The need for federal action to address gun violence is more urgent than ever. 2020 was a devastating year for gun violence, with early data showing that there were more than 19,000 gun-related homicides, including 612 mass shootings in which four or more people were shot. According to one analysis, homicides increased 36 percent across 28 major cities, and communities of color bore a disproportionate burden of that violence. At the same time, there was an unprecedented surge in gun sales in 2020, with an estimated 20 million guns sold.
After four years of a presidential administration that was hostile toward efforts to address gun violence, the start of a new Congress and a new presidential administration presents an opportunity for serious action to address the many gaps and weaknesses in our nation’s approach to this public health crisis.
Below is a list of top priorities for legislative, executive, and budgetary action to begin to implement a comprehensive federal strategy to reduce all forms of gun violence.
Require universal background checks: Under current federal law, licensed gun dealers are required to conduct a background check prior to every gun sale. However, this requirement does not apply to sales facilitated by individuals who are not licensed dealers—a gap in the law known as the private sale loophole. This gap allows individuals who are prohibited from buying guns for reasons such as prior violent criminal history or domestic violence to easily evade that law and procure a gun from a private seller. Congress needs to follow the example of the 22 states and Washington, D.C., that have already acted to close this loophole and require a background check for all gun sales.
Close the Charleston loophole: Under current federal law, if a background check cannot be completed by the FBI within three business days—a scenario that can occur when an individual has a common name or a complicated criminal history—the gun dealer has the discretion to sell the gun despite the absence of an affirmative response from the background check system. This gap in the law has become known as the “Charleston loophole” because it is how the perpetrator of the 2015 massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was able to buy a gun despite his criminal history. Like the private sale loophole, the Charleston loophole allows individuals who are prohibited from buying guns to skirt the law. It has also been exacerbated by the recent surge of gun sales over the past year, which has put unprecedented pressure on the background check system. Congress must act to eliminate this loophole and prevent gun sales from proceeding without a completed background check.
Disarm domestic abusers: While current federal law prohibits some domestic abusers from buying and possessing firearms, it leaves out three crucial categories of abusers who continue to pose a risk of future violence: 1) individuals convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence or subject to a domestic violence restraining order because of violence against a dating partner; 2) individuals convicted of a misdemeanor crime of stalking; and 3) individuals subject to a temporary domestic violence restraining order. Research finds that when domestic abusers have access to firearms, the risk of homicide is five times greater than when a gun is not present. Congress should amend current law to preclude these abusers from gun possession.
Increase support for violence intervention programs: Strengthening federal gun laws is only one part of the solution; in order to reduce gun violence, it is also necessary to create new federal funding opportunities to invest in evidence-based violence prevention and intervention strategies that have been developed in local communities around the country, primarily led by Black and brown leaders in directly affected communities. Programmatic models such as Advance Peace, Group Violence Intervention, Cure Violence, and hospital-based violence intervention have proven to be successful at reducing violence in many communities and warrant increased federal investment.
Implement extreme risk protection orders: An extreme risk protection order (ERPO) is a civil remedy that allows family members or law enforcement to petition a court to temporarily remove firearms from a person who poses an imminent risk of harm to self or others. For the duration of the protection order, the individual is also prohibited from buying new guns. ERPO laws are designed to provide a legal tool to intervene when there are warning signs that an individual is experiencing a temporary crisis, poses a risk of harm to self or others, and possesses a gun. Early research demonstrates that ERPO laws are effective at preventing gun-related suicide. Congress should enact a federal ERPO law as well as provide additional support for states that have done so.
Ban ghost guns: Under current federal law, gun manufacturers and importers are required to engrave a serial number on the frame or receiver of every firearm, and gun dealers are required to conduct a background check before selling any firearm. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has long interpreted these requirements to only apply to fully finished firearms, frames, and receivers, meaning those that are not technically finished and require a few additional steps before they can be used to make a fully functional gun are not subject to these legal requirements. Guns made at home using these unfinished receivers have become known as “ghost guns” because they are untraceable when they are recovered after use in a crime. Ghost guns pose a real risk to community safety and are increasingly being used in the commission of violent crimes. In addition, these guns have quickly become the weapon of choice for many violent white supremacists and anti-government extremists. ATF should commence a formal rule-making process to provide that unfinished receivers that can be used to make ghost guns are subject to the same legal restrictions as fully finished firearms.
