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Political debate often overlooks the range of incremental steps that could lessen the chances of mass killing and help address the nation’s persistent gun violence.
At the congressional level, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has been able to push minor gun safety policies after mass shootings—like legislation meant to improve background checks after the gunman in 2017’s Sutherland Springs slaying was able to purchase a gun despite a domestic violence conviction. Cornyn is again leading bipartisan talks, but many of his Republican colleagues said they will only support measures that would have made a difference in Uvalde.
“We’re reactive, that’s human nature,” Fox said, though he encouraged lawmakers to look at the bigger picture.
Beyond difficulties in looking at gun violence with a broader lens, a major hurdle for Texas policymakers is agreeing that changes to gun policy should be part of the solution at all. Focusing exclusively on mental health initiatives or fortifying schools won’t adequately address the problem if gun access isn’t also restricted, a variety of experts agreed.
“A challenge we face here is that everybody is looking for one answer, one thing. That doesn’t exist,” said Jaclyn Schildkraut, associate professor of criminal justice at State University of New York at Oswego. “We’re dealing with very complex phenomena that go in spider webs in so many different directions but all weaved together.”
Jimmy Perdue, president of the Texas Police Chiefs Association, said last week he agrees with the argument that those with ill intent will find a way to get guns. He argued that mental illness and a societal devaluation of the sanctity of life are causes of mass shootings. Still, he said, access does matter.
He said “the time has come” for the state to make it harder for some people to get firearms, especially with a continuing rise in gun violence in Texas and throughout the country.
“There are certainly measures that could be put into place that limit access, whether that be raising the age or some sort of background checks or waiting periods,” Perdue said. “No one thing is going to prevent it from happening, but I tend to come down on the side of if we can put some measures in place that can prevent one or two, it’s better than nothing.”
Going through background checks or having to wait several days to buy a gun, he argued, isn’t an infringement on someone’s Second Amendment rights.
“Guns are a part of our natural fabric of being Texan, but some things have changed,” he added. “Society’s changed, and we’re at the point where we’ve got to look at it from a total complexity perspective.”
Klarevas said an effective response to prevent future gun violence would include layers of checks and barriers aimed at preventing different types of bad actors from getting their hands on guns that could inflict mass damage. A background check may not stop all potential shooters, he said, but laws limiting their access to assault weapons or large-capacity magazines can decrease the fatality rates.
“One law is good, but it’s just a starting point,” he said. “The more laws you have, the more effective your framework will be. If you want to do the best job possible, you have to take a comprehensive approach.”
'Layering' to Mitigate Risks
For public health researchers, a helpful guide is looking at car crashes. While the rate of gun deaths has increased over the years, the rate of people killed in motor vehicle accidents has steadily fallen, according to Charles DiMaggio, an injury epidemiologist at New York University. That’s in part because states have adopted a more uniform approach to driving safety, like seatbelt laws and drunken driving penalties.
“The other issue is that there was a willingness and acceptance that motor vehicle crash injuries [and] pedestrian injuries are in fact a public health problem, and it requires public health approaches,” DiMaggio said. “I don’t think there’s that kind of consensus for gun violence.”
Sheldon Jacobson, a professor of computer sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said the idea of creating layers of gun policies to prevent future mass shootings is similar to the work he did in creating risk-based assessments that led to the development of Transportation Security Administration PreCheck in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks of 2001.
“One thing [TSA does] really well is layers,” he said. “They look for multiple ways to mitigate risks, and when you put them together you come up with a fairly impenetrable fortress.”
The PreCheck process expedites airport screening for frequent travelers. In exchange, those travelers submit themselves to background checks that allow the government to vet them ahead of their travels. As a result, those travelers get less-intrusive screenings when entering their terminals.
But the agency is not limited to background checks on travelers who sign up for the program. Regular travelers have a more intrusive screening process, and TSA has cameras at terminals that monitor for suspicious activity. It also limits the items that can be taken on planes, including guns.
“Have we seen incidents? We have not,” Jacobson said. “And that’s because there are layers.”
Jacobson also sees another parallel to the gun debate. In trying to implement different kinds of security screenings for different passengers, the TSA got political pushback.
“To do differential screening meant you had to treat people differently. That’s a bit of a sticky wicket, to say the least,” he said. “But the fact is if you can justify doing that on the basis of the well-being of the population, it got through.”
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