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Highland Park shooting: Would the new gun law have prevented it?

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It’s unlikely that provisions in the gun bill President Joe Biden recently signed would have stopped the mass shooting at an Independence Day parade in Highland Park, Illinois, if they had been enacted sooner, according to gun law experts.

“It’s very, very hard to have any law that would stop someone who is willing to violate the law against murder,” said Eugene Volokh, a distinguished law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, where among other classes he teaches a seminar on firearm regulation policy. “As a practical matter, gun control laws are not something likely to be effective when murder laws aren’t.”

Seven people died as a result of the Highland Park shooting, which took place along the parade route. As many as 40 others were injured, most by being shot, though some were treated for injuries sustained while fleeing the shooting.

Police have arrested the alleged gunman, who has been identified as a 21-year-old who reportedly dressed as a woman to blend in and shot at the crowd from atop a nearby building. He’s been charged with seven counts of first-degree murder; more charges are pending.

The compromise gun bill

The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act passed the Senate 65-33 in late June, with 15 Republicans supporting it alongside their Democrat colleagues. The president signed it a week before the massacre in Highland Park.

The bipartisan bill is the first meaningful gun legislation in years. Among other features, it creates a 10-day waiting period before young adults ages 18-20 can buy a firearm in order for more thorough background checks to be conducted, including checks of juvenile court records and mental health records. That part of the policy would sunset in 10 years unless Congress extends it.

The enhanced background check could make a difference with younger would-be mass shooters, according to Robert J. Spitzer, author of six books on gun policy, including “The Politics of Gun Control,” now in its eighth edition, and a professor emeritus at SUNY Cortland.

The process could uncover vital information because “especially with mass shooters, they talk about or transmit information about what they plan to do. … I would say it nudges ahead slightly the likelihood that some of these people could have been intercepted before they actually did the terrible things that they did,” Spitzer said.

The new law also bars those convicted of domestic violence from getting a firearm, including those who beat up on any romantic partner, not just a spouse or live-in partner, closing what’s been called the “boyfriend loophole.” 

That’s important, said Spitzer, because “the majority of mass shooters also have a history of domestic violence. It’s a very high correlation. Obviously, the majority of domestic abusers don’t commit mass shootings, but among the small population, the 100 people who commit mass shootings, most of them have domestic violence episodes in their background,” which could prevent getting a gun legally under the new law.

“Anything that opens an investigation or leads to prosecution that could short-circuit a shooting is a good thing,” Spitzer added.

The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act puts money behind both mental health programs and school safety efforts, as well.

States are given incentives to establish “red flag” laws by helping cover implementation cost. Each state determines its details, but the goal is to allow people in certain categories to report someone they truly believe could hurt themselves or others. In New York, for example, relatives, law enforcement officers and school officials can request what is known as “an extreme risk protection order.”

Red flag laws let authorities take guns from people “for whom there’s sufficient evidence that they appear to be potentially dangerous, but not enough to convict them of crimes. It’s enough to create a credible reason to worry about them,” Volokh explained. Such a law is not supposed to be easy to trigger, he said, but if a judge agrees, authorities could remove the firearms a person owns for a time, while preventing the individual from buying more.

Volokh said that while red flag laws can keep someone from legally buying a gun, they do nothing to prevent someone from getting a gun illegally. He called it unlikely that someone bent on committing mass murder will worry about the niceties of getting a gun legally if there’s a roadblock.

However, red flag laws have proven important in the effort to curb suicides.

Some states have had them for a couple of decades, Spitzer said. “They’ve been kind of enacted gradually over time and spread across states, including conservative states. It’s not just liberal blue states moving in this direction.”

The new gun law also slots more gun sellers into the category of federally licensed dealers that must conduct background checks before selling weapons. And it provides tougher penalties for illegal gun purchases, including for those who purchase a weapon for someone not qualified to get one. 

Some gun control proponents say the new law doesn’t go far enough, including those who want a ban on all assault-type weapons and universal background checks with any gun purchase. But as The Associated Press reported, the legislation is “the most impactful firearms violence measure Congress has approved since enacting a now-expired assault weapons ban in 1993.”

The AP said that while groups like the National Rifle Association opposed the bill, it wasn’t just groups known to support gun curbs who liked the bill. The Fraternal Order of Police and the International Association of Chiefs of Police also supported the measure.

Still, the question remains: Under the this law, is the risk of a Highland Park-style shooting reduced? The consensus is: maybe not.

The July 4 shooter

Experts said the personal characteristics of shooters, including their age, lie at the heart of whether laws targeting gun violence make a difference.

In Uvalde, Texas, where 19 grade-school kids and two adults were murdered, and in the Buffalo, New York, grocery store massacre where 10 died, both suspected shooters were 18 years old. So in both those cases, the new bill would have provided extra scrutiny during the background check, though unless they had histories of juvenile crime or mental illness that would prevent getting a gun, it would most likely just delay the gun purchase.

