On February 14, 2018, survivors of the horrific school shooting in Parkland, Florida, emerged from bullet-ridden classrooms and thrust gun violence into the national spotlight. The heightened focus on the school shooting epidemic raised important questions about the damage these shootings inflict on our nation’s youth and how they can best be prevented.
As the student activists called for accountability and action, the gun lobby spread dangerous myths that downplay the role of guns in school shootings. Our report, The Truth about School Shootings, seeks to dispel these myths and offers concrete recommendations for evidence-based policies that will ensure all of our students make it safely home from school.
The Truth about School Shootings dispels five prominent gun lobby myths:
- Myth 1: School shootings are just a fact of life.
- Myth 2: Nothing can be done to prevent school shootings.
- Myth 3: Schools need armed teachers to respond to school shootings.
- Myth 4: School shootings are largely caused by mental health issues.
- Myth 5: Children are most likely to experience gun violence at school.
Our report also outlines policy reforms which are likely to increase the safety of children both in and outside of school. These include extreme risk protection orders, which allow police and family members to petition a court for an order to temporarily disarm individuals at elevated risk of harming themselves or others, and child access prevention laws, which encourage safe storage of firearms by holding adults responsible when children gain access to their guns.
We do not—and should not—have to accept school shootings as the new normal. We shouldn’t have to live in a country where preschoolers are taught to crouch under desks during active shooter drills, where parents suffer through the fear and heartbreak of receiving goodbye texts from their teenagers. We can build a safer America by arming legislators with the facts instead of gun lobby talking points and urging them to pass the gun safety laws that will keep our children safe.
Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence released the latest edition of its Annual Gun Law Scorecard, which grades and ranks each state on the strength of its gun laws. This comprehensive, 50-state analysis clearly shows fewer people die from gun violence in states with strong gun laws. In response to rising rates of gun violence in America, public demands for action intensified last year and as a result, many states passed gun safety measures, which improved their scores—some for the first time since Giffords Law Center began conducting this analysis in 2010.
“America’s devastating gun violence epidemic is growing and impacting every part of our country because too many lawmakers would rather wish it away than acknowledge their role in advancing solutions to make our communities safer,” said Robyn Thomas, executive director of Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “This public safety threat needs to be addressed with facts, evidence, and action. We’ve proven that lawmakers can save lives, reduce violence, and make their states safer by following a simple blueprint: pass gun violence prevention laws. Every year, our scorecard is a reminder to states that progress is possible, but also a reminder of the work we have left to accomplish. The Gun Law Scorecard should be both a resource and roadmap for elected leaders, activists, and concerned citizens to take action.”
The Annual Gun Law Scorecard clearly demonstrates that there is a significant opportunity to address the nation’s gun violence epidemic if more states act. In 2017 the number of people who died from gun violence rose for the third year in a row, reaching 39,773 deaths. In fact, 2017 is the first year in American history that gun deaths outpaced car crashes by more than 1,000 deaths.
Of the 10 states with the lowest gun death rates, seven have some of the strongest gun laws in the country, receiving a B+ or better on this year’s Gun Law Scorecard. All seven states have passed private-sale background checks on some or all gun sales.
- Hawaii (A-)
- Massachusetts (A-)
- New York (A-)
- Rhode Island (B+)
- Connecticut (A-)
- New Jersey (A)
- California (A)
Of the 10 states with the highest gun death rates, all received F grades on this year’s Scorecard. Despite powerful data demonstrating the correlation between gun law strength and gun death rates, several states have ignored public cries for action and done little or nothing to strengthen their gun laws in recent years.
- Alaska (F)
- Alabama (F)
- Montana (F)
- Louisiana (F)
- Mississippi (F)
- Missouri (F)
- Arkansas (F)
- Wyoming (F)
- West Virginia (F)
- New Mexico (F)
After the massacre at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018, Florida enacted a package of bills to create an extreme risk protection law, a higher minimum age for buying firearms, and stronger waiting periods. These changes resulted in a dramatic grade increase, raising Florida’s grade from an F to a C-—the biggest improvement in any state on this year’s Gun Law Scorecard.
Vermont was the second-most improved state in 2018 and passed gun safety laws for the first time in its history, raising its grade from an F to a D+. Vermont’s comprehensive package of new gun safety laws includes universal background checks, extreme risk protection orders, a higher minimum age to purchase firearms, a ban on large-capacity ammunition magazines, and a new policy to allow law enforcement to remove firearms in certain domestic violence incidents. Previously, the state had virtually no gun safety laws but this legislation had support on both sides of the aisle and was signed into law by a Republican governor.
While last year we saw 67 gun safety bills signed into law in 26 states and DC, the changes in eight states were significant enough to raise these states’ grades:
- NJ (Increased from A- to A): New Jersey continued to pass strong gun laws in 2018 by closing a long gun loophole in its background check law, strengthening its ban on large-capacity ammunition magazines, prohibiting bump stocks and undetectable and untraceable firearms, and enacting an extreme risk protection order law. New Jersey also allocated $2 million to gun violence prevention research.
