Q&A on Biden’s Gun Proposals

Gun Rights

In a prime-time speech to the nation, President Joe Biden spoke about gun violence and his proposals to reduce it. Here, we answer common questions about some of the statistics the president cited and actions he proposed.

His remarks on June 2 were made after a spate of mass shootings within the prior three weeks in which 35 people were killed by gunman in Buffalo, New York; Uvalde, Texas; and Tulsa, Oklahoma.

How many firearm deaths are there in the U.S. per year?

In 2020, there were 45,222 firearm deaths in the United States, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of those — 24,292 — were suicides, while 19,384 deaths were homicides.

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The death rates per 100,000 population were 13.7 for all firearm deaths, 7.4 for suicides and 5.9 for homicides. The chart below shows the firearm death rates by type of injury from 1981 to 2020.

Over that time period, the rates were highest at 15.2 firearm deaths per 100,000 population in 1993, 7.6 for suicides in 1990 and 7 for homicides in 1991.

In his remarks, Biden noted that CDC data showed “guns are the number one killer of children in the United States of America.” An analysis of the CDC data, published in the New England Journal of Medicine on May 19, determined firearm injuries were the leading cause of death for those ages 1 through 19 in 2020. Dating back to 1999, the data had previously found guns were the second-leading cause of death, behind automobile crashes.

How many mass shootings have occurred in the U.S. over time, and this year alone?

It depends on how one defines “mass shooting.” According to a database compiled by the magazine Mother Jones, there have been at least 129 public mass shootings since 1982, with more than half of those occurring since 2013. This year alone, there have been four: in Sacramento, Buffalo, Uvalde and Tulsa. However, by different criteria, there have been 18 mass shootings this year.

Mother Jones’ database includes attacks in public places, typically by a sole perpetrator, in which three or more victims were killed, and prior to 2013, it included such attacks in which four or more victims were killed — metrics that federal law enforcement have used for mass killings during those time periods. The database focuses on indiscriminate shootings in public places, and it doesn’t include killings mostly linked to gang activity or robberies, or those in private homes.

Including any shooting involving three or more victims killed, regardless of the other circumstances, would increase the number of “mass shootings” considerably. There were 18 such shootings this year alone, according to a database compiled by the Gun Violence Archive. Those incidents include a Jan. 23 shooting in which six people were killed in a house in Milwaukee and a March 12 shooting on the streets of Baltimore that left three men dead.

In his June 2 speech, Biden used a broader definition of mass shooting, saying: “Since Uvalde, just over a week ago, there have been 20 other mass shootings in America, each with four or more people killed or injured, including yesterday at a hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma.” That’s the criteria used by the Gun Violence Archive — four or more victims shot, whether killed or injured, not including the shooter. So far in 2022, the research organization has found 233 shootings meet that definition, and yes, there have been 20 such shootings since the elementary school massacre in Uvalde.

As for mass school shootings, there have been 19 since 1982, with 197 victims killed, according to Mother Jones’ database.

How do background checks work, and how are Democrats proposing to expand them?

The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 requires that all guns obtained from a federally licensed firearms dealer include a background check. When a customer applies to buy a gun from the dealer, the seller has to run that person’s name and other identifying information through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, an electronic system that verifies buyers do not have a reported criminal record or mental health issue that makes them ineligible to purchase or own firearms.

But not all gun sales or transfers go through licensed dealers, and in some states, background checks are not required for such private sales between unlicensed individuals, including some sales on the internet or at gun shows. 

Most congressional Democrats want that to change.

In March 2021, the Democrat-controlled House passed H.R. 8, the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021, by a vote of 227-203, mostly along partisan lines. Eight Republicans supported it, and one Democrat opposed it.

As we’ve written, the bill seeks to expand the background check requirements to almost all gun transfers, including those between private parties. It would require firearm transfers between private parties to be handled by a federally licensed dealer, who would take possession of the firearm while the background check is being conducted.

