Evidence-Based Policies for Reducing Gun Violence: Mental Illness, Violence, and Laws

This is the seventh post in a series about Reducing Gun Violence in the United States. The previous post described Violence, Alcohol, Drugs, and Guns.

In this post, I’ll explore the relationship between mental illness and violence, firearm restrictions affecting people with mental illnesses, and related laws and their effectiveness.

Is Violence Related To Mental Illness?

In the United States alone, 10 million people have serious mental illnesses, and 3 million of those people – 30% – are not getting the treatment they need. You may even know one of these people who has struggled with mental illness: depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or one of many other conditions. They could be in your family or your friend circle. Treatments exist for these conditions, and some people who have access to treatment do well and recover, but for many individuals, treatment is out of reach.

Often, we hear about mental illness from a law or policymaker in the wake of a mass shooting. When these horrific events occur, we try to rationalize and understand what caused them with a straight answer. And often the answer that is given is “mental illness”. Sometimes, shooters in these situations do have documented mental health conditions, like untreated schizophrenia, involving hallucinations or delusions, and so the public can be led to think that the problem is all about mental illness. The solution proposed is often to fix or more properly fund the woefully inadequate mental health system in the US.

But is fixing the mental health care system really going to reduce the mass shootings and prevent gun violence more generally?

If fixing the mental health care system was really the silver bullet to preventing gun violence:

  • we’d have to assume that people with mental illnesses are violent
  • we’d have to assume that it’s the mental illnesses that are making them violent
  • we’d have to assume that people with mental illnesses are causing the violence that we see
  • and we’d conclude that curing mental illness or removing those with mental illness from a community would largely solve the problem

Public opinion polls show that many Americans believe these things – 60% of Americans believe that people with an illness like schizophrenia are likely to be violent towards other people. Let’s take a look at the facts and see if those four statements above actually hold true.

Of people that are violent: (sources: Characteristics of Person, Homicide and Deinstutuionalization)

  • 17% have a serious mental illness
  • 83% do not have a serious mental illness

So, most violent people and criminals are not mentally ill. Mentally ill people do get arrested for offenses, but the vast majority of those arrests are for minor non-violent offenses, like public intoxication or trespassing.

Let’s look at mentally ill individuals and their rates of violence. To be clear, let’s focus on individuals who have been hospitalized for a psychiatric illness and have been later been released into the community. Of those individuals: (sources: Schizophrenia + Violence Crime, Social-Environment Context)

  • 13% engage in some sort of violence, mostly minor, like shoving, slapping others, pushing people up against a wall
  • 83% are completely non-violent

So, not only are violent people and criminals not generally mentally ill, but individuals who have been treated for mental illness are rarely violent.

What if we do a random study of people and see if they are both violent and have had or currently have a mental illness? Studies that have looked at this have shown: (source: Population Impact)

  • 4% of violent behavior in society is directly relatable to mental illness

What this means is:

  • if we had a perfect healthcare system (which we know that we don’t)
  • and we could completely cure schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and all other mental health issues
  • then we would only reduce violent activity by 4%
  • the other 96% of it would still be there

Many, many other things contribute to that 96% of violent activity, which includes gun violence. It’s just not related to mental illness, no matter how many public opinion surveys or lawmakers heard on TV tell us that it is. It’s important to note that the 96% of violence could be preventable – just that most of it is not being caused by people with mental illness and is not going to be eliminated by curing mental illness.

Firearm Restrictions Related to Mental Illness

As we saw in an earlier post on Legal Issues related to Gun Violence Laws, among those people who cannot purchase firearms are individuals who have at any point in their lives been any of the following:

  • involuntarily committed to a hospital for a mental illness
  • determined by a judge to be mentally incapable of handling their personal affairs
  • charged with a crime and found incompetent to stand trial or pled not guilty by reason of insanity

These restrictions originated with the Gun Control Act of 1968. At a quick glance, these might seem reasonable.

However, thinking more critically, these restrictions would apply to a person who might have spent a single night in a hospital for depression thirty years ago, a person who has not had any mental health issues since, and is completely law-abiding. Are these restrictions too strict in this case?

