up this week on the Twitter feed from David Hogg, a survivor of a 2018 school massacre that killed 17 people in Parkland, Florida, and a well-known voice in the effort to reduce gun violence.

It popped up in a lot of places, actually. As the nation watched the latest grim rerun of school shooting horror, with 19 children and two teachers shot dead at a Texas elementary school, Hogg’s sentiment was wallpaper-level common. Gun-issue advocates of all stripes all managed to say something along the lines of Hogg’s tweet: Do something!

But what?

People have ideas. A poll from Morning Consult issued Thursday – and conducted the day after the Texas shooting – found that 88% of Americans support expanding background checks on gun purchases. The poll also showed that 75% support creating a national database that could track each gun sale.

Whatever your views on the Second Amendment, it’s clear that the old ideas aren’t slowing gun violence. About 120 Americans a day die from a gunshot, either from suicide or homicide or accident. The shooting in Texas, on the heels of a supermarket shooting in Buffalo, sandwiched by a church shooting in Laguna Woods, and presaged by hundreds of other shootings through the first five months of this year – in bedrooms and cars and parks and stores – isn’t just horrific, it’s routine.

It’s also legislative failure. The best-known legislative proposals to slow gun violence – expanding background checks to cover more gun transactions and eliminating the availability of weapons that boost the death count in mass shootings – have been stalled in Congress for years.

But federal intransigence is only part of the story, maybe the smallest part.

In the two decades since Congress last approved sweeping gun policy, state legislatures have passed thousands of gun laws. (Literally; a research team that included Christopher Poliquin, an assistant professor at UCLA, studied the role that mass shootings played in the passage of more than 3,200 state gun laws between 1990 and 2014). And while many of those state laws were aimed at restricting gun use and access, slightly more expanded the same.

Most of the new rules treaded common turf, making it tougher for some people to buy guns, banning or limiting some weapons, or strengthening so-called “stand your ground” laws.

But a few crossed into worlds relatively new to the gun debate – areas like insurance, technology and big data. And some other ideas being discussed in statehouses and boardrooms and even movie studios aren’t legal approaches at all, but are aimed instead at changing the role that guns play in American culture.

Here’s a look at three new lines of legislative thinking about gun violence, gun laws, and what people from different sides of the debate say about them.

Gun idea 1: Flood the zone

This week, even before the May 24 massacre in Texas, lawmakers in Sacramento were debating a range of proposals that liberal voters view as ways to reduce gun violence.

Among other things, the proposals would make it easier for victims of gun violence, and others, to take gun manufacturers to court, prevent gun marketing aimed at children, and require school officials to report suspicious behavior to police and share info about safe gun storage with families of middle schoolers.

Not all of these ideas will become law, but the range and volume of gun restrictions aren’t new in California. Gun experts who disagree about the Second Amendment do agree that the state has the most – and the most restrictive – gun policies in the nation.

As a matter of health policy, California’s flood-the-zone approach to gun legislation works.

While research suggests that no single policy does much to stop gun violence, states that enact a variety of rules that essentially make it tougher to buy and use guns, and that limit the types of weapons available to the public, or the ways they’re sold, does a lot to slow gun violence.

In New Jersey, New York and California – all big, diverse states with some of the nation’s tightest gun laws – the gun death rates are 5, 5.3 and 8.5 per 100,000 people, according to public health data and research from the pro-gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety and the non-partisan think tank Rand Corp.

Conversely, the gun death rates in other big, diverse states with looser gun laws, such as Florida, Texas and Ohio, are higher, 13.7, 14.2 and 15.2 per 100,000.

There are exceptions – Maryland has tight gun laws and a per-100,000 gun death rate of 13.5, while New Hampshire has loose gun laws and a death rate of 8.9 – but the general trend is clear. People living in states with tighter gun laws are less likely to die of gun violence than are the people who live in states with fewer gun restrictions. And the state rated by Everytown as having the nation’s most lenient gun rules, Mississippi, also has the highest per-100,000 gun death rate, 28.6.

Still, state legislators believe much more could be done if federal lawmakers jumped back in the legislative fray.

“I’d prefer to see federal laws. … At the state level, we can control only what happens at the point of sale, not the broader rules,” said state Sen. Dave Min, D-Irvine, who represents SD-37, which includes much of Irvine, Costa Mesa and north-central Orange County.

Min authored two gun bills currently on track in Sacramento. One would ban gun shows on state properties, like most county fairgrounds. The other would require gun stores to train salespeople to screen for illegal purchases and require gun stores to have video and audio recordings of all transactions.

Neither is a cure-all for gun violence. But Min and others suggest both could have some reduction on the spread of weapons used for crime and violence – the kind of realistic nibbling that’s key to a flood-the-zone legislative strategy.

“What we do, at the state level, we’ll continue to do,” said Min, who said he is familiar with guns and, as a Boy Scout, won an NRA Junior Marksman award.

“What we’re dealing with, we can and will continue to do,” he added.

“I’m not optimistic we’ll see reasonable gun violence prevention laws on a federal level.”

Groups that support gun rights and want to expand access to guns – including the National Rifle Association and Gun Owners of America – did not return calls seeking comment.

But gun-rights advocates, including legislators like Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and many gun owners, argue that gun violence is about human decisions, not guns. That’s why they view California’s broad range of gun rules as an infringement on their freedom, not a step toward public health.

