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What's The Potential Impact Of Gun Control Ideas Following South Florida Shooting?


What laws will come out of all the gun control activism on display by Marjory Stoneman Douglas students? That's a big question as Congress reconvenes for the first time since the deadly Florida school shooting. The students are organized, and they have demands.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We want assault rifles off the market.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We just need age restrictions and higher checks when people are trying to purchase these weapons.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: There is no place in our society for large-capacity magazines capable...

CHANG: But a major argument often heard on the other side is that most of the proposals gun control advocates push for would be ineffective in preventing mass shootings. To run through various proposals and assess their impact, we're going to turn to Adam Winkler. He's a law professor at UCLA who's written extensively on gun control. Welcome.

ADAM WINKLER: Thank you so much for having me.

CHANG: So we should first mention that in assessing the impact of various gun proposals, there isn't a lot of data out there.

WINKLER: That's right. The NRA and its allies have pushed laws that restrict the ability of federal agencies to finance gun violence prevention research. But it's also a difficult problem because there are so many guns, and figuring out exactly what causes crime has bedeviled researchers for ages. So it's very difficult to know whether one particular reform will have a huge impact on gun violence.

CHANG: That said, I want to look a little more closely at various proposals that have been offered up time and time again. I want to start with something President Trump has talked a lot about in recent days, and that is raising the minimum age to buy a rifle.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're going to work on getting the age up to 21 instead of 18.

CHANG: Do you think that this is actually an effective proposal?

WINKLER: Federal law has traditionally prohibited 18- to 21-year-olds from buying handguns but not rifles with the idea being that rifles are traditionally hunting weapons. In recent years, the rifles have changed. They're more likely to be military-style assault rifles. At the same time, we should remember that raising the gun age won't stop someone like an Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, from getting a gun because he just stole it from his mother.

CHANG: A federal assault weapons ban was in place for a decade from 1994 to 2004. It had been pushed by Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California. She tried to revive it again after Newtown.


DIANNE FEINSTEIN: The weapons I talk about can fire hundreds of rounds a minute with velocities and energy far exceeding the standard handguns. They don't belong on the streets.

CHANG: There have been some studies about whether that 10-year ban reduced gun violence. Were those studies at all conclusive?

WINKLER: It's very difficult to make conclusive studies on this. The only one study that really looked at the effect of the assault weapons ban found that these weapons were found less frequently at crime scenes. But the authors cautioned that it was likely that they just replaced those weapons with handguns or other kinds of rifles. About half or more of the mass shootings are committed with a handgun.

CHANG: Right.

WINKLER: It's not clear that you take an assault weapon out of a shooter's hands, that they're not going to commit this killing.

CHANG: A proposal that's often paired with a possible assault weapons ban is a proposal that would limit high-capacity magazines. Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida made some news last week.


MARCO RUBIO: Because I traditionally have not supported looking at magazine clip size. And after this and some of the details I've learned about it, I'm reconsidering that position, and I'll tell you why.


RUBIO: I'll tell you why - because while it may not prevent an attack, it may save lives in an attack.

CHANG: Is that a proposal where we might actually see some overlap between the gun control and gun rights sides of the debate? Or is Rubio kind of out on a limb there?

WINKLER: I'd be very surprised if gun control forces could get a federal law banning high-capacity magazines. These magazines are incredibly common. They're standard issue in most handguns that are purchased today, also very common in rifles. It is a reform that does target the lethality of the weapon, how many rounds of ammunition a particular weapon can carry before it has to be reloaded.

The difficult thing is that California, for instance, has banned the possession of high-capacity magazines. But initial reports from law enforcement were that virtually no one has turned theirs in even though there's probably somewhere between 7 and 10 million high-capacity magazines in California.

CHANG: A huge part of the discussion going forward in these weeks after Parkland is going to be about universal background checks. The main argument on the gun rights side about background checks is that it's the database that's the problem - has too many holes. There are people who have domestic violence records who don't show up. There are people with interactions with law enforcement who don't show up.

WINKLER: That's right. The federal background check system is riddled with holes. For instance, Dylann Roof, the Charleston church shooter, was able to buy a gun despite the fact that he had previously admitted to gun possession and should have been flagged in the background check system. So we need better reporting into the background check system. But we also need to expand the background check system to cover gun shows and Internet sales and classified ad sales.

CHANG: I'm curious. What percentage of gun sales happen that way?

WINKLER: Estimates range from 13 percent to 40 percent. But even if it was just 13 percent...

CHANG: Yeah.

WINKLER: ...That's about 3 million guns a year that are being sold in America without a background check.

CHANG: Finally, I want to talk about banning bump stocks. This idea gathered traction after the shootings in Las Vegas.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: To modify his weapons and fire so many bullets and cause so much carnage in such a short amount of time.

CHANG: Does this feel like a proposal that's just kind of low-hanging fruit for lawmakers right now?

WINKLER: Indeed, banning bump stocks does seem like low-hanging fruit. Even the NRA has come out in favor of at least ATF regulations that would ban bump stocks. And while most mass shootings do not involve bump stocks, if you can even stop one or two mass shootings from using them, you could have a big impact.

CHANG: You know, as we're talking here, I'm reminded of sort of the ultimate argument often heard on the gun rights side, and that is, someone who is intent on murdering a lot of people can easily circumvent the law no matter what laws are passed. You've studied this for a very long time. What's your take? Is it still worth it to try to come up with legislative solutions?

WINKLER: It is true that in a nation that has 350 million guns in civilian hands, it's going to be hard to stop that one person who's really determined to kill. At the same time, we can do more to bring down the daily death toll from gun violence. Since the 17 people died in the Parkland shooting, we've seen hundreds of Americans lose their lives to gun violence. The best thing we can do to reduce the daily death toll of gun violence is universal background checks. Make it harder for a criminal or someone who's mentally ill to get their hands on guns.

CHANG: All right, Adam Winkler is a law professor at UCLA. Thank you very much.

WINKLER: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.