Gun laws prevent 21 mass shootings, researchers say

David Heitz

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A group of researchers has called firearm injuries “the other pandemic” in a viewpoint published this week in Journal of the American Medical Association, or JAMA.

But tough gun control laws prevented an estimated 21 mass shootings in California from 2016 to 2019, they concluded.

“While infections, hospitalizations, and deaths from the (COVID-19) pandemic overshadowed nearly all other health issues in the U.S. in 2020, the problem of firearm injuries and deaths has continued unabated,” the authors observed.

“Indeed, firearm sales increased during the pandemic, driven in part by a perceived need for self-protection amid concerns of breakdown of law and order.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 39,000 people died from gun deaths in 2018. More than 24,000 of those were suicides.

“While a new administration is likely to devote more attention to firearm-related deaths and injuries, there are limits to what policies could be implemented at the federal level given the makeup of the new Congress and the Supreme Court,” the authors noted.

The viewpoint was written by doctors Frederick P. Rivara and Ali Rowhani-Rahbar of the Firearm Injury and Policy Research Program at University of Washington, Seattle. Fredrick E. Vars of the University of Alabama School of Law also signed the viewpoint.

The researchers offer three solutions for curbing gun violence.

1. Mapping sites for temporary firearm storage. In 29 states and the District of Columbia families can temporarily store their firearms when someone in the household is experiencing a mental health crisis. Colorado in 2019 and Washington in 2020 blazed the trail “to create interactive maps in which law enforcement agencies, firearm retailers and shooting ranges are willing to temporarily store firearms,” the researchers explained.

This intervention has been proven effective. According to the RAND Gun Policy in America initiative, temporary firearm storage has reduced firearm suicides and unintentional shooting deaths by as much as 19 percent.

All the studies have focused on children and teens; there is no evidence on risk reduction to adults.

“There are potential legal issues around such temporary storage, especially surrounding return of firearms to the individual, but it is an important option for families,” the authors wrote.

2. Voluntary do-not-sell lists. In Washington and soon in Virginia, firearm owners can have their names put into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). This means they won’t be able to buy a firearm. They can take their name off the list, but only after a waiting period.

“Many suicides are impulsive and warning periods to purchase guns deter significant numbers of suicides,” the researchers noted, referencing previous papers on the topic.

3. Extreme risk protection orders, or ERPOs. These laws, in 29 states and the District of Columbia, also are called “Red Flag” laws. In these states, petitioners can ask a judge to restrict the purchase and possession of firearms to individuals “who exhibit behaviors that indicate they are at extreme risk of harming themselves, others, or both,” according to the authors.

In 12 states and D.C., family members or law enforcement agencies can petition the court. In Maryland and Hawaii, physicians can do so.

“The petitions ask courts to grant an order notifying the appropriate state agency and the NICS to prevent an individual at risk of causing harm from buying a firearm; the courts also can order the local law enforcement agency to take any and all firearms from the individual,” according to the viewpoint.

“ERPOs are currently an area of intense research,” the authors continued. “However, empirical studies in Connecticut and Indiana have shown them to be associated with reductions in the risk of suicide: For every 10 to 20 firearm removal under risk-based laws, one estimated suicide was averted.”

A case series from California showed the laws likely prevented an estimated 21 mass shootings from 2016 to 2019.

“Authorizing legislation has often been enacted after public mass shootings but, to our knowledge there have only been two reported cases of ERPO use in efforts to prevent mass shootings,” wrote the authors of research appearing in Annals of Internal Medicine.

Study: ERPOs prevent 21 mass shootings

The researchers behind that paper said other researchers currently are evaluating California’s ERPO law. They are attempting to obtain court records from 414 cases occurring from 2016 to 2018. “Based on 159 records received thus far, this article presents an aggregate summary and individual histories for a preliminary series of 21 cases in which ERPOs were used to prevent mass shootings.”

The study went on to say that most subjects were white, non-Hispanic males with a mean age of 35. “Most subjects made explicit threats and owned firearms,” the researchers explained. “Four cases arose primarily in relation to medical or mental health conditions, and such conditions were noted in four others.”

More than 50 firearms were removed, and as of early August 2019 “none of the threatened shootings had occurred, and no other homicides or suicides by persons subject to the orders were identified.”

Many doctors still don’t know about the laws. One survey showed that 72 percent of physicians in Maryland knew nothing about them.

“These three interventions represent opportunities for physicians and other clinicians to affect the U.S. pandemic of firearm injuries and deaths,” the authors concluded. “While all three interventions respect the right of individuals to possess firearms, they also have the potential to make an important difference in reducing firearm-related deaths and injuries.”

Pushback begins as President Biden takes oath of office

Firearm rights activists and lawmakers already have begun to push back against such laws. They are especially concerned now that a pro-gun control president is in office.

On Wednesday, a Missouri lawmaker explained the scenario to the state legislature. Eric Burlison (R-Battlefield) said Missourians could soon be faced with "gun bans, magazine bans, a tax on private manufacturers, red-flag laws and restrictions on individual citizens from buying firearms, including how many you can own," the Springfield News Leader reported.

“Indeed, the Democratic president's campaign website says he plans to push for bans on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines and try to limit people to buying one gun a month as part of his plan to end gun violence

President Biden’s website also encourages the adoption of red flag laws.

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best newspapers in the country. Today, I specialize in Denver local news, health reporting, social justice issues, addiction/recovery/mental health news, and topics surrounding homelessness and human trafficking.

Denver, CO
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