“It’s simple: California isn’t free,” said Peter Schmid, an auto parts manager in San Bernardino County who owns guns and favors a broad interpretation of the Second Amendment, when asked about the range of state gun laws two days after the massacre in Texas.

“You’re a reporter. You like the First Amendment. You wouldn’t like it if that was limited or restricted or whatever, right?” Schmid added. “Well, that’s how I feel about the Second Amendment in this state.”

Gun idea No. 2: Insure guns

In February, San Jose became the first city in the country to require local gun owners to carry liability insurance. Starting Aug. 1, city residents who own a gun will be required to fill out paperwork showing they have an insurance policy that will pay for damages run up by the accidental use of their weapons.

The thinking is that while gun ownership is legal, it’s not necessarily free, and gun owners should pay other taxpayers for the financial impact of accidental shootings – money spent on publicly employed health workers, ambulance drivers and police, among others.

Insurance experts point out that homeowner and renter policies often already cover accidental gunshots. And the cost of adding a rider that would cover self-defense shootings would range from $75 to $500 a year. They also point out the obvious – that insurance to cover the costs incurred by someone using a weapon for an illegal use also is illegal.

Still, the idea of insuring guns even has support from gun rights groups, like the National Rifle Association. While the NRA and others object to San Jose imposing an ordinance, arguing that they don’t believe in gun mandates of any form, many groups have previously favored some forms of gun insurance, particularly if it’s connected to gun training, a service that many in the gun industry sell.

Some legal experts suggest San Jose’s ordinance is too limited to curb a lot of gun violence.

“It’s an idea that makes sense on the surface,” University of Wyoming law professor George Mocsary told ‘The Trace’ earlier this year. “But when you dig into it a little bit, it essentially falls apart.”

But others suggest the broader idea – that insurance could be part of a new legislative arena related to guns – is worth exploring.

“There’s no market for (gun insurance) right now, but there could be,” Min said, adding that gun insurance is one of several concepts he has discussed with advocates for gun control.

“I’ve argued for a while that we should require periodic testing for gun licenses, just like we do with automobile usage,” Min said. “Maybe liability insurance could be part of that.”

But gun-rights advocates cringe at the idea of combining insurance with gun reform.

“I’d move. It’s simple,” Schmid said, laughing. “That’s like… a nightmare.”

Maybe, but it might not be going away.

A federal bill that would require liability insurance with every legal gun sale has been proposed in the House of Representatives every year since the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012. And, as recently as March, a gun insurance ordinance similar to the rule in San Jose was pitched in Los Angeles.

Gun idea No. 3: Use big data

In February, Pew Research, using federal health data, issued a report on gun deaths in the United States during 2020, the most recent year for which data was available.

In all, Pew reported that 45,222 people died from gun-related injuries that year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Of those deaths, 54% (24,292) were by suicide, 43% (19,384) were murders, and another 3% (1,546) were unintentional, involved law enforcement or were of undetermined causes.

That kind of statistical analysis, while depressing (and telling of the scope of gun violence), wouldn’t be unusual if it was issued about crop harvests or cancer deaths or airplane incidents. But because it was about guns and the impact of gun violence, it is still novel. Until a few years ago, such an analysis would not have been possible.

One of the quirks about the gun debate is that for several years, starting in 1996, the “Dickey Amendment” restricted federal research on gun violence and its connection to public health. That law was repealed and in recent years federal research resumed.

Andrew Morral, a researcher at Rand who oversees that group’s gun studies and director of the National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research, told Nature magazine that the old rules meant a lot of questions about guns, and gun laws, went unanswered.

“Where are illegal guns coming from? Are different state laws effective? Are the programs that are being developed to counter firearm suicide effective?”

Starting in 2019, researchers began using national gun data to track a lot of information about gun laws and what effect they do or don’t have.

For example, a recent Rand report shows that laws aimed at making it harder for kids to access guns may result in an overall drop in the suicide rate in communities where such laws are enacted. Conversely, the report shows that laws that expand “stand your ground rules,” show a strong link to a possible rise in overall violent crime. And rules that ban the sale of high-capacity weapons, like the AR-15 used in Texas and many other mass shootings, is most likely to drive up the cost of such weapons, not necessarily curb their use.

Legislators, and others, are starting to take note. Data is key to a variety of legislative arenas, everything from environmental law to housing.

It’s also used in laws related to driving – the analogy many legislators go to when talking about the future of gun laws.

Min, who taught law at UC Irvine before going to Sacramento, suggested the state could create a “point system” that would connect non-gun-related violence to one’s ability to buy a gun. Incidents like domestic violence, which have a high correlation to gun use, could be tracked and essentially ban someone from buying a gun. And other actions that are less obvious – like any kind of physical altercation or driving at super high speeds – also could be tracked as a way to weed out some gun buyers.

Big data – and data tracking – would be key to such a system.

Min acknowledged that idea is far off and that if improperly implemented it could result in government overreach. But he also pointed to gains made in auto safety over the years – gains that involved knowing what kinds of devices (seat belts, airbags, safety glass) actually resulted in safety, followed by government action that required carmakers to install those devices.

“Look at the decline in auto deaths since the ’60s and you see a template for how we should regulate this,” Min said. “We should be looking at similar patterns with guns.

“Guns should be at least as well regulated as cars.”

Staff writer Brooke Staggs contributed to this report.