- WA (Increased from B to B+): Washington State strengthened its gun laws and raised its grade from a B to a B+ in 2018 with laws that restrict domestic abusers’ access to firearms and ban bump stocks. The state enacted several other provision via ballot initiative, including waiting periods, child access prevention and minimum age restrictions.
- PA (Increased from C to C+): Pennsylvania strengthened its gun laws in 2018 by prohibiting firearm possession by individuals who have been convicted of domestic abuse or are subject to domestic violence protective orders, and requiring those individuals to relinquish their firearms.
- OR (Increased from C to C+): Oregon strengthened its gun laws in 2018 by prohibiting stalkers from owning firearms, expanding domestic violence protections to apply to dating partners, and improving law enforcement’s ability to investigate attempted firearm purchases by people prohibited from owning guns.
- FL (Increased from F to C-): After the mass shooting in Parkland in February, Florida’s state legislature passed a package of gun safety bills that included an extreme risk protection law, a higher minimum age for buying firearms, and stronger waiting periods to purchase a firearm.
- NE (Increased from D to C-): Nebraska raised its grade from a D to a C- after funding urban gun violence reduction programs and broadening the category of people prohibited from purchasing firearms.
- VT (Increased from F to D+): In 2018, Vermont comprehensively strengthened its previously weak gun laws by passing universal background checks and extreme risk protection order legislation, raising the minimum age to purchase firearms, banning sales of large-capacity ammunition magazines, and authorizing law enforcement to remove firearms in certain domestic violence incidents.
- UT (Increased from F to D-): Utah strengthened its gun laws and raised its grade from a D- to an F in 2018 by expanding protections for domestic violence survivors and funding violence prevention programs.
Background checks critical to improving more scores
Since the Annual Gun Law Scorecard was created one of the key findings has been that to raise their grade and save lives, all states should enact universal background checks, closing the dangerous loophole in federal gun laws that allows individuals to obtain firearms at gun shows and on the internet without a background check. Twenty states and Washington DC have so far extended the background check requirement beyond federal law. Instituting universal background checks at the federal level would help keep guns out of the wrong hands by improving the patchwork of state laws that currently leaves state with universal background checks vulnerable to ineffective implementation and trafficking. If they enacted universal background checks, 28 states would see their grades jump at least one full letter grade, though some would increase two.
Activists are leading the charge to beat back dangerous gun lobby bills
This year’s Gun Law Scorecard also highlights how successful efforts by gun violence prevention advocates to thwart gun lobby–backed bills allowed many states to keep their high grades. This year is the first time since 2012 that no state lost points for either of the two biggest gun lobby priorities—guns on campus and permitless carry. No states saw their score downgraded by an entire letter grade. This is further proof that the gun lobby is losing its influence over state houses across America as voters and advocates stand up to gun lobby-backed legislation intended to weaken gun laws. In 2018, advocates were successful in helping defeat dozens of dangerous gun lobby-backed bills in more than half of the states, including stopping permitless carry bills and halting the attempted enactment of measures to allow guns on college campuses, universities, and K–12 schools.
Experts Available for Comment
- Robyn Thomas, Executive Director, Giffords Law Center
- Laura Cutilletta, Managing Director, Giffords Law Center
- Allison Anderman, Managing Attorney, Giffords Law Center
The crisis of American gun violence is perhaps most visible in our nation’s urban centers. The United States already has a higher-than-average homicide rate, but in cities like Baltimore and Detroit that rate can be up to 10 times higher. And poor, minority communities are often the hardest hit—young black men in particular face a homicide rate 20 times higher than the national average. We have a shared duty to address this dire crisis and save the lives of those most vulnerable.
Fortunately, some cities have implemented successful programs that work in concert with gun safety laws to protect these vulnerable members of the population. Our report Healing Communities in Crisis: Lifesaving Solutions to the Urban Gun Violence Epidemic, produced in partnership with the PICO National Network, examines what works best when it comes to saving lives from gun violence in our nation’s urban centers.
Healing Communities in Crisis outlines two categories of solutions: intervention programs and policy reforms. These approaches are grounded in the insight that, in most communities, a very small and easily identifiable population is responsible for the vast majority of gun violence. Our report highlights the following programs:
- Group Violence Intervention: In this approach to gun violence prevention, a partnership of law enforcement, community members, and service providers meets with small groups of the most at-risk individuals in order to send a message that the shooting must stop. This approach has now been replicated in a wide array of American cities, with consistently impressive results.
- Cure Violence: This promising strategy treats violence like a communicable disease. The spread of violence is interrupted by employing Outreach Workers and Violence Interrupters to work directly with individuals most likely to commit or become the victims of gun violence. A community campaign is also conducted to change norms surrounding the use of violence.