On the other hand, these laws would not apply to a person who has a history of violence, though no criminal record – someone who has anger management issues, for instance, who tends to throw and break things, yells at people at work, gets into fights with friends. They might have problems, but those mental stability issues never rise to the level of “mental illness”, so guns are never taken away and purchase restrictions are never applied. 10% of people in the United States have anger traits like these and also have access to firearms (source: Guns and Anger). Are these restrictions too narrow in this case?

There is no perfect law-based solution to prevent all of the people who should not have guns from having them while allowing all of the people who can handle them safely to do so. However, it is important to realize that a mental health diagnosis alone is not a perfect indicator of whether someone should be allowed to purchase or own a gun. Should we update our fifty-year-old law on mental health restrictions?


Is Violence Related To Mental Illness?

  • Only 17% of violent individuals have a mental illness
  • Only 13% of individuals who were previously hospitalized for a mental illness engage in violent behavior
  • Only 4% of the general population is both violent and has a serious mental illness
  • If we could perfectly cure mental illness (which we can’t), 96% of the violent acts in the US, including gun violence, would still remain

Firearm Restrictions Related to Mental Illness

  • Mental health restrictions for gun purchase and ownership are based on the Gun Control Act of 1968
  • These laws are too strict (covering people who are not a threat to anyone) and too broad (missing people who are a threat to others) at the same time
  • Mental health diagnoses should not any kind of gold standard for firearm purchase or possession restrictions

Next up: Background Checks and Purchaser Licensing


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Legal issues related to preventing gun violence: Violence, Alcohol, Drugs, and Guns

This is the sixth post in a series about Reducing Gun Violence in the United States. The previous post described Age-Related Firearm Restrictions and Safe Storage Laws.

In this post, I’ll explore gun violence as it relates to intimate partners, violent misdemeanors, alcohol and drug usage.

Gun Violence, Intimate Partner Violence, and Gun Policy

Firearms are used as a way to intimate and control others as well as harm them physically. In domestic violence situations, they’re often used to pressure a partner into some behavior (or to prevent some behavior), and they’re incredibly effective at doing so. In intimate partner homicides, firearms were used in over 50% of cases.

  • When a violence domestic partner has access to a firearm, the risk of intimate partner homicide increases by 400%.

One might ask the question: if we remove the firearm from a partner who might be violent, would that solve the problem?

Federal law allows for something called a domestic violence restraining order, which allows a judge to order the removal of a gun from a person at risk for harming their partner. However, these restraining orders come with some severe restrictions:

  • the partners must be married or must have been married at one point or must be living together currently or have a child together (collectively known as the Boyfriend Loophole)
  • a hearing must be held before a judge, including both the offender and the victim, before an order can be signed

Imagine dating a violently abusive partner who you don’t live with – you can’t use federal law to get a gun violence restraining order. Similarly, you cannot petition the court on your own – your violent partner must also show up in court with you. One can clearly see how weak federal law is in protecting domestic violence victims given these limitations.

A variety of temporary or emergency restrictions exist at the state level, which can remove firearms from a domestic abuser for a temporary period of time (such as 21 days in California) without a full court hearing, though they are inconsistent and sometimes hinge on having past criminal convictions for domestic violence. Only about 51% of severe domestic violence events are reported to the police anyway, with even fewer guilty convictions, which severely restricts the effectiveness of many of these state laws. So, the laws which protect those at risk for domestic violence leave much to be desired.

Nonetheless, there is research on the effectiveness of state laws for domestic violence gun restrictions, and it shows significant impacts (source: Legal Firearms Restrictions):

  • domestic violence restraining orders (either at the state or local level) restricting firearm possession and purchase reduce the rates of intimate partner homicide by about 10%
  • state laws restricting firearm possession and purchase due to previous violent misdemeanor convictions also reduce intimate partner homicide by about 23% (regardless of the relationship between partner and victim)
  • total intimate partner homicides (not just firearm-related) also go down with the implementation of these policies
    • so the reduction in firearm homicides is not “made up” by other kinds of homicides
  • when states include dating partners in these laws (not just legal spouses), there is an additional 13% reduction in risk of intimate partner homicide

In many cases, state laws that restrict firearm possession due to a restraining order like the ones above prohibit gun possession, but there is often no enforcement effect – no police officers arrive to collect those guns in many cases. As a result, the policies have a limited effect. However, in states where the laws order that the offender surrender their weapon to law enforcement officers promptly, there is a further 12% reduction in intimate partner homicide.

