Nearly 10 years after one of our nation's most unfathomable tragedies—the killing of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut—the U.S. grapples today with yet another mass shooting targeting our most vulnerable. The death toll currently stands at 19 children and two teachers after an 18-year-old male armed with a handgun, an AR-15 assault weapon, and high capacity magazines opened fire at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas.
In the weeks after Sandy Hook in 2013, gun policy researcher Daniel Webster helped convene a symposium gathering global experts to present research on gun violence in the United States and develop policy recommendations for lawmakers. At the time, Webster and his colleagues said it was a seminal moment for gun violence prevention: a chance to share evidence and data, and to challenge laws that shield would-be gunmen and preserve their easy access to deadly weapons.
Despite the sense of hopeful momentum born from that symposium, the U.S. remains home to uncontrolled gun violence in 2022. When news of Uvalde broke, the nation was still reeling from another high-profile mass shooting, a racially motivated attack that killed 10 in a supermarket in Buffalo, New York. Recent research from the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, which Webster co-directs, found that the U.S. saw the highest-ever number of gun deaths in 2020, with an average of 124 people dying each day from gun violence. What's more, the research found that states with the lowest gun death rates had stronger gun laws, including laws that were among the policies outlined in the center's post–Sandy Hook policy recommendations.
The Hub reached out to Webster Wednesday morning for his reaction to the tragedy in Texas and to gauge how we as a nation where the majority of people favor stricter gun control measures might move forward to protect the people we love. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.
Where is your head this morning?
On the feeling side, of course I'm heartbroken, angry as hell, but I'm also quite determined. This type of event happens with such regularity now that it's very easy to feel that it's inevitable and not preventable. But I think that is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it's particularly important for our center—or any person or entity committed to reducing gun violence in America—to push back against that sort of fatalism, or this feeling that this is an unsolvable problem.
We do have an insane number of shootings generally, including mass shootings, in this country. But we do know what firearm policies can affect the frequency with which these tragedies occur, and we can do a better job of implementing them.
Which policies do you believe are most significant?
I published a study in 2020 analyzing data across all 50 states from the mid-1980s through 2018, examining the impact of very specific firearm policies. The clearest takeaway is that two policies appear to have a strong protective effect. One is requiring licensing of firearm purchasers. The other is restrictions or bans on large-capacity magazines—and the definition of that varies a bit by state, but typically that means you cannot have ammunition-feeding devices for semi-automatic firearms that hold more than 10 rounds.
Of course this is relevant because in some of these mass shootings the assailants fire a large number of rounds in a very short amount of time, making it impossible for people to protect themselves or get away or even interrupt and tackle the shooter. Noteworthy is the tragic 2011 shooting in which Gabrielle Giffords was shot in Tucson, Arizona: A lot of people were shot, but when the assailant was changing the ammunition clip, someone tackled him and prevented further loss of life.
Are there policy loopholes that are specifically enabling school shootings?
When we're thinking about school shootings in particular, what we've learned is that the overwhelming majority of time, the shooters are actual students of those schools and typically they're getting firearms from their own homes that were left unsecured. That's a solvable problem. Gun owners can simply start locking up their guns, and fewer of these events will happen. Some states require that, by law, you must keep your guns locked up if you have underage users in the house, and many appropriately draw that line at 18 years of age.
We know in this particular incident that the shooter waited until he was 18, just had his birthday and immediately went out and bought two semiautomatic rifles that some, myself included, would probably define as assault weapons. This is, in my opinion, crazy. We find it too threatening to public safety for anyone under the age of 21 to drink a beer. We have incredibly strict laws in most states that if you've consumed alcohol under age 21 and get behind the wheel of a motor vehicle, you lose your license right away and face stiff fines or other consequences. So we've said no to underage drunk driving and the horrible deaths it causes. Yet our federal laws, and many state laws, still allow 18-to-21-year-olds to purchase their own firearms, including guns that are designed really for war.
For broader context I should say: Our laws are antiquated. They're sort of oriented toward this idea that when we were a more agrarian society, firearm ownership was about reaching a certain age and getting a rifle to go hunting with your dad or uncle or whatever. Now the weapons are designed differently. What gun ownership looks like is very different, and principally the industry has created a demand for what appear to be these really cool things—like, wow, you have great power if you have one of these weapons.
What culturally needs to change?
