America’s New Gunfight: Inside the Campaign to Avert Mass Shootings

Will a new campaign for gun laws quell the mass shootings that are routine in America?

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310 Million Guns

but the white house is not counting votes in Congress just yet. It is counting instead on fostering a change in attitudes that will force politicians to take notice. “There will be pundits and politicians and special-interest lobbyists publicly warning of a tyrannical all-out assault on liberty,” Obama said when he announced his recommendations. “The only way we will be able to change is if their audience, their constituents, their memberships say this time must be different.”

Michael Bloomberg

Nigel Parry / CPi for TIME

‘The NRA is only powerful if you and I let them be powerful.’ —Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York City

To do that, the White House will have to sell the idea that its solutions will address the problem of mass shootings. But on that most important question, the verdict is vague. For decades, the frequency of mass shootings and the number of gun-related suicides in the U.S. have been consistent, while gun homicides have declined with the general crime rate. On average, there are 20 shootings a year with more than four victims killed, according to James Alan Fox, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston. On the same day that Biden met with the gun industry, a 16-year-old walked into his high school in Southern California and fired two rounds from a shotgun, allegedly trying to kill two students he believed were bullying him. He hit one of his targets and missed the second, killing no one, so the crime will not be counted in the statistics.

Eliminating all firearms in the U.S. would eliminate the ability to kill with firearms, but that is not anything like a realistic option. The Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that the Second Amendment bestows on U.S. citizens a right to possess firearms for lawful purposes. That right, just like those guaranteed in the First Amendment, can be subject to restrictions, but guns will never be removed from civilian circulation. And the number of guns out there continues to grow. In 1968 there was one gun in civilian hands for every two Americans. As of 2009, there were more guns in the U.S. than people: 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles and 86 million shotguns. Nothing proposed would take away those guns.

And most mass shooters don’t use assault weapons anyway. They prefer pistols, often with many bullets in the clip. The shooters, more often than not, lack criminal records, suggesting that background checks applied to all sales might not deter them. But Biden and Obama have set a low bar for the legislation they propose, speaking only about diminishing the probability of more attacks, not eliminating them altogether. “If there is even one life that can be saved,” Obama says, “then we’ve got an obligation to try.”

On that score, there is evidence to support the idea that more rules might prevent individual cases of mass violence or at least lessen the damage. The disturbed man who shot Giffords was tackled while reloading his gun, having spent 33 rounds. Nine-year-old Christina-Taylor Green was shot sometime after bullet No. 12, says Kelly, who has reviewed the criminal records. “If Jared Loughner didn’t have access to a high-capacity magazine, there would be less people dead,” he says.

(MORE: Letters to Obama: Children Plead for Gun Control)

Improving the scope and quality of background checks, with better mental health and more recent criminal records, could help prevent criminal and disturbed individuals from acquiring weapons. Also, better coordination between schools, mental-health officials and the police could flag potential shooters. Both Loughner and James Holmes, the movie-theater shooter in Aurora, Colo., raised alarm bells at their respective schools before they struck. Obama has promised to pursue several education efforts about mental illness and guns as part of his Executive actions.

But the big questions on gun control will soon move out of Washington and be placed before the American people. “I will put everything I’ve got into this, and so will Joe,” said Obama. “But I’ve got to tell you that the only way we can change is if the American people demand it.” It will be a long fight. But it is a fight that has begun again.

The original version of this article misstated where Gabby Giffords was shot. It was in Tucson, not Phoenix.

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