Violent Misdemeanors, Alcohol, and Drugs

Can we identify individuals who are at high-risk for committing firearm violence in order to take proactive steps to reduce that risk? It turns out that we can.

Does past violent behavior predict future violent behavior? (source: Prior Misdemeanor Convictions)

A study followed handgun purchasers who had previous violent misdemeanor convictions and those which had none; the study controlled for factors that could influence the arrest rate, such as age, gender,  and race. After 13 years, those individuals who had previous violent misdemeanor convictions who purchased firearms were over five times more likely to be arrested for another violent offense vs those without previous convictions (4.4% for purchasers without prior convictions vs 24.9% for those with prior convictions). In fact, those individuals with higher numbers of prior convictions had even higher rates of future violent act arrests.

Alcohol is also a factor in predicting violent behavior with firearms. Firearm owners are more likely to admit to heavy alcohol use than non-firearm owners, and, among firearm homicide offenders: (source: Alcohol-Involved Homicide)

  • an estimated 48% of those offenders were under the influence of alcohol during their offense

Do previous alcohol-related convictions predict violent behavior? (source: Firearms, Alcohol, and Crime)

Another study, similar to the one above, looked at future violent offender rates for those with previous alcohol-related crimes (such as driving while intoxicated or drunk and disorderly behavior) vs those without. Again, after 13 years, those individuals who had previous alcohol-related convictions who purchased firearms were over five times more likely to be arrested for a violent offense (5.7% for purchasers without prior convictions vs 32.8% for those with prior convictions).

The correlation between illegal drug use and violent behavior is less clear. There appears to be some correlation between illegal drug use and increased rates of violent behavior, but it varies per drug type, and so it’s unclear if the predictive effect is due to other behaviors (such as drug dealing or related alcohol use) (source: Controlled Substances and Violence).

How effective are laws that restrict firearm purchasing for individuals with past violent misdemeanor convictions? (source: Subsequent Criminal Activity)

One study from the implementation of a California law in 1991 restricting purchase or possession of firearms for individuals with prior violent misdemeanor convictions showed that

  • those individuals with such criminal records who were allowed to purchase or possess firearms were 3% more likely to be arrested for violent or firearm-related crimes than those who were denied purchase or possession

Three states and Washington, D.C. have laws with similar restrictions, but no studies have evaluated their effectiveness. There is also a federal law that bans purchase and possession of firearms for “An unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance”, but the effects of that law have also not been studied.

So, there clearly are risk factors for predicting violent behavior, and evidence that firearm purchase and possession restrictions do work, but more rigorous studies are needed.


Gun Violence, Intimate Partner Violence, and Gun Policy

  • In intimate partner homicides, firearms were used in over 50% of cases
  • When a violence domestic partner has access to a firearm, the risk of intimate partner homicide increases by 400%
  • Federal law for domestic violence restraining orders is weak and has severe limitations which reduce its effectiveness
  • State laws protecting domestic violence victims are most effective when they:
    • cover marital and dating partners
    • do not require the offender and victim to show up in court for temporary, emergency gun removals
    • implement prompt surrender of guns to law enforcement officers

Violent Misdemeanors, Alcohol, and Drugs

  • Clear risk factors exist for predicting violent behavior
    • past violent behavior (5x increase in risk)
    • past alcohol-related offenses (5x increase in risk)
    • some illegal drug use
  • Some evidence exists showing that firearm purchase and possession restrictions do work
  • More research is needed

Next up: Mental Illness, Violence, and Laws


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Legal issues related to preventing gun violence: Age-Related Firearm Restrictions and Safe Storage Laws

This is the fifth post in a series about Reducing Gun Violence in the United States. The previous post described Laws, the Second Amendment, Litigation, and Obstacles to Research and Policy.