- Hospital-Based Violence Intervention Programs:Victims of violent injury are very likely to end up back in the hospital. This model takes advantage of a uniquely teachable moment by connecting violently injured youths with culturally competent case managers who are able to connect their clients with badly needed social services that enable change.
Our report also lays out the policy reforms most likely to reduce the supply of crime guns in impacted communities, including universal background checks, permit-to-purchase laws, gun trafficking regulations, and prohibitions on large-capacity ammunition magazines.
This crisis cannot be ignored any longer. It’s time for change—we must act now to bring safety and security to our nation’s cities. Healing Communities in Crisis provides a roadmap for moving forward together.
HR 8 introduced in the first days of 116th Congress
Washington DC—Former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, co-founder with her husband, Captain Mark Kelly, of the gun violence prevention organization Giffords, reacted to the introduction of HR 8—the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019 in the House of Representatives on the anniversary of the Tucson shooting. Giffords joined with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Gun Violence Prevention Task Force Chairman Mike Thompson at the US Capitol Building today to announce the legislation. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) also introduced a companion bill in the Senate today.
Former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords:
“Just a few weeks ago, we learned that in the past year nearly 40,000 people died from gun violence. Every day more than 100 Americans die from a gunshot. These deaths are a sad reminder that for too long too many politicians ignored this crisis, siding with special interests over the public’s safety.
“Gun violence has resulted in tragedy in countless communities—including my own. Eight years ago today a gunman opened fire in Tucson, killing six, injuring 12, and leaving me partially paralyzed. I can’t get back what I had, and the families of those killed experienced loss deeper still. But I can fight to protect others.
“When the days were darkest, when it looked like the gun lobby’s money and influence would forever silence any debate in Washington about stronger gun laws, courage shone through. Courage embodied by relentless advocates and resilient survivors who never lost sight of the change just over the horizon. They knew the power of the gun lobby could be broken by the power of the people.
“Last year millions of Americans spoke up, marched, and voted for new leaders who would make a safer future for all families a priority. Now, for the first time in decades, Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives are coming together to take action. Congress will be silent no more. Regardless of party, we must fight to stop this heartbreaking public safety threat from becoming a new normal, and we must do it together.
“The introduction of the bipartisan background checks bill in the House today marks a critical first step toward strengthening America’s gun laws and making our country a better place to live, work, study, worship, and play. When lives are at stake, we make progress by never giving up. I stand ready to do everything in my power to get bipartisan universal background checks across the finish line.”
Last November millions of Americans, angered by a Congress that refused to address our nation’s gun violence crisis, elected a new majority to the House of Representatives that pledged action. As the new Congress has begun to consider legislation, Giffords is pushing for immediate progress on two key gun safety priorities: passing universal background checks and funding Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) research into the country’s epidemic of gun violence. Other Giffords policy priorities that should become the subject of bills, hearings, and action can be found in a policy memo for the 116th Congress.
RELATED RESOURCES ABOUT UNIVERSAL BACKGROUND CHECKS
- Resource Page: Universal Background Checks—This Giffords Law Center webpage is a clearinghouse of data and policy analysis on universal background checks.
- Factsheet: Universal Background Checks—This one-page factsheet from Giffords Law Center details existing loopholes in federal background check laws.
- Factsheet: HR 8—This one-page factsheet from Giffords details how the universal background checks bill introduced today will close those existing loopholes.
RELATED RESOURCES ABOUT FUNDING CDC RESEARCH
- Coalition News: Giffords Partnership with Medical, Health Groups—Giffords joined with 14 leading medical and health groups in a new effort, expected to bring on more organizations in the coming year, to urge Congress to address America’s gun violence crisis.
- Factsheet: Researching Gun Violence—This factsheet explains how Congress forced the CDC to stop researching gun violence as a public health problem.
Experts are available for comment by contacting [email protected].
Washington DC—This morning, former Representative Gabrielle Giffords issued the following statement, reacting to the news of another deadly mass shooting America. Twelve people were killed, including a sheriff’s deputy responding to the call for help, late Wednesday in a shooting at Borderline Bar and Grill, a country and western dance hall in Thousand Oaks, CA. Many others are injured. According to the Gun Violence Archive, the shooting in Thousand Oaks, CA marks the 307th mass shooting in 2018.
Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords:
“307. So far this year, there have been 307 mass shootings. Do we really want to raise our children in a country where mass shootings are a weekly occurrence? A country where every single day in America, more than 90 people are killed with guns? This level of gun violence doesn’t happen in any other high-income country. I’m heartbroken, I’m angry, and I’m never going to accept this as normal. My heart is with the victims of this terrible tragedy, their families, and the first responders who acted so courageously to bring this horror to an end.