There would be exceptions to the policy, such as loans or gifts between family members and temporary transfers to people in situations of self-defense or at a shooting range.

Most congressional Democrats also want to extend the time required to conduct a background check before a gun can be given to a buyer.

Under current law, a federally licensed firearms dealer can transfer a weapon to a purchaser in what is called a “default proceed,” if the background check cannot be completed in three business days.

But in March of last year, 217 House Democrats and two House Republicans voted to pass H.R. 1446, the Enhanced Background Checks Act. That bill would increase the window to conduct a background check to a minimum of 10 business days. If the background check still remains incomplete after 10 days, the purchaser can submit a petition for a final determination. If another 10 days pass without a decision, the firearms can then be transferred to the prospective purchaser.

Only two Democrats voted against the legislation.

However, neither H.R. 8 nor H.R. 1446 has received a vote in the evenly divided Senate, where at least 60 votes are necessary to avoid a potential filibuster of either bill.

What states have red-flag laws?

In his speech, the president called for a “federal red-flag law.”

Nineteen states and the District of Columbia already have so-called red-flag laws in place, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which advocates gun control laws. The states are: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Washington.

Also known as Extreme Risk Protection Orders, or ERPO, red-flag laws allow certain people — usually just law enforcement officers, family or household members — “to petition a court to order that firearms be temporarily taken or kept away from someone who poses a risk of committing gun violence,” the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service said in a 2019 report.

“ERPO laws are designed to respond to acute periods of elevated risk of violence by authorizing a temporary ban on new firearm purchases and the temporary removal of firearms currently in an individual’s possession,” the RAND Corporation explains in a 2020 report as part of its Gun Policy in America initiative.

Thirteen of the 19 states and the District of Columbia “allow family or household members as well as law enforcement to submit a petition” for a protection order, according to the Giffords Law Center.

“Five states limit the category of petitioners to law enforcement only,” the center says. “Indiana has a risk-based firearm removal law that is similar to law enforcement-only ERPOs.”

The president suggested he would seek an expansive federal red-flag law.

“We should also have national red-flag laws so that a parent, a teacher, a counselor can flag for a court that a child, a student, a patient is exhibiting violent tendencies, threatening classmates, or experiencing suicidal thoughts that makes them a danger to themselves or to others,” Biden said.

A few states do allow some people other than law enforcement and family or household members to petition for a protection order. For example, “Maryland and DC … allow mental health providers to petition; New York … allows school administrators to petition; and Hawaii … allows medical professionals, coworkers, and educators to petition,” according to the Giffords Law Center.

In an article last year, the Wall Street Journal found that state red-flag laws were used about 5,000 times in 2020 — most often in Florida, where the law was used 2,355 times. Florida passed the law after a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018 that killed 17 people and wounded 17 others.

“Florida’s law authorizes law enforcement agencies to petition a court for a civil order preventing a person from accessing firearms for up to one year,” according to the Giffords Law Center.

In a review of existing studies on the effects of red-flag laws, the RAND Corporation found in its 2020 report that there is “inconclusive evidence for the effect of extreme risk protection orders on total and firearm suicides.”

How many states have ‘safe storage’ laws?

The president said there should be “safe storage laws and personal liability for not locking up your gun,” which he said the House is planning to address.

Generally, safe storage means that gun owners keep their firearms locked in a safe or use a safety device when not being used. The intent is to keep the weapons away from those who are not supposed to possess them, including minors.

There is no federal law that requires gun owners to store guns securely; however, importers, manufacturers and dealers must include a gun storage or safety device with handgun sales or transfers in most cases. There are 13 states that have laws concerning either gun storage or firearm locking devices, according to the Giffords Law Center.

Only two of those states, Massachusetts and Oregon, generally require all firearms to be stored with a lock in place. Four other states (California, Colorado, Connecticut and New York) impose that requirement in certain situations, such as when gun owners reside with someone prohibited from having a gun.