In this post, I’ll explore age-related firearm restrictions and child access prevention laws.

Evidence for Age-Related Firearm Restrictions from Developmental Science

Federal Minimum Ages for Gun Purchases (source: Giffords Minimum Age)

In addition to the restrictions for owning firearms that we saw my previous post on gun laws, federal laws also include minimum ages for purchasing guns. For example:

  • Long guns (examples include rifles or shotguns): 18 years
  • Handguns: 21 years

Some states impose higher minimum age restrictions for purchasing guns.

Why do we have these restrictions? To answer that question, we need to look into what happens to people as they age from children to adults.

What’s going on during adolescence?

Three major changes occur during adolescence (source: Adolescent Maturity and the Brain)

  • Increases in novelty-seeking, or looking for new, exciting experiences
  • Increases in risk-taking: healthy risks like performing in concerts as well as unhealthy risks like using drugs
  • Increases in social affiliation, like building groups of friends or social circles

Brain Development in Childhood through Adulthood (source: How does the teenage brain work)

Current scientific understanding shows us that the human brain develops into the 20s and oftentimes well beyond these years. As seen above, the grey matter of the brain matures and gets denser as age 20 approaches (volume goes down but density goes up), generally starting from the back of the brain and moving to the front of the brain. The front of the brain, or the prefrontal cortex, is responsible for all kinds of logical behaviors such as delayed gratification, planning, and self-control. Put another way, those logical behaviors and skills develop more slowly than other skills that adolescents acquire.  (source: Giedd)

Connectivity in the Brain over Time (source: Neurobiology of the Adolescent Brain)

Another important area in the brain that is developing during adolescence is the striatum. The striatum regulates reward-seeking behavior and motivation. Something interesting to note about adolescent brain development is that the striatum matures much faster than the prefrontal cortex. The result of this is that the striatum is gets really good, quickly, at telling the adolescent brain “let’s go!” much sooner than the prefrontal cortex is getting good at saying “hmm, I’m not sure about that activity, let’s think about that a bit more”. In particular, the risks for misusing firearms show through clearly with more “let’s go!” thoughts and less “let’s think about that activity a bit more” thoughts.

During adolescence, some decisions that people make look at lot like mature, adult decisions, while others look much less mature. Situations in which adolescents often make less mature, juvenile decisions are called hot cognitive decisions, which are those impacted by a person’s emotional state. Those situations often involve peers, rewards, and emotional arousal, which are the same influencers which can trigger poor decision-making (sources: Adolescents Less Mature, Understanding Adolescence).

In short, changes happening inside the brains of adolescents increase the likelihood of making risky or dangerous decisions that impact themselves and others.

Adolescents react more to stress (source: Stress Response)

Adolescence is a critical time when any number of stressors impact our emotional lives. Things that happen during the adolescent years which add to this stress include: (sources: Regulatory Processes, Emerging Adulthood)

  • Transitions in relationships, jobs, education, and living situations
  • Less adult guidance and influence
  • Greater access to alcohol and drugs
  • Initial onset of common mental illness symptoms
  • Highest rates of suicidal thoughts, plans, and attempts

What does all of this have to do with firearms? Let’s go back to our picture of the minimum ages for purchasing firearms:

Age-related restrictions on firearm ownership are designed to prevent adolescents from mixing this risky period of transition with the lethality of firearms. The goal of these restrictions is to protect not only adolescents themselves but also the general public who might be put into harm’s way.

Child Access Prevention Laws

Child access prevention laws, or CAP laws, require gun owners to store firearms safely so that children cannot access them. Oftentimes, these laws have criminal penalties attached to them for gun owners who do not store their firearms in a safe manner.

Unfortunately, enforcement of these laws is spotty; often, they are not enforced until after someone is harmed by finding a gun stored unsafely in a house – law enforcement officers do not proactively monitor households for use of safe storage techniques.