“Classrooms. Places of worship. Newsrooms. Movie theaters. Restaurants. Yoga studios. Nightclubs. Playgrounds. No place in America feels safe anymore.
“We shouldn’t have to live in a country where our president and our lawmakers refuse to take any action to address this uniquely American crisis that’s causing so much horror and heartbreak. There are steps we can take to reduce gun violence, but for too long, too many of those with the power to change this have prioritized personal political gain before taking action to protect our children and communities.
“Voters made clear Tuesday night that the days of the NRA blocking action to strengthen our gun laws are over. Now is the time to come together and pass legislation that will start putting our country back on the right track. Legislation that will prevent guns from landing in the wrong hands. Legislation that will save lives.”
The United States has exceptionally high rates of gun violence. Over 14,000 Americans were murdered with guns in 2016—a rate nearly 25 times higher than in other high-income countries. Women in the United States are 11 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than in peer countries. And young Americans between the ages of 15 and 19 are 82 times more likely to be murdered with a gun.
Washington DC—Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords issued the following statement in response to news of a mass shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh on Saturday morning. Multiple people have been shot and fatalities have been reported. Three law enforcement officers responding to the active shooting situation are reportedly among those shot.
The shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh today comes just days after a man killed two people at a Kroger grocery store in Kentucky after trying to enter a predominantly black church nearby.
Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords:
“This morning, the sanctuaries of Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill were targeted by a hate-fueled act of violence. Several are dead, many others injured. Neighborhoods in Pittsburgh are devastated, and our Jewish community is heartbroken. Our nation is shaken to its core.
“I’d like to say a tragedy like this is unimaginable, but I can’t.
“From the Pulse nightclub shooting to the sickening protests we saw unfold in Charlottesville last year to the attack at Mother Emanuel in Charleston, our nation has seen tragedy after tragedy unfold when hatred and bigotry are emboldened. Just this week, a man in Kentucky targeted an African American church before finding and shooting two victims at a nearby supermarket. Also this week, Americans also watched in horror as the story of a serial bomber unfolded. Political violence, hate speech, and crimes against the First Amendment have no place in our society.
“The alarming frequency with which we watch these terrifying scenes unfold in our communities is devastating—and it’s not normal. Every single day, nearly 100 Americans are killed with a gun in our country. We must not only recognize the realities of hatred in our society, but actively work to make it harder for dangerous people fueled by hate to access firearms and murder innocent people.”
Gabrielle Giffords’s Rabbi Stephanie Aaron, Congregation Chaverim, Tucson, Arizona:
“We are horrified, shocked and in deep grief over these shootings this morning. How many more innocent people will be shot where they stand across our country; in their schools, synagogues, churches, movie theaters, and malls. Enough is enough; it is time for us to end this hatred: this rampage; this violence; this plague of prejudice. Our hearts reach out to embrace the victims and their families.”
Right now, an outrageous bill is making its way through the Georgia Legislature. House Bill 875 is a particularly extreme example of the gun lobby’s strategy to broaden the laws around guns in public by dramatically expanding the locations where concealed weapons are permitted. House Bill 875 would, among other things, allow concealed weapon permit holders to carry firearms in bars, churches and other houses of worship, parts of airports and courthouses, and make it easier to carry a gun on college and university campuses.
During the floor debate in the House, Republican Representative Chuck Sims said that, as a funeral director, he deals with the tragic aftermath of gun violence. “Guns don’t belong in church, and a gun doesn’t belong in a bar. It just doesn’t,” he said.
He’s not the only Georgian to speak out against the expansion of concealed weapons into public spaces. Permissive concealed carry laws violate the shared expectation that public places will be safe environments free from guns and gun violence.1 According to a recent poll conducted for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in January, 78% of Georgians do not support allowing firearms on college campuses and 72% oppose allowing guns in bars. Despite this clear message from the public, House Bill 875 passed the House of Representatives this week and is now headed to the Senate.
House Bill 875 would also weaken Georgia’s already lax requirements for obtaining a concealed weapon permit. For example, if the bill were enacted, a person who has been convicted of a misdemeanor for pointing a gun at another person could obtain a concealed carry permit.
The reality is that concealed handgun holders, who possess, at most, a very limited amount of firearms training, create new risks of intentional or accidental shootings. Members of the public who carry guns risk escalating everyday disagreements into public shootouts, especially in places where disputes frequently occur—in bars, at sporting events, or in traffic. A study from the Violence Policy Center on Texas’ permissive concealed carry law found that license holders were arrested for weapons-related crimes at a rate 81% higher than that of the state’s general population age 21 and older.
In addition to the expansion of guns in public, House Bill 875 would also allow individuals to sue local governments for enacting gun violence prevention laws. The local governments could be required to pay litigation expenses, attorneys fees, and damages in certain cases. These are only some of the many irresponsible provisions contained in the bill which the NRA touts as the “most comprehensive pro-gun reform legislation introduced in recent state history.”
