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Barriers to Gun Control: A Conversation with SCCJ Gun Law Experts

In the wake of tragic mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, the United States is once again confronting the nation’s complicated relationship with guns.  

Northeastern School of Criminology and Criminal Justice is home to a number of well-respected gun crime researchers, and as the nation reckons with the devastating effects of gun violence the country is looking to experts for answers.  

Members of the community gather for a prayer vigil in the wake of a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Photo by Jordan Vonderhaar/Getty Images

We asked SCCJ gun law experts how research can help inform legislation, and the larger part academia can have in solving complex societal challenges like gun control. Drawing on previous collaborations with policy makers, and past and present research, our faculty discussed the importance of data-driven policy decisions. We delved into how the public forms opinions about gun control, how gun control can make communities safer, and the impact legislation can have on preventing mass shootings.

Gun Culture in America

To understand the United States’ relationship with guns it’s important to understand the political framework behind it, an area where researchers can share valuable insight.  

Kevin Drakulich, Associate Director of Northeastern’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, researches the way people think about issues related to crime and justice relative to politics. In a recently published article, “How Intersectional Threat Shapes Views of Gun Policy: The John Wayne Solution,” Drakulich and his team examined how multiple perceived threats to privileged identities affect views of gun control.  

In this study researchers looked at how privileged social identities and the perception of those identities being jeopardized affect a person’s views on gun safety measures, specifically universal background checks, banning assault weapons, and arming teachers.   

The study found that when three specific privileged identities (white, US-born, and male) intersected with feelings of those identities being threatened, whether by social justice movements or other political movements, subjects were likely to feel strong attachments to guns and be staunchly opposed to gun control measures.   

Drakulich described this group’s relationship to guns as gun culture 2.0, the notion that gun culture used to be tied to activities like hunting or marksmanship, but a new relationship with guns has emerged that is fundamentally different.  

“There are a group of Americans for whom guns have become symbolic. This group feels as though their privileges as Americans are being threatened, and as a result the debate is no longer about guns, it’s about their perceived standing in America.”

Kevin Drakulich, Associate Director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice

The trend Drakulich found comes from a sense of aggrievement from a group of people who have privilege but feel that other people are threatening that privilege in direct ways.

“For this group it’s a sense they’ve lost their country, a feeling that they’ve been waiting in line for the American dream and suddenly they’re getting cut in line.” 

This can become a major barrier to gun control legislation because it creates a minority of voters who feel unusually strongly about this issue. In turn, Drakulich’s research provides valuable insight into why some people are opposed to popular gun control positions yet favor more extreme approaches like arming teachers. 

While research like Drakulich’s can help shed light on the political climate policy makers face, and potential barriers to legislation, scholars can also inform specific policy recommendations around gun control. 

Research informing policy

After the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, Jack McDevitt, a professor of the practice in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, and director of the Institute on Race and Justice, was asked by Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives Robert DeLeo, to lead a commission dedicated to making Massachusetts’ gun laws stronger.  

For 8 months McDevitt and members of the commission met with police chiefs, mental health professionals, and legislators to create evidence backed recommendations to strengthen gun restrictions across the state.  

McDevitt and the commission made 44 recommendations, 43 of which DeLeo passed into law. As a result, Massachusetts became the safest state for gun violence in the U.S., in both gun suicides and homicides.  

In proposing these restrictions McDevitt and the commission focused on creating universal state standards like requiring a license to carry any type of gun, mandatory background checks to obtain those licenses, and a ban on assault weapons across the state.  

Yet, McDevitt acknowledged that while Massachusetts has demonstrated these measures work, to see change in overall gun violence across the United States federal legislation needs to be introduced.  

Mass shootings in perspective

Research can also help policy makers and the public better understand the scope of gun violence in America. While mass shootings usually garner the most media attention, other forms of gun violence pose more significant threats to community safety.    

James Alan Fox, the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern, argues that while mass shootings tend to energize the public in advocating for gun control measures, mass shootings are the least likely to be impacted by the measures being proposed.  

“Mass killings are extremely hard to prevent, with almost two thirds of perpetrators getting their guns legally,” said Fox. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to enact stricter laws.” 

In an opinion piece for the Boston Globe Fox writes, “As for tighter gun restrictions, which I fully support, they are needed to deal with the thousands upon thousands of gun homicides that occur in the streets and homes of America every year.” 

However, Fox did state that a federal ban on large capacity magazines could reduce the number of casualties when a mass shooting does occur. 

As for school shootings, Fox says that the risk is still relatively low citing that since 2013, a total of 77 students in grades K-12 have been killed in 11 school mass shootings. Fox calculates that to about a 1 in 5 million chance that a child will be killed by an armed assailant (including single-victim shootings) at school in any given year. 

Fox advocates that while egregious, most shootings do not happen in public places, and officials need to work harder to protect schools without traumatizing children.  

Uncluttered hallways, thoughtful landscaping, and bullet resistant glass are all steps that can be taken to protect schools without unnecessarily frightening children.  

So, what can we do? 

Gun violence happens every day. But it happens in situations where the average person doesn’t usually find themselves, during drug dealings or gang activity. It’s when gun violence happens in schools, grocery stores, and movie theaters where we find ourselves feeling so vulnerable.” 

Jack McDevitt, Professor of the Practice in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice

SCCJ experts agree that stricter gun laws are needed to tackle the overall gun violence epidemic in the United States. License requirements, universal background checks, and bans on assault weapons are all evidence backed solutions that can help combat the crisis the country is facing.  

And while the “easy solution,” McDevitt says is to increase penalties for those illegally owning guns McDevitt cautions against that. “The majority of gun violence happens in underserved communities; we need the expansion of programs that support communities, not more jail time.” 

The public can also take an active role in preventing instances of gun violence by recognizing warning signs in their loved ones.  

“If you think someone in your family could be a threat to themselves or others, we should love that person enough to take away their guns until we’re sure they are no longer a danger,” said McDevitt.  

“We need mental health and educational campaigns that help family members recognize the signs and understand that through legislation we’ve passed, they have the power to take away a loved one’s gun.” 

Collectively, SCCJ experts agree that while red flag laws and other efforts that are gaining legislative traction are a good first step in combating America’s contentious relationship with guns, it will take sweeping, federal changes to make a lasting impact.

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