The first CAP law took effect in 1989 in Florida, and since then, 18 states and the District of Columbia have passed safe storage laws. Even more states passed laws which prevent “furnishing” guns to minors without explicitly requiring safe storage. However, no safe storage laws have been passed in the last decade.

An important question to ask is: do these safe storage laws actually work to protect children? Several studies looked at this question, and the results show that safe storage laws:

  • reduce unintentional gun deaths
  • may be more effective if penalties are felonies rather than misdemeanors
  • are associated with a reduction in teen suicide


Evidence for Age-Related Firearm Restrictions from Developmental Science

  • Adolescents brains mature at a rapid and uneven rate
  • Brain areas which trigger reward-seeking behavior mature and take effect sooner than areas that are involved in planning and self-control
  • Age-related restrictions on firearms are designed to prevent adolescents from making dangerous decisions with firearms when they are most at risk to do so
  • Federal law creates age-based minimums for purchasing firearms based on this information

Child Access Prevention Laws

  • Child access laws (or safe storage laws) exist in 18 states and the District of Columbia
    • Though mostly unenforced until after an improper access
  • CAP laws reduce unintentional gun deaths and are associated with a reduction in teen suicide

Next upViolence, Alcohol, Drugs, and Guns


  • Giffords Minimum Age – Giffords Law Center Minimum Age to Purchase & Possess report
  • Adolescent Maturity and the Brain – a 2009 paper summarizing what is known about adolescent brain development
  • How does the teenage brain work – a 2006 article about teenage brain development
  • Neurobiology of the Adolescent Brain – a 2010 study focused on understanding how the brain is changing during adolescence relative to childhood and adulthood
  • Adolescents Less Mature – a 2009 study showing that adolescents demonstrate adult levels of cognitive capability earlier than they show emotional and social maturity
  • Understanding Adolescence – a 2012 report showing growing evidence pointing to the importance of changes in social and affective processing which are crucial to adolescent vulnerabilities
  • Stress Response – a 2009 study showing heightened physiological stress responses in typical adolescents
  • Regulatory Processes – a 2004 article highlighting clues from behavioral research on resilience to risks and assets, or vulnerabilities and protective factors in adolescence
  • Emerging Adulthood – a 2014 study showing that individual differences entering adulthood can present risks for psychological disorders

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Legal issues related to preventing gun violence: Laws, the Second Amendment, Litigation, and Obstacles to Research and Policy

This is the fourth post in a series about Reducing Gun Violence in the United States. The previous post described Firearms and Suicide.

In this post, I’ll explore federal, state, and local powers to regulate guns, the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution, litigation as a public health strategy, and obstacles to research, gun policy, and transparency.

Federal, State, and Local Powers to Regulate Guns

Governments can pass laws and create regulations to prevent gun violence. In the United States, these laws and regulations are created at the federal, state, and local level. As a civics refresher, there are three branches of government, each which play a different role in reducing gun violence:

  • the legislative, or law-making branch
  • the executive, or law-enforcing branch
  • the judicial, or law-interpreting branch

The Federal Government

Congress (the legislative branch of the federal government) only has powers that are granted to it by the Constitution. The Second Amendment to the Constitution, for example, limits the powers that Congress has with respect to guns – more on the Second Amendment below. Congress has passed three major pieces of gun-related legislation:

The Gun Control Act of 1968 described the basic method for regulating gun sales and firearm dealer licensing and added some new prohibitions for importing certain guns – only for use for sporting purposes. It also created some categories of people to whom guns could not be sold:

  • felons
  • unlawful users of illegal substances (drugs, for example)
  • people committed to mental institutions

The Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 reduced restrictions on selling guns without a license, which made private sales easier. It made it harder to convict dealers who sold guns illegally (and reduced penalties for doing so), and limited federal compliance inspections for licensed dealers. It banned computerized records of these inspections and banned federal government collection of firearms purchased and sold.

The Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act of 1993 created the background check requirement for licensed gun dealers and instituted the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which went into effect five years later in 1998. It’s important to note that background checks were not created for private sales, but only if you purchased a gun from a retailer, like Walmart or Dick’s Sporting Goods.