Want to know more? Read our summary of concealed weapons permitting laws nationwide or check out other recent examples of extreme gun laws and policies in America on our Extremism in Action page.
- For more about this issue, see the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence’s publications Guns in Public Places: The Increasing Threat of Hidden Guns in America, and America Caught in the Crossfire: How Concealed Carry Laws Threaten Public Safety. The Law Center has also published a model law regulating the carrying of firearms in public places. ⤴︎
Giffords Law Center’s Annual Gun Law Scorecard grades and ranks all 50 states on their gun laws
States with the highest gun death rates consistently have weak gun laws. Half of the nation—25 states—receive an F grade
March 1, 2018—Today, Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence released the latest edition of its Annual Gun Law Scorecard, which grades and ranks each state on the strength of its gun laws. This comprehensive, 50-state analysis clearly shows how stronger gun laws like background checks help reduce gun death rates and save lives.
“Every day in our country, nearly 100 Americans die from gun violence. While this crisis is impacting families in every community in every state, we know its toll disproportionately hits states with weaker gun laws the hardest,” said Robyn Thomas, executive director of Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “Year after year, our research shows that states that get serious about passing stronger gun violence prevention laws have a much better chance of reducing the number of deaths linked to firearms. This scorecard should be a wake-up call to the half of the nation that has failing grades that they are on notice. The Gun Law Scorecard should inspire elected leaders, activists, and concerned citizens to take action.”
The Annual Gun Law Scorecard makes clear that there is a significant opportunity to address the nation’s gun violence epidemic if more states act. Since 2014, the gun death rate has been rising, with gun deaths jumping 8% from 2014 to 2015 and another 7% from 2015 to 2016. That resulted in the deaths of 38,000 people in 2016—the deadliest year for gun deaths since 1993.
Of the 10 states with the lowest gun death rates, eight have some of the strongest gun laws in the country, receiving a B or better. All eight have also passed private-sale background checks. Those eight states are:
Yet, even with such powerful data showing that states with stronger gun laws have lower death rates, many states have done nothing. The 10 states with the highest gun death rates have some of the weakest gun laws in the nation—with all 10 receiving an F the Gun Law Scorecard. They are, in order of deadliness:
States continue trend of passing stronger laws
The scores for some states reflect the continued efforts of Giffords to help lawmakers in state capitals pass strong gun safety measures. Six states—North Dakota, New Jersey, Nevada, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah—received additional points this year for new domestic violence laws, with Tennessee raising its grade from an F to a D-. The state established procedures to ensure domestic abusers surrender firearms after becoming prohibited. Other states enacted laws to prohibit domestic violence misdemeanants and subjects of domestic violence restraining orders from possessing guns.
Five states—California, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York—received more points for funding urban gun violence intervention and prevention programs,which are remarkably effective at saving lives. Last December, Giffords Law Center, in partnership with PICO National Network and the Community Justice Reform Coalition, released a landmark report, Investing in Intervention: The Critical Role of State-Level Support in Breaking the Cycle of Urban Gun Violence, which highlights innovative programs in three states that dramatically reduce levels of gun violence in impacted communities.
Another state, Oregon, received additional points for enacting an Extreme Risk Protection Order law that empowers families and law enforcement to petition a court to temporarily remove guns from people proven to be at risk to themselves or others. Oregon’s Governor Kate Brown signed an ERPO bill into law after members of the Giffords Oregon Coalition testified on behalf of the bill and urged Oregon leaders to pass it.
Politicians ignoring the will of the people hurt their state’s gun law scores—and safety
States also experienced setbacks. Nevada’s grade dropped from a C- to a D because a ballot initiative approved by voters in 2016 requiring background checks on private sales of firearms was not implemented. Nevada’s attorney general has refused to let the law take effect because of a dispute with the FBI over who should conduct the background checks. While voters strongly approved the background check law to help make sure dangerous individuals can’t buy guns, the attorney general, who spoke of his opposition to the requirement during a speech at the NRA Convention last year, set the state’s score, and public safety, back.
Two other states—North Dakota and New Hampshire—lost points for enacting permitless carry laws in 2017. Iowa also dropped from a C to a C- because of a new stand your ground law. Stand your ground laws remove a person’s “duty to retreat” in a public conflict, allowing them to shoot to kill even when they could safely walk away.
Activists are leading the charge to beat back dangerous gun lobby bills
This year’s Gun Law Scorecard also highlights how gun violence prevention advocates’ success in thwarting gun lobby–backed bills allowed many states to keep their high grades. In 2017, advocates were successful in stopping 26 permitless carry bills, which would allow people to carry loaded guns in public without a permit or oversight. Advocates alsostopped 20 states from enacting measures to allow guns on college and university campuses and beat back stand your ground laws in 11 other states.
