Today’s U.S. senators know mass shootings more than they know legislating. The data is undeniable.
The United States is currently on pace for more mass shootings—and the eternal holes they leave in our hearts, homes, and communities—than legislation signed into law in the 117th Congress. We’re also on the sorrow-strewn glide path to having more mass shootings than days in the year.
Today’s lawmakers know guns—whether it’s those used to protect them at the Capitol or the concealed-carry training many have undergone since their former colleague Gabrielle Giffords was shot in 2011. But familiarity with firearms doesn’t mean they know how to write a gun law. Many lawmakers don't even know how to talk about guns, which is why they largely avoid it.
“We call it mental health and school safety,” says Senator John Cornyn of this summer’s historic legislation that broke the NRA’s nearly three-decade stranglehold on Washington, and for which the Texas Republican served as a key architect. “It wasn’t gun control—maybe gun safety.”
He’s not wrong. Before negotiations began, proponents of gun control willingly sacrificed almost all of their sacred cows—not just their desire to reinstate the 1994 assault weapons ban but also their effort to raise the minimum age to purchase firearms from 18 to 21. That wasn’t just because those issues are hyper-politicized. It’s also, in part, because proponents weren't able to produce tangible, trusted evidence when it mattered.
That should change soon. This fall, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is slated to release its first report on gun violence since lawmakers removed the 1996 Dickey Amendment, which barred the federal agency from explicitly studying gun violence, like a CDC-funded study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1993 entitled “Gun Ownership as a Risk Factor for Homicide in the Home.” In 2019, Congress lifted restrictions on studies like that, and lawmakers have allocated $25 million for research annually since.
But longitudinal studies take years. Only this fall are we expected to start seeing results from some of the 16 research and data collection projects the CDC funded in 2020. But at the end of May, there was no time.
The loss of another 19 elementary school children and two of their educators in Uvalde, Texas, briefly opened a window for a bipartisan group of Senate negotiators to act. That narrow window of collective sorrow brought pro-gun-control Democrats to the negotiating table with pro-gun Republicans for closed-door meetings. They accomplished the seemingly impossible: The nation got its first new gun law in nearly three decades.
Without comprehensive CDC gun violence studies, what data informed the so-called Bipartisan Safer Communities Act? We know the data informing negotiators’ decision to close the “boyfriend loophole,” extending firearm restrictions for abusive spouses to abusive intimate partners. The data on the success of red flag laws, which empower authorities to temporarily confiscate guns from people deemed dangerous to others or themselves, is equally clear. These laws were already on the books in 19 states and Washington, DC, thus it was relatively easy–if politically fraught–to federally incentivize other states to follow suit.
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As for the rest of it, much of the research used to inform lawmakers crafting the historic gun legislation was tangential to US gun violence. And the CDC’s absence from the bill’s negotiations may have been crucial for its passage.
What Gun Law?
Even though the CDC was barred from tracking the societal impacts of gun violence on communities, the sheer number of firearms and gun deaths has made ignoring them impossible. As such, the CDC does offer data related to guns, from a macro-level snapshot of US gun deaths to a state-by-state breakdown of firearm-related fatalities.
Its site also provides links to dozens of other related resources, including the National Violent Death Reporting System (which provides prevention info to state and local officials), the National Vital Statistics System (which tracks “firearm-related deaths,” among other statistics), the School Associated Violent Death Study (which “monitors at the national level school-associated violent deaths” as part of a partnership with the Departments of Education and Justice), and the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (which monitors “social problems among 9th- through 12th-grade students”).
“That wasn’t a part of the discussion,” Cornyn says when asked if the CDC or resources from the agency ever came up in negotiations.
In the heat of their effort, Cornyn, one of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell’s top generals, did deliver a presentation to the Senate Republican Conference on the relative popularity of new firearm safety measures, like closing the boyfriend loophole or expanding red flag laws. Republican leaders have high hopes of regaining suburban districts netted by pro-gun-control Democrats in the past two cycles, after all. But even after presenting the promising polling data, Cornyn and McConnell were only able to convince 13 of their GOP colleagues to join them in supporting the final measure.
While the CDC’s resources didn’t make it into negotiations, the senior Texas senator recalls negotiators being moved into action by a newspaper article he shared.
