Since the mass murders in El Paso and Odessa, Texas politicians from both major parties have pushed several gun control proposals to attempt to reduce firearm-related deaths and prevent future mass shootings.
A few proposals have become the most discussed: “red flag” laws, expanding background checks, and confiscating certain firearms.
Setting aside the well-established political barriers and clear constitutional concerns in implementing such proposals, The Texan examined available data on these proposals to determine their efficacy in achieving the stated goals of political leaders.
The available research suggests these proposals are unlikely to have prevented the mass shootings or even significantly curb the rate of gun-related deaths.
Here’s a breakdown of what we found.
Red Flag Laws
Red flag laws are one of the prominent proposals currently being discussed by members in both parties. Also known as “extreme risk protection orders,” they allow family members, law enforcement officials, or others to request court orders to have guns confiscated on grounds that the owners pose a threat to themselves or others.
CNN reported that the mother of the El Paso gunman called the police a few weeks before the shooting concerned about her son owning a weapon, presumably the AK-47 that he used.
However, the family’s lawyers who confirmed the phone call to CNN also said that the phone call was “informational,” not based on a concern that he was a threat to himself or others.
Most red flag laws require those requesting a court order to provide evidence that the gun owner poses a threat.
The mass murderer in Odessa and Midland had a history of mental illness and was “on a long spiral of going down” according to authorities on the investigation.
The Associated Press reports that a neighbor of the murderer said he would fire his gun in the middle of the night and even came knocking on their door at four in the morning, frightening them.
Likewise, the gunman had been in conflict with his employer, leading up to his firing on the morning before his rampage.
Authorities have made no indication that the Odessa madman lived with anyone else.
Often, red flag laws allow for only family members or law enforcement officials to request a confiscation order from the court.
Unless a hypothetical Texas red flag law included a provision allowing for neighbors or employers to report gun owners, it appears unlikely that such a proposal would have prevented him from committing his heinous crime.
Most of the seventeen states to enact red flag laws have done so in the past year, meaning that there has not been nearly enough time for researchers to study the effects of the laws.
One study that looked at the older laws of Indiana and Connecticut found that while there was a decrease in suicides by firearm, there was an associated increase in the amount of non-firearm suicides.
Another study, which was published after the El Paso shooting but before the one in Odessa, examined cases of gun removal orders issued in California. It found that twenty-one individuals who threatened mass shootings had their access to weapons removed under the state red flag law.
However, it should be noted that red flag laws are not required for law enforcement officials to respond to threats of mass shootings. The Huffington Post reports that the FBI and local police have arrested over forty potential mass murderers since the massacre in El Paso.
Comprehensive Background Checks
Another prominent proposal has been to expand background checks to cover private transfers.
This is an issue on which Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has broken from the National Rifle Association (NRA).
“I’m a strong NRA supporter, and they’re a strong supporter of mine, but I believe they are wrong in not expanding background checks to stop strangers selling guns to strangers,” Patrick told Fox News.
Under current law, public gun retailers must obtain a federal firearms license and perform background checks through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).
Other gun transfers in the state of Texas, such as between family members or private sellers, are not regulated by background checks.
Though Patrick has stated that he does not want to interfere in gun transfers between family members, he wants background checks to be applied to all “stranger to stranger” transfers.
This concept of a “universal background check,” or “comprehensive background check” (CBC) is also a priority for the Democratic Party, which passed H.R. 8 in the U.S. House earlier this year.
How such a law would have affected the two recent shootings in Texas is minimal in the case of El Paso and unclear in the case of Odessa.
According to The Texas Tribune, the El Paso terrorist purchased an AK-47 that was imported from Romania and sold to him legally through a local gun dealer near his home in Allen. This purchase would have included a background check through NICS.
The Odessa madman failed a background check in 2014 and was prohibited from purchasing a gun. Investigators suspect he was able to purchase his weapon through a private sale instead.
However, the Wall Street Journal reports that authorities suspected a Lubbock man of selling the Odessa gunman his weapon. Accordingly, they suspected him of purchasing weapon parts and assembling them with the intent to sell the final weapons without a license, a violation of federal law.
Although it is possible that a CBC law would have prevented the sale, it might not have done any good if the Lubbock man was already violating the law.