The center says the District of Columbia has a nonbinding policy that strongly encourages registrants to keep their firearms unloaded and either disassembled or secured with a trigger lock or in a safe.

In addition, five states require that locking devices accompany all guns sold by federally licensed dealers, while seven states have that stipulation for dealer sales of certain types of guns. In Ohio, a dealer is only required to offer to sell the purchaser a trigger lock or gun locking device, the center says.

Locking devices may be an external device or a design feature of the firearm.

As for private sales, only three states require that locking devices accompany all guns in such sales. And three other states require that locking devices accompany private sales of either handguns or assault weapons or both.

In five of the states that require some or all guns to be sold with locking devices, the locks must be approved or meet state guidelines.

How many states place restrictions on teens buying rifles, and what are those restrictions?

In his speech, Biden said his first choice would be a ban on assault weapons, but if that can’t be accomplished, “then we should raise the age to purchase them from 18 to 21.”

“In Uvalde, the shooter was 17 when he asked his sister to buy him an assault weapon, knowing he’d be denied because he was too young to purchase one himself. She refused,” Biden said. “But as soon as he turned 18, he purchased two assault weapons for himself. Because in Texas, you can be 18 years old and buy an assault weapon even though you can’t buy a pistol in Texas until you’re 21. If we can’t ban assault weapons, as we should, we must at least raise the age to be able to purchase one to 21.”

“Look, I know some folks will say, ’18-year-olds can serve in the military and fire those weapons,’” Biden said. “But that’s with training and supervision by the best-trained experts in the world. Don’t tell me raising the age won’t make a difference. Enough.”

Federal law prohibits licensed gun dealers from selling handguns to people under 21. But for long guns, including assault rifles, licensed dealers can sell to anyone over the age of 18. Federal law places no minimum age restrictions on the possession of long guns.

However, state laws on the issue vary widely.

According to the Giffords Law Center, five states prohibit the purchase of long guns, including assault rifles, for people under the age of 21: California, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois and Vermont (without a hunting safety certificate). Washington state prohibits the sale of just assault rifles to people under 21.

Two states, Hawaii and Illinois, also make it illegal for anyone under 21 to possess a long gun. Maryland requires people to be 21 to possess an assault weapon. And Washington state prohibits the possession of semiautomatic rifles by people under the age of 21 when not on private property.

Many of the laws banning sales of rifles to people under 21 are being challenged in court. Last month, a U.S. appeals court ruled that California’s ban on the sale of semiautomatic weapons to people under 21 is unconstitutional.

“There’s a big fight brewing over these restrictions on guns for 18, 19, and 20-year-olds because the courts are in the midst of a great expansion of Second Amendment gun rights,” Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor who writes about gun policy, told NPR.

Looking at studies researching age requirements for any firearms, not just assault weapons, RAND found inconclusive evidence for how minimum age requirements for possessing a firearm affect total homicides, firearm homicides, and other violent crime.”

We couldn’t find any solid research directly addressing the effect of raising from 18 to 21 the minimum age to purchase an assault rifle. But gun control groups like Giffords point to academic research that shows post-adolescent brains have not fully matured, making young adults more prone to involvement in violence.

After the Parkland school shooting in 2018, then-President Donald Trump expressed support for raising the minimum age to 21 to purchase an assault weapon.

“Now, this is not a popular thing to say, in terms of the NRA. But I’m saying it anyway,” Trump said. I’m going to just have to say it. But you can’t buy — I mean, think of it. You can buy a handgun — you can’t buy one; you have to wait until you’re 21. But you can buy the kind of weapon used in the school shooting at 18. I think it’s something you have to think about.”

Trump suggested he was willing to buck the NRA’s opposition to such a law.

“I can say that the NRA is opposed to it,” Trump said. “And I’m a fan of the NRA. I mean, there’s no bigger fan. I’m a big fan of the NRA. … These are great people. These are great patriots. They love our country. But that doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. It doesn’t make sense that I have to wait until I’m 21 to get a handgun, but I can get this weapon at 18.”