However, a delay between wanting to buy a gun and actually getting one might in some circumstances allow someone to cool off or think things through and have a change of heart, Volokh said.

The suspected shooter in Highland Park was already 21, so he would not likely have been subject to such a delay. However, the timing of his firearms purchases — he reportedly had at least five, including one on the rooftop and one with him in the car when he was arrested — is not known.

The Highland Park shooter does not appear to have a juvenile criminal history, though details are still emerging. Police in 2019 reportedly were called when he threatened suicide and again that year when he expressed an intent to harm his family. At that time, knives were reportedly removed from his home, but he didn’t have guns, so no history of having them taken away was created.

Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering said she knew the suspect when he was a young boy in the Cub Scout troop she led. She told media that well before the actual shootings, he wrote online of a desire and plans to murder people.

But while he apparently planted clues about planning violence, those are much easier to read after the fact, according to Volokh. News reports cite violent rap lyrics and music videos the suspect uploaded online featuring cartoonish figures who die by gun violence.

However, “you should not be able to strip someone’s constitutional rights because they post violent rap lyrics,” said Volokh. ”That doesn’t make the singer necessarily a threat.”

There are no reports of domestic violence in any type of romantic relationship the suspected shooter might have had — something that’s common with mass shooters, Spitzer said.

Finding solutions

The Deseret News asked Spitzer if there are effective gun policies that could impact mass shootings. He could think of several — given the right situation.

His list of laws that would be useful includes better background checks, systems of meaningful gun permitting/licensing and laws that limit the availability of large-capacity ammunition magazines, which are those holding more than 10 rounds. He also believes that safe gun storage laws, when followed by families, could save lives. Three-fourths of school shooters younger than 18 get their guns from home, Spitzer said.

Volokh believes offering additional funding for mental health services might make a difference, simply because potential shooters might recognize they need mental health help and seek it, but “that’s too speculative to count on,” he said.

“Ask a psychiatrist to evaluate someone who just killed multiple people and my guess is a psychiatrist might well give a different answer as to whether this person is mentally ill than if you just took the same person beforehand and asked a psychiatrist,” he said.

Volokh points out that having a mental illness in no way suggests someone is apt to commit mass murder. And experts say mass murderers may not have a mental illness.

Volokh maintains that active shooter situations shouldn’t be the main focus of the gun debate, since they account for less than 1% of the U.S. homicide rate and are “unusually hard to stop through gun control laws.” He said he’s “not a supporter, generally, of gun control laws.” Nor is he a “militant opponent.”

“I don’t think every gun control law should be one that will solve all our problems; that’s not the way the law generally works,” Volokh said.

The new bipartisan gun law passed precisely because it was very narrow, he said. But unless society is willing to block gun access for everyone, there will always be the possibility that bad people can get guns or that someone who has no criminal record will choose to do something terrible, he said.

Mass murder is a “tiny, tiny portion of homicides generally,” he said, adding that homicides plummeted in the early 1990s and were about level for 15 years, but have since risen.

“There’s very little reason to think that any of that had to do with changes in gun policy,” he said. “But something happened.”

He said folks have debated possible reasons for a lower homicide rate, from better policing to tougher incarceration rules, among other suggestions. No one’s figured it out. “If they could, maybe what drove down homicides could be replicated,” said Volokh.

Some gun-rights advocates suggest the way to stop gun violence is to arm more law-abiding adults. Statistically, that has pretty small impact, but it’s not zero.

“There certainly have been incidents in which what appears by all accounts to be an incipient mass shooting is stopped by somebody who is a law-abiding gun carrier,” said Volokh. “How often that happens, we don’t know.”

In his blog on Reason.com, Volokh cites the case of a woman in Charleston, West Virginia, who in June shot and killed a man who was shooting at a graduation party. But not all such interventions work, he wrote.

Volokh noted that FBI reports on mass shootings in 2016 and 2017 found that legal civilian gun carriers tried to intervene in six of 50 incidents and succeeded in three or four. He said a 2021 FBI report showed 61 active shooter events: 12 were mass killing events and four of those active shooters were killed by armed citizens. In two other cases, citizens detained a shooter without wielding guns themselves. 

He wrote that “unsurprisingly, sometimes the good guy or gal with a gun succeeds and sometimes not. Sometimes the success might be a lucky break,” making it hard to tell how many, if any, lives are saved.

“None of this proves that broad concealed carry rights on balance do more good than harm (or vice versa),” Volokh wrote. “But it is a response to claims I’ve heard that the good guy with a gun never helps; these incidents further show that there are potential pluses to broad concealed carry rights and, of course, there are potential minuses as well.”



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