Reverse Trump administration regulation shifting oversight of firearm exports to the Commerce Department: In January 2020, the Trump administration weakened oversight of small arms exports through a regulatory change that shifted export controls of semi-automatic pistols, assault-style firearms, certain sniper rifles, and their ammunition from the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of State to that of the U.S. Department of Commerce. This has raised concerns in the international arms control community, as the Commerce Department uses less robust protocols for ensuring that exported goods are not sent to criminal organizations or human rights violators. The new rule also removed congressional oversight of potential arms transfers, furthering concerns that these changes would lead to an increase in U.S. weapons being used in armed conflicts and human rights abuses around the world. The Biden administration should reverse this change and return oversight of small arms exports to the State Department.
Rethink federal prosecutorial priorities for gun crimes: A recent CAP analysis found that ATF focuses a significant portion of its law enforcement resources on criminal investigations related to the criminal possession and use of firearms and far less on investigations related to illegal gun trafficking. This allocation of ATF resources has resulted in the agency focusing on cases that, while vital to addressing gun-related crime and community safety issues, are already addressed by state and local law enforcement agencies, as well as other federal law enforcement agencies such as the FBI. This federal focus on lower-level cases of illegal gun possession also contributes to mass incarceration in communities of color by subjecting defendants to longer federal sentences than are usually available after state prosecutions. By contrast, illegal gun trafficking investigations are particularly well-suited for ATF, as this crime often involves cross-jurisdictional activity, and investigations into this type of crime can require specialized knowledge of guns and the gun industry. Going forward, ATF should shift its enforcement priorities to focus more on gun trafficking and less on duplicative local crime investigations.
Increase timely access to gun violence data: There is currently a dearth of detailed and timely data about gun violence in the United States. Data on gun deaths made public by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) generally lag one to two years behind, and CDC data on nonfatal gun victimizations are so incomplete that many researchers advise against relying on them. In an annual report, ATF makes only the most cursory data available about the origin of guns that are recovered in connection with violent crime; moreover, it has not released a comprehensive analytical report about gun trafficking in two decades. Data released by the FBI related to hate crimes and fatal use of force by police officers are similarly deemed too unreliable to be useful. The Biden administration should prioritize revamping and reinvigorating the federal government’s approach to gun violence data to ensure that policymakers have the best available information to help inform a comprehensive plan to reduce gun violence.
Increase funding for community-based violence intervention programs: In addition to enacting legislation to create new grant funding programs to support violence intervention programs, new guidance should be issued to ensure that existing federal grant programs—such as the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants and Victims of Crime Act funding—are being used to support this work to the greatest extent possible.
Increase funding for gun dealer oversight: ATF is the only federal agency with jurisdiction to provide regulatory oversight of the gun industry. One of the most crucial aspects of this work is conducting regular inspections of licensed gun dealers to ensure that they are in full compliance with the law and are not knowingly or unwittingly facilitating illegal gun trafficking. Despite the importance of this work, ATF lacks sufficient resources to adequately perform these inspections. In 2019, ATF had only 770 investigators on staff capable of conducting inspections of the more than 53,000 retail gun dealers and 13,000 firearms manufacturers in the country. That year, ATF investigators conducted only 13,079 compliance inspections of firearms licensees, meaning that 83 percent of those licensed by ATF to manufacture or distribute guns did not receive an inspection. ATF needs a substantial increase in its budget to hire additional personnel to conduct gun dealer compliance inspections. As the agency noted in its 2020 budget submission, “The lack of timely inspections presents an immediate and sustained risk to public safety.” A CAP analysis using available data found that one ATF investigator can inspect roughly 17 retail dealers per year, meaning that ATF would need roughly 1,527 investigators to meet its internal goal of inspecting every dealer once every three years.
Increase funding for public health research: For more than two decades, the gun lobby succeeded in shutting down nearly all government-supported research into gun violence. A combination of a targeted budget cut at the CDC and restrictive language in the agency’s annual budget resulted in a near total moratorium on federal funding to support crucial research into the causes of gun violence and the most effective interventions to prevent it. Major progress was made to finally resume federally funded research into gun violence in December 2019, when Congress appropriated $25 million to allow the CDC and the National Institutes of Health to fund this research. This funding was appropriated again in the fiscal year 2021 omnibus funding bill. This represents significant progress toward making up for lost time on gun violence research; however, additional funding needs to be appropriated for this crucial research.
As a new Congress begins and a new president is inaugurated, the need to implement a comprehensive federal approach to reducing gun violence remains urgent. The actions described above represent the first step in making progress toward this lifesaving goal.
Chelsea Parsons is the vice president of Gun Violence Prevention at the Center for American Progress.