The Promises and Pitfalls of the New Gun Law (2022)

michael barbaro

From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily.

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archived recording (joe biden)

Today, we say more than enough. We say more than enough.

michael barbaro

When President Biden signed a bipartisan gun safety bill into law a little over a week ago, he heralded it as the most significant federal attempt to reduce gun violence in 30 years.

archived recording (joe biden)

We are doing something consequential.

michael barbaro

Now and in the wake of yet another mass shooting, the question is, will it actually work? My colleague, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, has been trying to figure that out.

It’s Tuesday, July 5.

Sheryl, before the Supreme Court and the January 6 committee turned our worlds upside down, you had been tracking this gun legislation very closely as it worked its way from a bipartisan group of lawmakers to passage in the Senate, then in the House and eventually to the president’s desk, where he signed it into law. And you write about health policy and politics for The Times. So as all of that was happening, how were you thinking about this legislation, and how were you evaluating it?

sheryl gay stolberg

So Michael, I wanted to know about the evidence. There’s a body of research out there, gun violence research, and I wanted to know what these researchers were thinking about this bill and whether it was supported by any of their studies. So I started calling around, and some of these folks I’ve known for a very long time. Some I didn’t know.

And I just started asking them, what do you think of this bill? What do you think of these provisions? And these people are academics, but their interest is not purely academic.

They really want to use the science to make policy. And a lot of them told me that while the bill is informed by evidence, it’s only partly informed by evidence. And some of it isn’t supported by evidence at all.

michael barbaro

Got it. So you’re trying to separate the wheat from the chaff. What is impactful in this bill, and what’s not? That’s what you’re talking to them about. So with that in mind, let’s go through the major provisions of this bill and what these researchers told you about whether it is going to matter or not.

sheryl gay stolberg

So Michael, one centerpiece of the bill is that it would give $750 million to states to encourage them to enact red flag laws. And these are laws that allow authorities to temporarily remove guns from people deemed dangerous to themselves or others by a court. And so the way these laws work is let’s say I’m a college student, and one of my classmates comes in one day and says, I’m going to shoot up this school.

Well, maybe I’d go to my professor or my parent or a school administrator and say, you know, so-and-so is threatening to shoot up the school. And then those people would call police, and police would have the authority to investigate. And if they found evidence that this person had guns, was going to act in this way, they could take that evidence to a court, and a court would issue an order. And the order would allow the guns to be temporarily removed from this person.

michael barbaro

Right, the idea being that the threat is real, and the state can come in and eliminate the threat.

sheryl gay stolberg

That’s exactly right, and these laws are actually already in place in 19 states and the District of Columbia. And the researchers that I talked to are very excited about them because they do have evidence that they work, that they work to save lives.

michael barbaro

And what is that evidence, Sheryl?

sheryl gay stolberg

So one researcher I talked to, Jeff Swanson — he’s a sociologist at Duke University — has done a lot of work in this area, and he studied the two earliest red flag laws. And these were passed in 1998 in Connecticut in 2005 in Indiana. And what he found by matching up death records with these extreme risk protective orders, and using some statistical modeling, is that for every 10 to 20 gun removals, one life could be saved.

michael barbaro

Hm.

sheryl gay stolberg

And you know, you might say that, wow, just one life? But the way he put it to me was let’s say you’re a doctor and you’re treating somebody who has a fatal disease. If you can give a treatment to 10 people who have a fatal disease and one life is saved, you know, that’s pretty good.

michael barbaro

That’s a lot.

sheryl gay stolberg

Yeah. And there’s actually other evidence, newer evidence, that these laws may prevent mass shootings. So another scientist I talked to, Garin Wintemute in California, has done an analysis of 201 of these gun removal orders issued by California between 2016 and 2018. And what he found was that in 58 of those orders, a threat of a mass shooting triggered the order.

michael barbaro

Wow — 58 out of 200.

