Straightforward but extraordinary words they were: “To restrict the manufacture, transfer, and possession of certain semiautomatic assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition feeding devices.” The words come directly from the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1993 signed by then-President Bill Clinton in 1994.
In 2022’s hard-wired world—Democrats for stricter gun control measures and Republicans against them—it is difficult to imagine the 1993 bill passing Congress today. But make no mistake about this: back then, the political world was hard-wired, too. And that makes it a fascinating story.
The legislation would not have passed had it not been for the support of a handful of Republicans. As Carl Hulse puts it, Clinton needed help because he encountered resistance from Democrats who saw the prospect of a strong gun control law “unsettling.” Recalcitrants wanted to avoid incurring “anger from their gun-owning constituents or the National Rifle Association, the gun lobby that promised to punish lawmakers who backed the ban.” Sound familiar?
Clinton got the Republican support he needed. In the House, it came from the likes of Fred Upton (Michigan), John Kasich (Ohio), Peter King (New York), and Henry Hyde (Illinois), among others. Senators Mike Hatfield and Bob Packwood (both Oregon), John Chafee (Rhode Island), John Danforth (Missouri), and Jim Jeffords (Vermont), among others, voted “yes” in the upper chamber. There were just about as many Democrats in the Senate who voted nay as Republicans who voted yea.
Hulse asserts that the bill became law because of “bipartisanship, a committed White House, readiness to compromise, and willingness by some lawmakers to take a significant political risk.” Wouldn’t we dearly love to have that description apply to today’s politics?
But sadly, the outstanding achievement was short-lived. Unless Congress reauthorized the Act, which it did not, a sunset provision (via compromise) had the legislation end in 2004. The word “sadly” is appropriate because the Act accomplished what its sponsors had hoped: the number of gun deaths declined.
As you can see from the following chart, there were approximately 39,600 U.S. deaths by firearms in 1993, the year before the Act went into effect, and there were 29,600 deaths by firearms in 1994, the last year the Act was in effect. That is a 25% reduction.
But there is something else of importance to note in the chart. During that ten-year period, the number of U.S. firearm deaths bottomed in 2000 at approximately 28,600, and then it began to climb steadily—even while the Act was in effect. Data show that two significant upticks in gun deaths began much later than the decade-long period of interest (1994-2004). The first uptick started in 2014, and the second uptick began in 2019. University of Michigan researchers have labeled the 2019 uptick as “drastic.” In 2020, approximately 45,200 Americans died via firearms.
So—Act or not—thing have gotten worse over the decades. One reason is America’s love affair with guns. No other country in the world comes close to America’s numbers—121 firearms per 100 people—which means there are more guns in the U.S. than people. There is more to the story, too. Alex Yablon estimates that between 1-3 million assault-style rifles are produced and imported annually. NBC reports that more children are being killed by firearms today than at the turn of the century (source CDC), and there are more active-shooter incidents today than there were in 2000 (source FBI).
The situation today is much worse than it was back in 1993, and (not insignificantly) today’s political environment is more inhospitable to acting. That is why legislation to secure stricter gun control laws is at a standstill. Something needs to be done, and it is not being done.
There is hope, though, if America can reimagine how to proceed. The possibility begins with doing something that program planners do regularly—that is, start with the end (or goal) in mind. In this case, a major outcome is to reduce the number of deaths by mass murders. Who among us would disagree with that objective?
The challenge, of course, is how we get there. One means seems out of reach. The majority of Republicans in the U.S. House and Senate, and in statehouses and city halls across the country, do not support a broad-based approach to gun control even though a majority of Americans do. Politicians have not budged in that regard, and it is anybody’s guess if they ever will.
So, we need another means, and here is one. Rather than focus on stricter gun control as a means, focus on putting systems in place to intervene before antagonists commit mass murders. That outcome is possible because behavioral research has revealed the traits of those who commit mass murders.
Reid Meloy, a board-certified forensic psychologist who has researched the subject, told USAToday recently that “these are not impulsive acts. That’s why we’ve been able to show that there are warning signs that people can see, observe, and report.” Mark Follman concurs. Follman, who has studied mass shootings in America, is the author of Trigger Points: Inside the Mission to Stop Mass Shootings in America (2022) and, more recently, of The Epidemic of Mass Shootings Is Neither Inevitable Nor Unsolvable.
Based on research, Follman has concluded that many mass murders could be prevented if attention is given and action is taken beforehand. He reports that many mass murderers manifest behavioral cues as they move through the decision process, and many of those cues are observable publicly. The cues are
- Entrenched Grievances,
- Threatening Communications,
- Patterns of Aggression, Emulation,
- Stalking Behavior,
- Personal Deterioration,
- Triggering Events, and
- Attack Preparation.
Follman elaborates: ‘If one or more people in the orbit of persons (showing one or more of these behaviors) becomes worried by their behavior and then reaches out to a point of contact in the mental health or public safety system, “then a threat assessment team would intervene constructively with troubled people.” If such a system had been in place and worked effectively, he continues, the recent Buffalo and Uvalde massacres might have been avoided because the young perpetrators were exhibiting one or more those cues.
One obstacle to Follman’s preference is sociocultural, that is, making it socially acceptable for associates, neighbors, and family members to share information with local officials. For that to happen, there would need to be a system in place, not unlike Crime Stoppers, that would make it easier for informants to share information. Another obstacle is the need to reverse long-term resistance to view preventive public safety and mental health programs as a priority.
Follman points out that his proposal is not a replacement for gun control legislation. “Diminishing this American nightmare is going to take many different forms of action,” Follman asserts, “including a relentless, long-term effort to strengthen our nation’s gun laws, quashing a surge in violent political extremism, investing in a lacking mental health care system, and building community-based violence prevention programs.”
Even with those caveats, here are four reasons why I support the alternative of investing in prevention programs.
- First, it bypasses the highly partisan battle between those who seek and those who oppose stricter gun control measures. That divide, much like other either-or options (e.g., pro-life/pro-choice), seems intractable.
- Second, it is grounded in behavioral research. Basing public policy on research is good public policy.
- Third, it can be adopted immediately, both nationally and locally. States, communities, school districts, organizations, businesses, and other enterprises could establish intervention systems—even if Congress continues to drag its feet.
- Fourth, it means doing something! The current routine of “hurry up and wait” is tiring and troubling.
America needs an alternative to the current political song-and-dance that leads nowhere. House Democrats pass gun control legislation that House Republicans do not endorse, and Senate Republicans will not pass. The result? America ends up with nothing.
Reimagining how to move things forward—and then doing it—is a way around a longstanding political impasse. It is a solid and workable way, too, something that should be done even if stricter gun legislation comes to pass.
Let us face it: people are dying for change.