Generally speaking, federal laws act as a minimum of gun restrictions, preventing some people from purchasing guns but not all. Here are some things federal laws do not do:

  • require background checks or record keeping for private sales
    • for example, selling a gun to someone you meet on Craigslist
  • regulate or prevent gun carrying in public

Federal Regulations

In addition to laws passed by the legislature, the executive branch (the “administration” headed by the President) may create agencies that create federal regulations. Federal agencies create rules and enforce laws passed by Congress. For example, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms regulates guns, but it is severely limited in its ability to do so by Congress’s laws. In fact, no federal agency has complete control over gun regulation, which makes it challenging to create meaningful restrictions at the federal level. This is in contrast to other products, such as cars, that the federal government regulates extensively through safety standards such as airbags, seat belts, highway safety, and so on.

State Governments

By way of the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, those powers not granted explicitly to the federal government are reserved for the states. For example, one of the powers left to the states is police power – the ability for states to create police forces to protect the public. The police power is particularly important for preventing gun violence.

States can and do more with respect to gun laws than the federal government does; they may include extra restrictions or standards for ownership. In fact, most gun laws exist at the state level. Those laws might:

  • require training before purchasing a gun
  • prohibit those with violent misdemeanors from owning a gun (not just felons)
  • create a system for private sale background checks
  • register handguns or collect serial numbers
  • restrict who can carry a weapon in public
  • regulate the sale and ownership of assault weapons or smart guns (which can only be fired by authorized users)

Local Governments

Local (aka city, or municipal) governments have the least amount of power to regulate gun violence, but they feel the brunt of that violence themselves. They have police power, like state governments, but that power is granted by the state governments themselves and is often limited by something called preemption.

Preemption allows a state government to forbid local governments from passing certain laws. Most local governments are granted powers to protect their citizens, but local firearm regulations are often disallowed. For example, a state may prevent a city from passing their own gun regulations.

Only five states allow their local city governments to pass more strict firearms laws than state law. These states are:

  • Hawaii
  • New York
  • Massachusetts
  • Connecticut
  • New Jersey

The Second Amendment

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Consitution states that the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Sounds pretty clear, right?

It turns out that the full text of the Second Amendment is actually: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

What does that mean? That somewhat convoluted text was written in the 18th century, and so it’s sometimes hard to figure out what the framers meant by this. So who gets to decide?

  • Advocacy groups, like the NRA or the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence? No.
  • The public? No.
  • The media? No.

The legal (and practical) reality is that the courts, or the judicial branch of the government, decides what this language means. It’s a very important fact, so it bears repeating:

The Second Amendment means what the courts say it means; not Congress, not the American public, not the media, and not advocacy groups.

Until recently, no federal court has ever struck down a gun law as violating the Second Amendment. For example, a law that the Supreme Court has not struck down as in conflict with the Second Amendment:

In 2008, a landmark court ruling by the Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller did overturn Washington, D.C.’s almost complete ban on the right for people to own handguns in their own home. The court, in its ruling, voted 5-4 to strike down the law, saying that individuals have the right to have a handgun in their home for protection. However, it did not comment on whether individuals have the right to carry guns outside of their home, or how many guns they are allowed to own, or anything else. In fact, the Supreme Court went as far as to say:

“… nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

Lower federal courts and other state courts have upheld almost every other gun law – thousands of other laws – other than bans on private handgun ownership. Those laws which have been upheld as fully constitutional include restrictions on:

  • open-carry of guns
  • concealed-carry of guns
  • military-style weapons
  • high-capacity magazines
  • felons from owning guns

Still, the Supreme court has left many questions open on gun ownership. The big takeaway is that it has not interpreted the Second Amendment to prevent governments (federal, state, or local) from creating reasonable restrictions that promote public safety and help to keep guns out of the hands of people who are likely to harm others.