sheryl gay stolberg

Yeah, it’s almost 29 percent. And his research has been replicated by another group that’s studying red flag laws across six states. And I should say that this is not absolute proof that a red flag law will prevent a mass shooting because you can’t prove a negative. But it is compelling anecdotal evidence according to Andrew Morell. He’s a researcher at Rand, and he has assessed the scientific evidence for a lot of gun safety policies.

michael barbaro

Right, and of course, any time that the authorities can take a gun from somebody who talks about committing a mass shooting, that seems very much like a moment when lives are quite likely to be saved.

sheryl gay stolberg

It absolutely does, Michael, and this goes for all kinds of gun violence. I mean, maybe someone’s threatening to kill themselves, and a family member calls the police and triggers one of these red flag laws. So it’s not just to prevent mass shootings.

michael barbaro

So it sounds like researchers very much endorse this provision.

sheryl gay stolberg

Yes, they’re very excited about it.

michael barbaro

OK, so what’s the next big provision, and what do the researchers you talk to have to say about that?

sheryl gay stolberg

So the next big provision is to boost funding for mental health services in schools and community centers. And as I’m sure you know, Michael, this is really a big thing for Republicans. Every time there’s a mass shooting, Republicans come out and say, it’s not the guns.

It’s mental health. And we need to fix the mental health system. But the researchers that I talked to say that while they welcome better access to mental health care, that is not really a way of reducing gun violence.

michael barbaro

Well, explain that, why these researchers don’t think that this will work.

sheryl gay stolberg

Well, many people struggle with mental illness, but very few of them are violent. But it will help another problem, and that is suicide. We know that more than half of gun deaths are suicides, and many suicides are the result of depression and other mental health disorders. So mental health funding is a great thing, these researchers say, but it’s not likely to stop a mass shooting.

michael barbaro

Hm.

sheryl gay stolberg

This researcher that I talked to at Duke University said that even if we cure bipolar disorder s schizophrenia and depression, our gun violence rate would still only go down by 4 percent.

michael barbaro

That’s very sobering.

sheryl gay stolberg

Yes, and the reason for that is that many people struggle with mental illness, but only a small percentage of them are violent. And also, mass shootings account for only a small percentage of the gun violence in this country.

michael barbaro

So what they’re really saying is mental health is not the central problem of gun violence.

sheryl gay stolberg

Yes. I think the way they have said it to me is that it is not the most direct path to solving the problem of gun violence in this country. There are other things that could be done that would be more impactful.

michael barbaro

Gotcha. OK, so what is next in the bill?

sheryl gay stolberg

So next is closing the so-called boyfriend loophole, and this is a background check issue. So what the boyfriend loophole refers to is a federal law that prevents people convicted of domestic abuse from purchasing guns. But the law only applies to people who are married or have a child with someone or who are living with someone.

It doesn’t apply to serious dating partners. So if I’m dating some guy who is convicted of domestic abuse, under the existing federal law, if I’m not married to him, I don’t have a child with him and he’s not living with me, he can still buy a gun and pass a background check. This bill closes that loophole, and it’s important because studies show that this could reduce intimate partner homicides. And intimate partner homicides, you know, where someone kills someone they’re romantically involved with or have been romantically involved with, are a big problem in this country.

michael barbaro

So this would seem, Sheryl, like a very welcome development for these researchers. Is it?

sheryl gay stolberg

So it is a very welcome development, but they say it doesn’t go far enough. And the reason for that is it doesn’t address a major shortcoming in the original law which applies only to people convicted of domestic abuse and not to those subject to restraining orders. So you have to be convicted. Even if you have a restraining order, it doesn’t apply.

michael barbaro

Right, because a restraining order seems just about as menacing as a conviction for domestic abuse. But under this new law, a spouse or a boyfriend who you either live with or you don’t live with, they can still pass a background check and buy a gun if they have a restraining order taken out against them.