“I think the thing that was most troubling, there was a piece in The New York Times profiling these teenage shooters,” Cornyn says. “It's pretty scary. And then we were trying to figure out, how do we focus on the enhanced background check for that population, 18 to 21.”
While Cornyn says “there wasn't the political support for raising the age” of legal purchasers, the article convinced Republicans to agree to increase scrutiny on 18-, 19-, 20-, and 21-year-old gun buyers.
“It strikes me as sort of a disturbing trend and really leads to the larger concern about mental health treatment and access, which is a big part of the bill,” Cornyn says. “I mean, that's kind of overlooked a little bit, but that's the single largest investment in community-based mental health care in American history.”
Other senators also remember Cornyn bringing that Times piece. They agree—even if the publication is anathema to contemporary GOP orthodoxy, at least publicly—it was “powerful.”
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“Yeah, I think that was,” Republican senator Thom Tillis says of Cornyn’s unscientific news clipping.
For Tillis, what truly unified the disparate group of progressives and conservatives was data—just not gun data. Instead, he says, their negotiations were most influenced by former president John F. Kennedy.
On October 31, 1963, Kennedy signed into law the Community Mental Health Act, a measure aimed at replacing asylums with community-based mental health clinics. Three weeks later, Kennedy was gunned down, burying the promise of his vision to reform mental health care in the US. In the ensuing decades, communities nationwide ditched asylums, but robust funding for local clinics never materialized.
In 2014, Congress passed the Excellence in Mental Health Act, which promised to be the realization of JFK’s now half-century-old dream. Republican senator Roy Blunt of Missouri and Democratic senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan teamed up to pass those mental health reforms, and they have since tracked the pilot programs their law set up, initially, in eight states. Over a five-year period, these federally supported Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics “had 63.2% fewer emergency department visits for behavioral health issues, saw a 40.7% decrease in homelessness and spent 60.3% less time in correctional facilities,” according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Those results and related stats proved magnetic to Washington’s fiscal conservatives and defund-the-police progressives alike.
“It was critical because other people wanted to do something and had ideas, yet none of it was developed or actionable,” Stabenow says. “People felt like it was real. It was tangible.”
A huge selling point is that to be eligible for the federal program, states are required to set up 24-hour psychiatric crisis centers. That reduces police responsibility, which was appreciated by law enforcement groups nationwide, who don’t want officers charged with mental health duties. Hence, these local efforts were nationalized this summer as a part of the compromise measure.
“There were a few around the country, but no national effort to make this happen,” Blunt says. “We had a program working, producing significant results, widely supported by law enforcement, by emergency rooms, by families who didn't have the kind of relief they needed to the mental health problems peaceful people were facing.”
The Blunt-Stabenow mental health program provided Senate negotiators with around five years of unambiguous data from states as different as Oklahoma and New York. That proved essential to its inclusion.
“We started using as much data as we could to say, ‘This is a hypothetical, this is measurable,’” Tillis says. “It was tangible.”
That’s also why Cornyn’s not wrong when he bristles at the “gun control” label. Roughly two-thirds of the funding tucked into the new federal “gun” law goes to behavioral health. Lawmakers expect, based on results from those local pilot programs, to see a trickle-up effect nationwide as cops are (on paper, at least) replaced with much-needed mental health workers.
“We ended up going, ‘What are the root causes?’” Tillis says. “If we're taking a look at reducing gun deaths and taking a look at behavioral health, which is linked to a lot of these active shooter environments, it was using data to say, ‘What decisions could we make that would most likely make the best outcome?’”
Then there’s the US-Mexico border. Mexico estimates that some 2 million proudly made-in-America guns have flooded its streets and those of its own southern neighbors, fueling incomprehensible—and unquantifiable—bloodshed. And the violence, in return, causes hundreds of thousands to flee their homes and risk death to head north annually.
One of the most dramatic changes tucked into the new law fundamentally alters the relationship between the United States and Mexico, as well as Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras (aka the Northern Triangle).
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Despite the glaring problem of American guns flowing south—one the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and other agencies have reported for decades now—US policymakers collectively shrugged.
That changed this summer. “I mean, we didn't know that exporting guns was—we manufacture here, we don’t export ’em. But Mexico said it was a real problem, so trying to work on gun trafficking going out of the country was also in the bill,” Tillis says, adding that concern also came from “a lot of people in the Northern Triangle and Latin America in particular.”