Experts Available for Comment
Robyn Thomas, Executive Director, Giffords Law Center
Laura Cutilletta, Legal Director, Giffords Law Center
Allison Anderman, Managing Attorney, Giffords Law Center
Our report Confronting the Inevitability Myth: How Data-Driven Gun Policies Save Lives from Suicide represents the culmination of a yearlong project to research and analyze the suicide crisis. This report provides an in-depth examination of the deadly role guns play in suicide in America and outlines the policies and intervention programs that have been proven to help prevent these tragedies.
Though we are living in a time of rising suicide rates, many Americans, including our lawmakers, buy into the pervasive myth that suicides are inevitable. Confronting the Inevitability Myth thoroughly debunks this misconception by arming readers with data and research from across the field showing how gun access drives suicide risk in this country and, consequently, how effective gun policy and intervention programs can save more lives. A data supplement within the report takes an even deeper dive to show just how significantly guns contribute to state suicide rates: compared to all other variables, including race, gender, rurality, substance abuse, and severe mental illness, gun access correlates the most with suicide death.
As Confronting the Inevitability Myth shows, suicide’s impact is enormous. Since 2000, more than half a million Americans have died by suicide, and the majority used a gun. But these deaths aren’t spread equally across the nation—states with immediate, unrestricted access to guns suffer a hugely disproportionate number of our nation’s suicides. Because gunshots are so uniquely lethal, they account for 5% of suicide attempts, but are responsible for 50% of suicide deaths. A variety of risk factors—including mental health conditions and trauma, addiction and isolation, bullying and abuse—drive some people to attempt suicide. But easy access to guns is often the determining factor in whether a person at risk survives.
The good news is that there are many steps we can take today to address this public health crisis because the simple, hopeful truth is that these deaths are preventable. By addressing the primary factors that drive suicide risk, including access to guns, we can make a lifesaving difference for many Americans. Confronting the Inevitability Myth outlines six essential policy solutions that work to prevent suicide by reducing people’s access to guns during a suicidal crisis:
- Universal background checks help to keep severely suicidal people from acquiring guns after they have been involuntarily committed for their own safety.
- Extreme Risk Protection Order laws empower family members to proactively protect their loved ones by petitioning a court to temporarily remove guns during a severe mental health crisis.
- Voluntary gun relinquishment laws could help empower suicidal people to act to promote their own health and safety by limiting their access to guns during mental crises.
- Firearm waiting periods provide a brief but crucial cooling off period to guard against impulsive, suicidal gun purchases.
- Smart guns, safety training, and safe storage laws help keep children and teens from gaining unsupervised access to guns can meaningfully reduce youth suicide.
- Healthcare-based suicide prevention programs have shown that medical professionals make a remarkable difference in reducing their patients’ risk of suicide if they have the training, freedom, and support to effectively counsel their patients about gun safety.
These best practices chart a clear path to progress on this issue, and there’s no better time to act on them than now. The changes we recommend in this report are modest and—to be clear—they are entirely consistent with the Second Amendment. But by understanding and addressing the factors that drive suicide risk, we can save more lives.
On Monday, President Trump nominated Judge Brett Kavanaugh of the DC Circuit to fill Justice Kennedy’s seat on the United States Supreme Court. The nominee has a troubling record on guns: Judge Kavanaugh has issued prior rulings that are ideologically aligned with the gun lobby and reflect a radical interpretation of the Constitution under which public safety justifications play no role in Second Amendment jurisprudence. Should Judge Kavanaugh be confirmed to the Court for life, the results could devastate elected officials’ ability to adopt the public safety measures Americans have repeatedly demanded after massacres like Parkland.
Background on Heller and the Second Amendment
Ten years ago last month, in a landmark 5–4 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller, the US Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment protects an individual right of law-abiding citizens to possess a handgun in the home for self-defense. The Court struck down an extreme handgun ban in place in Washington DC, but cautioned that, like all rights, the Second Amendment is “not unlimited”: it is not a “right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” The Court provided a non-exhaustive list of gun regulations it said were presumptively lawful, confirming that public safety laws and self-defense rights can be harmonized under the Second Amendment.
Heller ushered in a flood of litigation, including gun lobby-backed cases that sought to expand Heller to invalidate even moderate gun regulations. These cases saw little success: reflecting the Supreme Court’s recognition that many firearm laws pose no constitutional problem, lower courts have rejected post-Heller challenges about 93% of the time. To date, consistent with Heller’s middle-ground approach, gun policy hasn’t been an unusually partisan issue among lower courts. Judges appointed by both Democrats and Republicans voted to uphold key gun safety measures after Heller, including minimum age laws, state and local assault weapon bans, concealed carry permitting laws, and risk-based gun removal laws. Over the last ten years, the conservative-leaning Supreme Court declined nearly every chance to review Second Amendment cases or expand on the Heller ruling. During this time, political opposition driven by the NRA, not Heller or judges, was by far the biggest obstacle to addressing the gun violence epidemic.
