Experts, students react to recent mass shootings, gun legislation

By Desi Gillespie
Staff Writer

After a year with only two public mass shootings, both before the March 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns took effect, recent mass shootings in Boulder, Colorado, and Atlanta, Georgia, have renewed calls for federal gun control legislation. 

The House of Representatives passed two bills March 11: one expands background checks, and the other allows the FBI more time to vet buyers flagged by the national background check system. 

Last month’s legislation, however, is expected to meet Republican resistance in the Senate, where it requires the support of 10 GOP senators. Limited bipartisanship makes the bill unlikely to pass. 

On April 7, the White House announced its intent to address several concerns related to gun violence, separate from actions taken by Congress. No law, excluding judicial review by the Supreme Court, can prevent these initiatives from taking effect.

Erin Harper, research assistant at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said she supports the recent legislation.

“I’m in favor of any gun control measures, however small,” Harper said. “It’s a step in the right direction. I would love sweeping things to happen, but if we can’t get those done, this is better than nothing.”

Harper said she supported red flag laws, which allow concerned family members and law enforcement to request a ban on an individual’s ability to purchase a gun. 

The Justice Department will be releasing model red flag legislation in the near future as part of President Biden’s recent executive initiatives.

However, the new regulations don’t go far enough, Harper said.

“I think strict background checks are part of it,” Harper said. “But I also think waiting periods are important, as well as very restricted access for certain types of weapons that are able to kill a lot of people very quickly.”

While national surveys show a majority of Americans support stricter gun laws, some Black communities oppose gun control legislation. Gun ownership is seen as both a symbol of empowerment and a protection against violence, from crimes, unjust policing or hate crimes.

Historically, some of the first gun control laws in the United States were created to keep guns away from slaves. White communities feared violent rebellion from armed slaves: this historical context sours some from marginalized communities on gun control.

Grassroots activist and University of Alabama at Birmingham junior Satura Dudley said that she opposes measures that disproportionately affect communities of color. 

“We live in a racist system,” Dudley, who is Black, said. “I used to be pro-restrictions. Even if [gun control legislation] is coming from a good place, it’s built on white supremacy.”

Current gun regulations prevent felons or convicted violent criminals from purchasing guns. Studies show a large racial disparity in incarceration rates, with Black men being five times as likely to go to prison than their white counterparts. 

Across demographics, the United States incarcerates a larger percentage of its population than any other nation. 

“A lot of gun violence is done for financial gain,” Dudley said. “If we had economic relief, if we took care of our people, then we wouldn’t be killing our people for money.

Spencer Lowrance, University of Alabama senior and gunsmith, said he was in favor of strengthened background checks, as opposed to regulations on firearms themselves.

“If you’re trying to target a specific type of attachment or magazine capacity, you’ve already failed gun control, because that person still has a gun in their possession,” Lowrance said.

A recent White House initiative, announced as part of its response to recent mass shootings, looks to clarify regulations on pistol braces. These attachments allow a firearm legally classified as a pistol to be wielded in a similar manner to an assault-style weapon while still being concealable. 

President Joe Biden’s 2020 election platform included the goal of banning high-capacity magazines, meaning ammunition storage devices that hold 10 rounds or more.

“I think that magazine capacity really doesn’t mean much in the long run,” Lowrance said. “Larger magazines aren’t necessarily more desirable for people intending to cause harm … 100 round double-drum magazines are popular with people who like to go to the range so they don’t have to reload as often, but in an application where someone wants to use that to cause harm, it makes the gun weigh like 20 pounds. It’s going to be impractical.”

The debate over gun control, often falling dormant between mass shooting events, has failed to bring about sweeping new gun laws since the Columbine shooting in 1999. Even the Parkland High School shooting, which sparked a wave of student activism, resulted in no legislation at the federal level. 

Danielle Deavours, assistant professor of multimedia journalism at the University of Montevallo, said the nature of the news cycle is responsible for the ebb and flow of gun control debate.

“Most journalists are reactive,” Deavours said. “They need a topical, newsworthy event in order to have a discussion about broader social issues … If lawmakers were to act upon [gun control] legislation, that would [allow newsworthy coverage], but unfortunately, the political realm also tends to deal with social issues based on events that are happening.”

Congress often leaves the intricacies of gun control policies to state legislatures. The last federal gun law, passed in 2007, incentivized state compliance in providing mental health data or other gun-prohibitive concerns about individuals to the national background check database. 

Bans on semi-automatic, assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines have been put on the books before—the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban did just that, though the law was allowed to expire in 2004. 

But now, Democrats—who most often spearhead gun control legislation—control the House of Representatives, Senate and presidency for the first time since 2011, a year before the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. 

If there was any time federal gun regulations might pass, it is now.

Background for this story was collected from the research of Adam Lankford, Giffords Law Center, Gallup, Inc., Pew Research Center, Everytown for Gun Safety, the NRA Institute for Legislative Action and state and federal files.