But he never followed through with backing legislation to accomplish that.

Did the assault weapons ban reduce mass shootings?

As he has in the past, Biden said in his speech to the nation that the assault weapons ban included in a 1994 crime bill that he sponsored reduced mass shootings.

“And in the 10 years it was law, mass shootings went down,” Biden said. “But after Republicans let the law expire in 2004 and those weapons were allowed to be sold again, mass shootings tripled. Those are the facts.”

But the facts about the effectiveness of the law on reducing mass shootings aren’t as clear-cut as he presents them.

We wrote about the effectiveness of the assault weapons ban in 2013 and again in 2021. In both cases, we cited a three-part study authored by Christopher S. Koper and funded by the Department of Justice that concluded in the final report issued in 2004 that the ban’s success in reducing crimes committed with prohibited guns was “mixed.”

“Although the ban has been successful in reducing crimes with AWs [Assault Weapons], any benefits from this reduction are likely to have been outweighed by steady or rising use of non-banned semiautomatics with LCMs [large-capacity magazines], which are used in crime much more frequently than AWs,” Koper wrote. “Therefore, we cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation’s recent drop in gun violence.”

(For more, read our March 26, 2021, article “FactChecking Biden’s Claim that Assault Weapons Ban Worked.”)

As for whether “mass shootings tripled” since the law expired, we went to a database of mass shootings created and maintained by the magazine Mother Jones. (See the question above on mass shootings for more on the database criteria.)

The assault weapons ban was in effect from September 1994 to September 2004, during which time there were 15 mass shootings that resulted in 96 deaths, according to the Mother Jones database. That’s an average of 1.5 mass shootings per year and 6.4 deaths per mass shooting incident.

Since then, there were 94 mass shootings, from Dec. 8, 2004, to May 24, 2022, that resulted in 776 deaths. That’s an average of roughly five mass shootings per year and 8.3 deaths per shooting.

Biden’s claim that “mass shootings tripled” since the assault weapons ban expired is supported by at least one measure, although the firearms covered by the 1994 law were not responsible for all of these shootings.

What does the research say about effectiveness of banning large-capacity magazines?

Biden also renewed his call for a ban on large-capacity magazines.

The president praised a bill that passed in the House Judiciary Committee on June 2 that calls for outlawing the import, sale, manufacture, transfer or possession of large-capacity magazines. It would grandfather currently owned large-capacity magazines. The bill — which passed in the committee by a vote of 25-19, with all Republicans voting against it — does not call for an outright ban on assault weapons, though it would raise the lawful age to purchase one from 18 to 21.

We looked at the research into bans on large-capacity magazines in our March 26, 2021, story. We found that while the RAND Corporation’s review of gun studies concluded there is “inconclusive evidence for the effect of assault weapon bans on mass shootings,” there is growing evidence that banning large-capacity magazines may reduce the number killed and injured in mass shootings.

Although there is no established definition, large-capacity magazines generally refer to magazines with a capacity of more than 10 rounds of ammunition, essentially allowing a shooter to fire 10 rounds without having to take the time to reload.

Research published in 2019 in Criminology & Public Policy by Grant Duwe, director of research and evaluation for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, found that while the expiration of the assault weapons (and LCM) ban in 2004 did not have much of an effect on the number of mass public shootings, the number killed and injured in mass public shootings has increased over the decade after the ban had expired.

And research published in Criminology & Public Policy in January 2020 concluded that state bans of large-capacity magazines did appear to be “associated with significant reductions in the incident of fatal mass shootings.”

“It’s clear that there is an association between weapon features, most notably ammunition capacity, and how many people are shot in these incidents,” Daniel Webster, one of the authors of the study and director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, told us via email at the time. “Shooters select weapons and ammunition feeding devices that will allow them to shoot as many people as possible. It is a separate question whether bans will reduce casualties from mass shootings or how long they need to be in place in order for the effects to be realized.”