Most lower-court judges to consider Second Amendment cases have taken seriously Heller’s instruction that the Second Amendment is “not unlimited” by overwhelmingly voting to uphold laws that protect the public from gun violence without infringing constitutional rights. But a few judges, mostly those writing in dissenting opinions, have departed from this consensus view by broadly rejecting public safety justifications for firearm regulations and arguing that many more important measures are unconstitutional under the Second Amendment. Unfortunately, some of these dissenting judges are on President Trump’s Supreme Court shortlist, and one of them, Justice Neil Gorsuch, has already been confirmed to the Court. The confirmation of a second justice with views on gun policy that are radically far from mainstream could result in the dangerous expansion of Heller gun lobby groups have not been able to achieve thus far.
Judge Kavanaugh’s Record on Guns
In a follow-on case to Heller known as Heller II, Judge Kavanaugh wrote a dissenting opinion arguing that Washington DC’s assault weapons ban and registration laws violate the Second Amendment. While two other judges cast deciding votes upholding both laws, Judge Kavanaugh instead sided with the gun lobby’s position that every type of firearm that is marketed and sold to enough Americans enjoys absolute constitutional protections, concluding that because assault weapons are in “common use” today and were not historically regulated, they cannot be prohibited under the Second Amendment. Similarly, Judge Kavanaugh determined that because most states do not require registration of firearms, it is unconstitutional to have a mandatory registration law—meaning that under his circular logic, any gun regulation that is not already widespread is constitutionally suspect.
In the same dissent in Heller II, Judge Kavanaugh interpreted the US Supreme Court’s decision in Heller to require judges to disregard compelling public safety justifications for gun regulations and consider only the text of the Second Amendment and the history and tradition of regulating in a certain area when deciding if a challenged law is constitutional. Under Judge Kavanaugh’s interpretation of the Second Amendment, there is an “absence of a role for judicial interest balancing or assessment of costs and benefits of gun regulations.” This radical view would allow judges to pick and choose which gun regulations have adequate historical support and invalidate all other laws. For example, Judge Kavanaugh might vote to strike down important gun safety laws that address modern dangers that did not exist at the time of the founding of the United States, like extreme-risk protection order laws that remove guns from the possession of likely mass shooters, and domestic violence restraining order laws that protect victims of domestic abuse (a crime that wasn’t even recognized in early American history).
Finally, while Judge Kavanaugh has not issued a major ruling on the issue of public carry of firearms outside the home, he did cast a dissenting procedural vote in Grace v. District of Columbia stating he would leave in place a lower-court ruling striking down DC’s concealed carry licensing law pending appellate review. This suggests that Judge Kavanaugh was sympathetic to the view that the District of Columbia’s “good reason” requirement for concealed carry permit applicants is unconstitutional, a position that places him well outside the mainstream. Judges have overwhelmingly upheld similar concealed carry requirements, including those in place in California, Maryland, New York, and New Jersey—and in each case, the US Supreme Court denied review, leaving favorable lower-court decisions upholding strong concealed carry permitting laws in place.
The above rulings should concern anyone who believes our leaders must remain empowered to take action to stem America’s gun violence crisis. But President Trump’s selection of a judge with outlier views is no coincidence: it reflects the clout of the NRA and its influence over the Administration’s policies and judicial nomination strategies. In early 2017, the NRA spent $1 million to support the nomination of Neil Gorsuch—and once Justice Gorsuch joined the Court, he joined a dissenting opinion arguing that California’s strong concealed carry laws violate the Second Amendment. President Trump’s nomination of Judge Kavanaugh seems a clear demonstration that the President is still letting the gun lobby dictate his policies, contradicting his own call for meaningful action after the massacre in Parkland.
Impact on Critical Firearm Policy Issues
While applying Heller’s holding that individuals have a constitutional right to use a handgun for self-defense in the home, lower courts have generally exercised caution when confronting issues not yet addressed by the Supreme Court. This means some substantive Second Amendment questions lack definitive answers. If confirmed to the Supreme Court, Judge Kavanaugh could play a key role in shaping the Court’s rulings on these and other areas of gun policy.
Heller recognized that “the majority of the 19th-century courts to consider” the issue of concealed carry of firearms upheld restrictions that were far more stringent than the moderate concealed carry regulations states have adopted today. While numerous federal courts, including the Second, Third, Fourth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits, have interpreted Heller to allow for appropriately strong concealed carry regulations in public, one outlier court struck down a good-cause concealed carry permitting law in the District of Columbia. Seeking to capitalize on that decision, the NRA recently backed a series of lawsuits challenging strong concealed carry permitting systems in New Jersey, Maryland, and New York, and filed a brief arguing that Massachusetts’ concealed carry standards are unconstitutional. One or more of these cases may be taken up by the US Supreme Court after Justice Kennedy’s replacement is confirmed.