I'll go back to the drunk driving example because it's one of the biggest public health success stories certainly in my lifetime, and I'm 61. When I was a teenager, fatalities from teens driving drunk were much higher. And now they're 70% lower than they were then. That wasn't by accident. Mothers Against Drunk Driving demanded changes in the laws and changes in enforcement, and they demanded cultural change. So you and I know that if a friend or family member is drinking at a party and they want to get behind the wheel, we'll stop them. "Nope, let me drive you home" or "Let me get you an Uber." We could and should adopt the same attitudes, culturally, with respect to firearm storage and underage youths in the home.
What improvements are actually realistic in our current political environment?
Fair question. Typically when we think about these things and what's possible, we always think about nationally, what can our federal government do? And, of course, that would be logical and the best-case scenario, but we know that our federal government, its structure and politics, has been such that it's been incapable of solving a broad range of really critical problems—climate change, immigration, and of course gun violence. Lots of things that are incredibly frustrating when we look at our government's failure to act.
But I do think at the state level there are opportunities to strengthen laws. After Sandy Hook, a lot of people would say, wow, 20 schoolchildren were murdered and nothing changed. But that's completely wrong. Nothing changed in Congress, but a grassroots movement formed and formalized in something called Moms Demand Action, and now Students Demand Action, that you'll find in every state of the country, movements that are 100% committed to changing this environment. In addition, faith-based groups and others have formed to make change and to influence voting, and they've actually shaped some elections. My recollection is that after the Parkland shooting in Florida in 2018, a lot of candidates were elected around this issue.
And many states have strengthened a variety of gun control laws, for example dealing with background checks and licensing for handgun purchases. And now 19 states have [gun violence restraining orders] called extreme risk protection orders, or "Red Flag" laws, and even some Republican governors have signed these.
After the 2013 conference your center hosted in the wake of Sandy Hook, there was a lot of hope for the prospects of gun policy reform. Do you still have that hope?
Well, it's hard to have that hope at the federal level right now. The way votes are apportioned is not democratic. For example, Wyoming—a low population, rural state where many tend to love guns and hate gun regulations— has the same number of votes in the Senate as California, which far exceeds Wyoming's population. Then add the filibuster on top of that. So there's undeniable structural challenges to federal change that we just simply have to acknowledge.
But I do think there's a lot of soul-searching that happens following events like Sandy Hook or Uvalde, and I do think that creates new opportunities. And I do think there will be political costs to individuals who accept the status quo, when people—including children—are dying at the rates they're dying now.
Some gun rights advocates promote the idea that we need more "good guys with guns," for example equipping teachers in schools with guns for protection. What's your counterargument?
After Sandy Hook, Wayne LaPierre, then head of the NRA, said: "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." People with that mindset and politics went about making it easier for civilians to carry firearms in public spaces, with the belief that this would lead to fewer shootings, with the good guys deterring or interrupting. Well, the data simply doesn't bear that out. We've studied this, and where states have loosened these restrictions and allowed more civilians to carry guns, it tends to lead to more shootings, not fewer. And there's clearly no evidence that it reduces mass shootings.
Secondly—and this frankly drives me a little crazy—when we look at an event like what just happened in Texas, we tend to focus on what could have prevented the tragedy. And some people will think, well, what if the teacher of the third- or fourth-grade class had had a loaded firearm in their desk drawer and, as soon as they heard gunshots, went out and successfully took down the gunman? Nobody would be hurt other than the active shooter.
That's the thought experiment: Why can't we give all teachers loaded guns in their desk drawers? But think about how many classrooms there are across the United States, and think about all the chaos that occurs in those classrooms, and all the troubled kids. And I love teachers, but quite frankly, think about some of those teachers with short tempers. So many bad things can happen when you make loaded firearms readily accessible in buildings with kids. It's a nutty idea, frankly. And it would cause far more harm than it would prevent.
There's also this sort of fantasy of gun competence, I believe—in part may be facilitated by the shoot 'em up video games we have, where you can fend off zombies and all kinds of threatening things. But in real active shooter environments, when things are chaotic, your heart is racing four times faster, kids are screaming—it turns out, you're not a perfect shot. You can't always successfully do what you thought you'd do. Even a lot of law enforcement, who are trained regularly on how to behave in such environments, can't perform successfully. So I think it's a bit of a pipe dream to think we can just expect our teachers to pull off these amazing heroic things and this problem will magically go away. It's just not tethered to reality.