In separate research also published in Criminology & Public Policy in January 2020, Koper, principal fellow of George Mason University’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy and the author of the Department of Justice-funded review of the 1994 assault weapons ban, argued that the “most important provisions of assault weapons law” are restrictions on large-capacity magazines, because “they can produce broader reductions in the overall use of high-capacity semiautomatics that facilitate high-volume gunfire attacks.”

An increase in the use of LCMs “would arguably have not happened, or at least not to the same degree, had Congress extended the ban in 2004,” Koper states. “Considering that mass shootings with high-capacity semiautomatics are considerably more lethal and injurious than other mass shootings, it is reasonable to argue that the federal ban could have prevented some of the recent increase in persons killed and injured in mass shootings had it remained in place.”

Specifically, Koper concluded, “Data on mass shooting incidents suggest these magazine restrictions can potentially reduce mass shooting deaths by 11% to 15% and total victims shot in these incidents by one quarter, likely as upper bounds.”

How many states ban large-capacity ammunition?

The federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 made it unlawful to “transfer or possess a large capacity ammunition feeding device,” but, as we’ve said, that law expired in 2004. Since then, nine states and the District of Columbia have passed laws banning large-capacity magazines: California, Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Vermont. All of them except Colorado and Vermont also ban assault weapons.

According to a review of state laws on large-capacity magazines by the Giffords Law Center, eight of the nine states prohibit large-capacity ammunition magazines for use with any firearm, while Hawaii’s law only targets large-capacity magazines used with a handgun.

Most states define large-capacity magazines as ones capable of holding more than 10 rounds; in Colorado, it’s more than 15 rounds. And Vermont draws a distinction for long guns (more than 10 rounds) and handguns (more than 15 rounds).

Among the states that ban large-capacity magazines, there are also differences in prohibited activities, such as possession, transfer, manufacture, purchase and importation. The most comprehensive bans — prohibiting possession, manufacture and transfer (including sale) of large-capacity magazines — are in California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York and Vermont.

And finally, there are differences between the states regarding whether they exempted magazines owned prior to enactment of the bans — in other words whether they grandfathered existing magazines.

California, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, New Jersey and New York did not grandfather LCMs, meaning that large-capacity magazines owned prior to the bans had to be destroyed, converted to a lower capacity, turned in to law enforcement, or transferred to a dealer or out of state. New York gives an owner 30 days after being notified by law enforcement about the ban to get rid of the banned magazines. Connecticut requires grandfathered magazines to be registered, while Colorado, Massachusetts and Vermont all exempted possession of magazines owned prior to enactment of their bans. Maryland does not prohibit possession of large-capacity magazines, only the manufacture and transfer of them.

What liability protections do gun manufacturers have?

Biden again called for repealing “the liability shield that often protects gun manufacturers from being sued for the death and destruction caused by their weapons.” He added: “They’re the only industry in this country that has that kind of immunity. Imagine — imagine if the tobacco industry had been immune from being sued — where we’d be today.”

It’s a fact that federal law protects gun makers from most civil lawsuits. However, other industries, such as vaccine manufacturers and administrators, also receive certain liability protections, contrary to what Biden said.

As we’ve reported, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act does largely prevent licensed manufacturers, dealers, sellers of firearms or ammunition, and trade associations from being sued for “criminal or unlawful” misuse of a gun or ammunition. But there are six exceptions, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The exceptions include cases in which a firearm seller acted with negligence, cases involving the transfer of a firearm with the knowledge that it would be used to commit a crime, and cases in which manufacturers and sellers marketed or sold a firearm in violation of state or federal law.

In February, families of victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting agreed to settle their lawsuit against Remington Arms Co. for $73 million. The families sued the company for its marketing of the assault-style rifle that was used in the shooting.

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