Litigation for Public Health

Litigation, or using lawsuits, is another way to protect public health. It can help to improve public health by financially incentivizing gun manufacturers and retailers to change the way that they create and market guns. Sometimes, litigation can even raise public awareness of the way that guns are made or marketed which can lead to new laws.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there were many lawsuits filed that targetted firearm manufacturers and dealers, some that were initiated by states and some by cities. Those lawsuits argued that gun manufacturers and dealers marketed their guns in a way that caused injuries (including death) and created other costs, and those lawsuits sought monetary damages. The costs, direct or indirect, included things like loss of economic value of life, lower property values, and emergency department fees.

If that sounds familiar, those lawsuits follow the same pattern of those that were filed against the tobacco industry years before and were largely successful.

There was a major reaction to these flood of gun lawsuits which was the creation of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act of 2005. It severely undermined using litigation as a public health tool, as it provides broad protections to gun manufacturers and dealers from legal liability which almost no other consumer product in the U.S. market has. In addition to that protection, people harmed by gun violence have no legal remedy when they are affected – no pool of money is available to help victims of gun crimes, unlike, for example, persons injured by vaccines.

There have been some notable exceptions to the PLCAA’s power. For example, a lawsuit filed in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, Soto v. Bushmaster, alleged that the manufacturer of one of the weapons used in the shooting, Bushmaster, presented its marketing in an “unfair, unethical, or dangerous manner” and sought to “expand the market for [its] assault weapons through advertising campaigns that encouraged consumers … to launch offensive assaults against their perceived enemies”. The lawsuit was determined by the Connecticut Supreme Court in March 2019 to not be protected by the PLCAA, and is being allowed to move forward.

Obstacles to Research, Policy, and Transparency

Two particular laws have caused issues with research and policy development with regards to firearms. These are:

  • The Dickey Amendment of 1996
  • The Tiahrt Amendment of 2003

The Dickey Amendment

The Dickey Amendment is a provision first inserted into a 1996 federal spending bill, which mandated that:

While the Dickey Amendment only prevents money from being used for advocating or promoting gun control, it has also had a chilling effect on gun research at the CDC in general.

The Tiahrt Amendment

The Tiahrt Amendment is a provision of a 2003 federal money appropriations bill that

  • limits the availability and use of gun trace data, by prohibiting the ATF from releasing that data to anyone other than a law enforcement agency or prosecutor in connection with a criminal investigation.
  • prohibits the ATF from requiring gun dealers from doing inventories of their firearms as part of compliance inspections
  • requires the FBI to destroy firearm license background check data within 24 hours after a background check is complete

In 2012, a study of a specific gun dealer showed that the institution of the Tiahrt Amendment was associated with an increased level of guns flowing illegally from dealers to criminals, and at a higher rate.

Overall, these laws make it harder for researchers and policymakers to access data and make factual conclusions and recommendations about preventing gun violence. Even when individual state lawmakers have good policy ideas, law enforcement is restricted in its ability to implement those policies and trace guns used in crimes.


  • Gun laws are written at federal, state and local level, though federal laws are mostly bare minimums and state laws make up the bulk of gun laws
    • Most states prohibit cities from passing gun laws that are more strict than state law
  • The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (the “right to bear arms”) means what the courts say it means
    • And this is disconnected from what many Americans believe that the Second Amendment means
  • Almost all gun laws have been deemed lawful and constitutional as long as they do not prevent a law-abiding person from owning a handgun in their own home for their own protection
  • All gun laws prohibit felons from having or owning guns
    • Additionally, individual states impose a variety of other constitutionally valid restrictions on gun ownership
  • Legislation is a powerful tool to prevent gun violence, but it also puts restrictions on how gun ownership, licensing, and crime trace data is used
    • The Dickey Amendment prevents the CDC from using federal money to advocate or promote gun control
    • The Tiahrt Amendment severely limits the availability of gun trace data, shields gun dealers from doing inventories of their guns, and forces rapid destruction of background check records at the FBI
    • These laws make it hard for researchers to determine what works best to prevent gun violence and prevents policymakers from implementing sound recommendations

Next up: Age-Related Firearm Restrictions and Safe Storage Laws

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