sheryl gay stolberg

That’s right. And so the researchers really view this as a missed opportunity because a restraining order strongly suggests that someone has engaged in either violent or threatening behavior, and it’s a lot easier to obtain a restraining order than it is to obtain a conviction for domestic abuse. So to them, closing the boyfriend loophole is making an improvement on a law that has flaws, and they would like those flaws to be corrected.

michael barbaro

And what’s the final element of this bill that you spoke to these researchers about?

sheryl gay stolberg

The final element of this law is a provision giving authorities up to 10 business days to review the juvenile and mental health records of gun purchasers younger than 21, and this 10 day period would give authorities time to dig into their backgrounds, into any juvenile court or mental health records that might turn up on a background check that would prevent them from being allowed to purchase a gun.

michael barbaro

So like red flag laws, Sheryl, this is meant to keep guns out of the hands of those who might be violent. But this attempts to prevent them from ever buying the gun in the first place rather than taking a gun away once a person has made a threat or become a threat.

sheryl gay stolberg

Yes, that’s exactly right.

michael barbaro

OK, so what do the researchers tell you about this provision?

sheryl gay stolberg

So the researchers tell me that this provision is actually going to be very hard to implement.

michael barbaro

Hm. Why?

sheryl gay stolberg

Because juvenile court records are typically sealed, and mental health records are private unless someone has been committed, let’s say, to a hospital, which almost never happens. So one researcher, Dr. Swanson, told me that they’d have to get the law changed to get access to juvenile court records.

michael barbaro

Hm.

sheryl gay stolberg

So these researchers are wondering, like, what are authorities actually going to have to look through? There will be minimal records, and those that exist are difficult to access.

michael barbaro

Got it. So this seems like a very symbolic change because the records that everyone hopes that this extended 10 day background check would find are probably not going to end up in a database any time soon.

sheryl gay stolberg

Yeah, I mean, it sounds good, but it’s not going to do much.

michael barbaro

So Sheryl, stepping back for a minute, this is a very mixed picture, what these researchers are telling you works in this bill and what doesn’t work in this bill, which has been described as the most significant gun safety legislation in decades.

sheryl gay stolberg

Right, so they say that some of the provisions in this bill are backed up by research, but some of them aren’t.

And there are some steps that are backed up by research that are not in this bill, and the researchers tell me that just as important as what’s in the bill is what’s left out.

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michael barbaro

We’ll be right back.

So Sheryl, tell us about the things that these researchers wish had been included in this bill based on their research but are not in the bill.

sheryl gay stolberg

Well, there’s a lot that’s not in the bill. First of all, the legislation would not raise the legal age for buying firearms to 21 from 18. Yet we know from research that gun homicides disproportionately affect people under 21.

michael barbaro

Right, and of course, as we’ve discussed, so many of the mass shootings and the school shootings are committed by people under the age of 21.

sheryl gay stolberg

Right. Like, you have to wait until you’re 21 to buy alcohol, but you could buy a gun at 18.

michael barbaro

Mm-hm.

sheryl gay stolberg

The bill also does not ban high capacity magazines. These are ammunition clips that allow shooters to fire repeatedly without pausing to reload. And we know from studies and also, frankly, from common sense that a ban on these clips would significantly reduce death tolls in mass shootings because if you don’t have rapid fire ammunition coming out of a gun, you’re going to hit fewer people when you shoot.

michael barbaro

Right.

sheryl gay stolberg

And then finally, the bill does not make any mention of gun storage safety locks, which we’ve known for decades are associated with a reduction in gun deaths of children. A study published in 2000 found a 17 percent reduction in child gun deaths as a result of gun storage safety locks.

michael barbaro

This is the prevention of the kind of horrible shootings we read about in which a child picks up a gun and, because there’s no child safety lock involved, accidentally shoot their sibling or their parent.

sheryl gay stolberg

Right, or themselves.

