Tag Archives: 1968 Gun Control Act

“These people [school shooters]: they’re seriously mentally ill, they’re hearing voices”: Will redefining the criteria for prohibited gun owners reduce school shootings?

The quote cited in the title, said by one of the experts on gun-related legislation I interviewed, highlights the difference of school shootings from other types of gun violence in the U.S. A commonality in school shootings and other types of spree incidents does tend to be mental illness: the Virginia Tech University shooting (2007); the Northern Illinois University shooting (2008); the mass shooting in Tuscon, Arizona (2011); the Aurora Theatre shooter in Colorado (2012); the ‘Navy Yard’ shootings in Washington, D.C. (2013). In all of these examples, the perpetrators legally procured firearms: my gun violence prevention interviewees claimed that this was due to limitations in existing laws.

One interviewee pointed to the restrictiveness of the criteria for disqualification under the federal-level “Gun Control Act” (1968): being admitted to a psychiatric institution or being formally adjudicated by a court as a danger. For instance, the Virginia Tech shooter was prohibited from purchasing firearms under federal law; however, because he had only ‘temporarily detained’ at a mental institute rather than ‘committed,’ he was able to circumvent the federal restrictions and be eligible to buy firearms under state law at that time. Following the attack, the Governor of Virginia, using executive order, changed the law to prescribe that anyone found to be a danger to themselves or others by a court-ordered review — regardless of whether or not it was voluntary — should be prohibited. It was suggested by another interviewee that the specific criteria for firearm purchase exclusion at both the federal and state levels should mandate a broader scope of the threat posed by individuals, based on their history and whether they have expressed intentions to harm themselves or others.

Citizens themselves could also play a part by monitoring those closest to them and taking precautions to ensure untoward things do not happen, suggested one of my interviewees. This is particularly relevant when considering the Sandy Hook elementary school shooter had severe mental illness, yet was able to access his mother’s firearms to kill her and the victims at the school. The careful monitoring of those closest to them could also encourage those with mental illnesses to seek treatment before they carry out violent actions. Notably, the Virginia Tech school shooter (2007) did not pursue treatment on his own; rather, it was his remark to his suitemates “I might as well kill myself” that resulted in him getting mentally assessed.

In order to put mental health on the government agenda, interviewees recommended framing it as a ‘public health issue’ centred on school and other types of mass shootings. The issue of mental health and guns would then have to be based on a reconceptualisation of public safety based on the increasing number of mass shooting incidents, particularly those where the perpetrator legally procured a gun despite a history of mental illness. When it comes to school shooters, it is possible that putting barriers in the way of those who are mentally ill and have the potential to act violently could allow for interventionary efforts to help the individual before it culminates in a shooting incident.

[This blog used results from interviews with representatives from gun violence prevention groups and other experts in gun-related legislation. Further adding to this post were studies about the legal changes after the Virginia Tech shooting and general readings about past mass/school shooting incidents. The next blog post will examine how emergency management could play a part in reducing the severity of school shootings.]

“I think we should forget about more gun control, what we need is bullet control”(1): Could regulation of bullets reduce school shootings?

A neglected aspect of the gun debate in the U.S. is the notion of ‘bullet control’: this would take the form of conducting background checks for buying ammunition. The selling point is if someone owned a gun and became ineligible after committing a felony, this would prevent them from buying ammunition for that gun. Since ideology has been defined as an interest-linked perspective, there exists a ‘struggle for legitimacy’ (i.e. confirmation of that particular ideological perspective) predicated on existing divisions within society (2). Something like ‘bullet control,’ therefore, could possibly depoliticise the issue away from the debate on ‘gun rights’ and ‘gun control.’ A number of my interviewees, however, were sceptical about this being a way to circumvent the politics of gun regulation, believing the National Rifle Association would fight against it.

Ammunition regulation used to be a part of the federal-level ‘Gun Control Act’ (1968) prohibiting mail order sales and requiring a log of ammunition sales. This ended, however, in 1986 due to the ‘Firearm Owners’ Protection Act’ diluting elements of the 1968 law. This means it will now fall to individual states to make decisions regarding the regulation of ammunition. California, for example, has just implemented a law mandating: the marking of bullets, background checks for purchases, and recording buyer information. Notably, the gun violence prevention groups to whom I spoke indicated that California was the progressive ‘model’ for gun regulations to aspire to, as this state is able to take further steps than the rest of the nation. As a whole, California, District of Columbia, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York require licenses to purchase or possess ammunition.

Suggestions were made from gun violence prevention groups about regulating the quantities of bullets able to be sold. This seems particularly applicable to school shootings since the Virginia Tech shooter carried almost four hundred bullets with him; whilst the Columbine perpetrators fired almost two hundred rounds and wore utility belts containing clips of 9mm bullets. Taxation of bullets was dismissed as a viable strategy, however, since mass shooters are unlikely to be deterred from their goal based on the cost of ammunition. An alternative strategy is perhaps New York’s recent law requiring logs of purchases, so the police can be informed if someone is stockpiling bullets.

Another recommendation was restricting bullets that increase the severity of wounds. There seems to be a link between harm-inducing bullets and school shootings. The Virginia Tech shooter used 9mm ‘hollow point bullets,’ which penetrate further parts of the body rather than exiting it and are designed to inflict higher levels of damage than ordinary bullets. Similarly, the Sandy Hook shooter used bullets the same size as those used by military troops designed to tear bone and tissue apart. Tighter regulations of these could, at the very least, serve to reduce the severity of injuries in a school shooting situation; henceforth, framing the problem in terms of medical costs. Furthermore, a legal scholar (3) claimed that limiting certain bullets, such as .50 calibre ones, would be constitutional because it would not affect self-defence; meaning this is definitely something which could viably be pursued as a legislative goal.

[This blog was compiled through a number of sources: interviews with gun violence prevention groups and other experts in matters relating to gun legislation; studies by legal scholars; data about state laws. The next blog post will look at using YouTube as a tool to analyse school shootings.]

(1) The quote in the title appeared in episode ‘2162 Votes’ (2005) in season seven of the fictional television show The West Wing.
(2) Philo, G. (2007) ‘Can Discourse Analysis Successfully Explain the Content of Media and Journalistic Practice?’ Journalism Studies 8(2), 175-196.
(3) Volokh, E. (2009) ‘Implementing the Right to Keep and Bear Arms for Self-Defense: An Analytical Framework and Research Agenda.’ UCLA Law Review 56, 1443-1549.