Assault Weapon and Large-Capacity Magazine Restrictions
Heller stated that the Second Amendment is not a “right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose” and recognized that dangerous and unusual weapons, like those “most useful in military service,” may be prohibited. Many courts, including the Second, Fourth, Seventh, and DC Circuits, and district courts in Colorado and California, have applied this reasoning to uphold assault weapon or large-capacity magazine (LCM) restrictions. However, one outlier trial court recently sided with the NRA in a challenge to California’s LCM possession ban, holding that the ban was likely unconstitutional and suggesting that magazine limits of any size pose a constitutional problem (that decision is being appealed). The California case—as well as gun lobby-backed suits challenging LCM laws in Vermont and New Jersey—may, in the near future, be appealed and eventually presented for Supreme Court review.
Post-Parkland Gun Safety Legislation
States have adopted 52 new gun safety laws since the school shooting in Parkland, FL. Gun lobby groups have responded to this renewed political and legislative energy by filing new court challenges to block gun safety laws. Lawsuits challenging Florida’s new minimum age law, Maryland and Florida’s trigger activator bans, and local gun safety ordinances may tee up new Second Amendment issues for intermediate appellate courts, and possibly the US Supreme Court, in the years to come.
The Supreme Court has declined to weigh in on any of the above issues in the ten years since Heller, leaving it unclear how some members of the current Court would resolve these cases. Some justices, including Justices Thomas and Scalia and, recently, Justice Gorsuch, have revealed their views by dissenting from the decision to deny review in Second Amendment cases, expressing that they would prefer to grant review and strike down gun regulations in key policy areas. Because it only takes 4 votes for the Supreme Court to grant review, the four more reliably conservative justices could have granted review in Second Amendment challenges without Justice Kennedy. It is possible the Court declined to do so because Justice Kennedy was a moderating force on Second Amendment issues who was unlikely to strike down the reasonable gun regulations Justices Gorsuch and Thomas disfavor. If true, Judge Kavanaugh’s potential confirmation to the Supreme Court presents a disturbing possibility that a new coalition of justices will vote to hear more firearm cases and strike down more lifesaving laws under a radically broad conception of the Second Amendment.
Statements on Kavanaugh’s Nomination
In response to President Trump’s nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court, Giffords and Giffords Law Center released the following statements:
Former Representative Gabrielle Giffords
“In nominating Judge Kavanaugh to be the next Supreme Court justice, the Trump Administration is once again showing brazen disregard for the people it claims to protect. Judge Kavanaugh’s dangerous views on the Second Amendment are far outside the mainstream of even conservative thought and stand in direct opposition to the values and priorities of the vast majority of Americans. America needs a Supreme Court justice who respects the Second Amendment but who also realizes reasonable regulations that reduce gun violence do not infringe on anyone’s constitutional rights. But that’s not the kind of justice President Trump nominated today.
“America’s gun violence epidemic weighs daily on the minds of so many families in our country. Parents live in fear of hearing their children describe to them what it’s like to go through an active shooter drill. Too many people in communities across the country live in fear of being shot in their neighborhoods. In states across the country, students and voters have been speaking up, taking to statehouses, and demanding that lawmakers pass effective gun safety legislation. Their advocacy is delivering results: just since the massacre in Parkland, more than 50 gun safety bills have passed in 26 states. Should the Senate confirm the nomination of Judge Kavanaugh, we have every indication to believe that he will prioritize an agenda backed by the gun lobby, putting corporate interests before public safety. Make no mistake, the progress we’ve achieved passing firearm laws that save lives every day will be in serious danger.”
Hannah Shearer, Staff Attorney and Second Amendment Litigation Director
“Judge Kavanaugh has expressed a dangerous hostility toward reasonable gun regulations and made clear he believes the government’s power to address gun violence is extremely limited. Judge Kavanaugh rejects the idea that courts should consider public safety when judging gun cases and would strike down bedrock gun laws like those that restrict civilian use of the dangerous, military-style weapons regularly used in mass shootings.
“Even Justice Scalia, one of the most conservative Supreme Court justices in modern history, endorsed reasonable firearm regulations like the ones Judge Kavanaugh would strike down. Judge Kavanaugh’s positions on the Second Amendment are outliers far outside the mainstream, and confirming him to the Supreme Court could negatively impact efforts to fight gun violence for many years to come. The notion of Judge Kavanaugh serving on our nation’s highest judicial bench should worry Americans who care about the safety of their families and communities. Now is the time for them to speak up and demand a nominee who will respect centuries of American legal tradition, recognize that gun rights have always gone hand-in-hand with responsible regulations, and put the life and liberty of all Americans ahead of the interests of the gun lobby.”