The thing is, these concerns weren’t new among US lawmakers—particularly those representing border states, who deal with the problem regularly and haven’t been shy about it.
“There was no ability to prosecute trafficking firearms out of the US. Congress never thought that would be a thing—we were trying to protect ourselves from gun trafficking,” says Senator Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat. “But a large proportion of the guns used to commit crimes and used by drug cartels in those countries come directly from American gun stores.”
Negotiators initially rejected a bipartisan proposal to address this horrific and bloody problem. Working with Republican senator Susan Collins of Maine and Democratic senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Heinrich was eventually able to report that they secured the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster and pass the bill.
“It's good for all of those countries. It's good for their crime rate, but it's also that spillover violence,” Heinrich says. “It's one of the strongest border security laws that we've ever passed.”
CDC Is a Four-Letter Word
When it comes to the CDC, many of today’s Republicans won’t engage—unless it’s dismissively or with rhetorical fire and fury.
In the wake of lockdowns, Covid-19 mask mandates, and a blossoming embrace of vaccine skepticism, many voters on the right say they’ve lost faith in the CDC. For congressional Republicans, that means the mere mention of CDC gun violence data results in eye rolls.
“CDC did such a great job with coronavirus, I’m not sure people would have a lot of confidence in them,” Cornyn says.
While unquantifiable, it seems this round of non-gun talks would have been derailed if the CDC even came up, because Republicans have already rejected the findings it’s set to unveil this fall.
“They operate solely in the petri dish, not in society,” says Republican senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota about the CDC. “They don't apply it to how you run a company or country or state or, you know, even a hospital for that matter.”
Cramer adds that the CDC is toxic among the Fox News crowd. “CDC, Fauci, and Joe Biden are all sort of on the same level—no question,” he says.
Republican senator Marco Rubio of Florida echoes that sentiment. “There’s no doubt they diminished their standing among the eyes of a lot of Americans because of confusing guidance that seemed to be impacted and influenced by politics,” Rubio says. “And that's unfortunate, because they're an important institution for our country.”
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Rubio seems to speak for most elected Republicans in Washington when he dismisses research connecting guns to school shootings, even as the problem continues to fester and grow.
“Gun violence and school shootings are two separate topics. I mean, they're both tragic, but they have different pathologies,” Rubio says. “And there's a lot of data out there already about school shootings that we should be operating on the basis of. If they have something new to add to it, that's different. If it's going to be weaponized, you know, then I think you're going to have a problem.”
Clearly the CDC is already being weaponized, but it’s Rubio’s party that’s doing it.
“We did find out reporting on any kind of bad outcomes related to guns is not consistent,” Tillis claims. “It’s inconsistent, so it's kind of hard to rely on the CDC for information that’s actionable.”
After numerous requests, his office failed to provide a single white paper backing up the senator’s claims. Democrats, meanwhile, are eager for the CDC to combat Republican talking points and stonewalling with evidence rather than rhetoric.
“They literally passed a law that you couldn't study ways to reduce gun violence, and so we put in a bill to say that you could,” says Democratic representative Carolyn Maloney of New York, the lead House sponsor of the measure allowing the CDC to finally study gun violence. “Nothing’s so controversial that you can’t study it to make it safer.”
Research clearly played a central role in the formation of this summer’s historic legislation, but remember, this is Washington. Solid research is shredded daily by lobbyists, trolls, pundits, and politicians alike. Still, something was different this time.
“The data has not been particularly effective in the past because nobody was willing to sit down and even have a discussion about changing laws,” says Senator Chris Murphy, one of the bill’s lead Democratic negotiators. “So this was the first time we even had a chance to sit down and have the data educate the decisions we made.”
There’s no appetite on the right for another debate about guns in the near future. Murphy, who represents the village of Sandy Hook, Connecticut, says just as this summer’s debate was the spontaneous reaction to the tragedy witnessed at another elementary school, he can’t predict when the next mass shooting will enliven lawmakers. He’s eager, though, for the CDC data to start rolling out this fall, because it could make it into the next law. That is if there’s a willingness to listen.
“I think if we have more opportunities to sit down and talk policy, the data will become more important,” Murphy says. “So clearly we didn't get everything done that we wanted, but we now have—for the first time ever—the ability for data to guide decisions, because we have the political willingness to get stuff done.”