michael barbaro

And of course, Sheryl, what’s not in this bill, and I’m curious what the researchers say about this, is a ban on assault weapons, the kinds of guns — AR-15s, semiautomatic rifles — that are used in so many of the deadliest shootings in the country.

sheryl gay stolberg

Michael, the assault weapons ban is really interesting issue. And as you know, I’m sure, there was an assault weapons ban in this country from 1994 to 2004. And the research on it is mixed. And that is in part because manufacturers found very creative ways to get around the ban. So while researchers that I talk to would generally favor an assault weapons ban, when they wrote a letter to the Senate suggesting ways to reduce gun violence, they actually left an assault weapons ban out.

michael barbaro

Interesting.

sheryl gay stolberg

Yes, and that, they told me, was partly because the research is mixed but also because they’re very realistic about Washington, and they knew it was just too hot button, and it would never pass.

michael barbaro

Right, so both in terms of research and pragmatism, a ban on assault weapons just didn’t make much sense to them.

sheryl gay stolberg

Yes, exactly.

michael barbaro

So Sheryl, in your calls with these researchers who have devoted so much of their careers to trying to understand gun violence and prevent it, what’s their mood now that this imperfect bill has actually become law?

sheryl gay stolberg

You know, I would say their mood is actually pretty excited. I mean, they have been struggling for so long against so many obstacles — Congress refusing to fund their research for almost a quarter of a century and lawmakers not listening to them and the shooting at Sandy Hook 10 years ago, when they really thought something was going to happen and nothing did — that I think they’re feeling really good about this bill overall. And as one researcher, Garin Wintemute, said to me, I’ll settle for a glass half full.

michael barbaro

Well, Sheryl, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

sheryl gay stolberg

Thanks, Michael.

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michael barbaro

On Monday, at least six people were killed and dozens more were injured when a gunman opened fire on a 4th of July parade in Highland Park Illinois, a suburb North of Chicago.

archived recording

All of a sudden, I heard a machine gun. I mean, literally, it was a —

[MACHINE GUN NOISES]

— kind of sound. And I looked at my wife, and she looked at me. And the next thing you know, everybody is running. And —

michael barbaro

The gunman, who had fired from a nearby rooftop, fled the scene, prompting a massive door by door manhunt. Hours later, police arrested a 22-year-old suspect.

In a statement after the shooting, President Biden expressed shock and referred to the bipartisan gun law that he had just signed, concluding, quote, there is much more work to be done.

We’ll be right back.

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Here’s what else you need to know today. Over the weekend, hundreds of demonstrators marched in Akron, Ohio to protest the killing of Jayland Walker by the city’s police. Walker, a 25-year-old Black man, was pulled over for a traffic violation, attempted to flee and was shot by officers at least 60 times despite being unarmed at the time. Police said that after the pursuit, which lasted more than seven minutes, they found a handgun in Walker’s car and a bullet casing that seemed to indicate it had been fired as police chased him.

archived recording

What I’m here to say is that we are done dying like this in this manner with this fate. Nobody should ever suffer the fate that Jayland Walker did.

michael barbaro

During a news conference, lawyers for Walker’s family spoke directly to protesters.

archived recording

We are begging you. That family is begging you. Jayland is begging you to stay peaceful. We will get nowhere with violence and destruction.

michael barbaro

And Russia has seized control of the last major city in the Ukrainian province of Luhansk, bringing it one step closer to achieving Vladimir Putin’s goal of taking over Eastern Ukraine. The city, Lysychansk, had held out for a week after Russian forces captured its neighboring city of Severodonetsk. As a result, Russia now controls one fifth of Ukraine.

Today’s episode was produced by Carlos Prieto, Eric Krupke and Rachelle Bonja, with help from Rikki Novetsky. It was edited by Marc Georges with help from Anita Badejo, contains original music by Elisheba Ittoop and Dan Powell and was engineered by Chris Wood. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly.

That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.

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