The Texan reached out to the regional division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) for comment, but has not received a response at the time of publishing.
Aside from the shootings, a CBC law would have minimal effect on the rate of homicides involving a firearm.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a large survey of prison inmates who possessed a gun while committing a crime found “more than half had either stolen it (6 percent), found it at the scene of the crime (7 percent), or obtained it off the street or from the underground market (43 percent). Most of the remainder (25 percent) had obtained it from a family member or friend, or as a gift.”
Obtaining guns under these circumstances would not be subject to a background check, even with a CBC law in place.
Likewise, research has shown little association with a decrease in gun deaths and CBC laws.
On the enactment of CBC laws in Delaware, Washington, and Colorado, scholars found that while the rate of background checks in Delaware increased following the law, there was no observable change in Washington and Colorado.
A similar study on a 1991 California CBC law found no association with a decrease in firearm homicides or suicides.
Lastly, a study of CBC laws in Indiana and Tennessee found no association between their repeals and the change in the rates of firearm-related deaths.
Many of the same researchers involved in the studies listed above also found that CBC laws only appear effective when combined with permit-to-purchase (PTP) laws, which require all gun buyers to first obtain a purchasing permit through state or local law enforcement.
Some Democratic presidential candidates, including Beto O’Rourke, have called for a so-called mandatory “gun buyback” program, wherein all owners of rifles such as AR-15s and AK-47s would need to surrender their weapons to the government.
On Saturday, O’Rourke elaborated on his earlier comments, saying that he would not expect local law enforcement “going door to door” to confiscate weapons.
“How do you — how do we enforce any law?” he said. “There’s a significant reliance on people complying with the law. You know that a law is not created in a vacuum.”
Historical trends suggest that there would be massive non-compliance if such a confiscatory law was passed, though.
In 2013 after the tragedy at Sandy Hook, New York passed its Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement (SAFE) Act.
The law required “assault weapons” — defined as a rifle, handgun, or shotgun with a detachable magazine and one or more “military-style features” like a telescoping stock or a second grip — to be registered with the state.
After years of fighting the state over a public records request for data on compliance with the law, a policy analyst finally obtained the information. Out of the estimated one million so-called “assault weapons” in the state, only 44,000 were registered.
While there have been no large-scale confiscation programs in the United States, there have been some local, voluntary gun buyback programs.
During the mid-1970s, the Baltimore Police Department collected “13,500 firearms — mostly handguns — at a cost of more than $660,000 in city funds,” according to a local paper from the time.
The program was cut after two months because of the high cost, and the city actually saw an increase in the number of gun-related crimes during the short time period.
More recently, Seattle held a gun “buyback” program in 2013. City officials were dismayed, though, after gun collectors would go to the buyback events and purchase weapons from people who were turning them in.
Other voluntary “buyback” programs in the United States have also seen mediocre results, often with many people turning in broken firearms for cash or gift cards.
Assuming that O’Rourke’s proposed idea for an unenforced gun confiscation program would overcome the political, fiscal, and constitutional challenges that make it extremely unlikely of becoming a reality, it would likely do little to reduce the number of rifles or handguns in America.
Such a program might not have prevented the two recent shootings, either.
If the reports are true that the Odessa gunman purchased his firearm through a private seller who manufactured the weapon, the proposal would have had no effect.
It may or may not have prevented the El Paso gunman from purchasing his weapon. If the banned “assault weapons” are defined as in New York, he would have still been able to purchase the weapon legally assuming it had no “military-style” modifications.
If the ban would extend to include all AK-47s, regardless of modifications, then the gunman would not have been able to purchase his weapon through a retailer.
However, given the clear intent that he had to commit his heinous crime — which included driving for a day across the state — it’s not implausible that he might have purchased his weapon from a private seller like the Odessa gunman allegedly did.
With the tragic, evil killings in El Paso and Odessa, it is to be expected that people and politicians want the government to do something to prevent future massacres.
The proposals garnering the most attention, though, would appear to have done little to prevent these calamities.
Disclosure: Unlike almost every other media outlet, The Texan is not beholden to any special interests, does not apply for any type of state or federal funding, and relies exclusively on its readers for financial support. If you’d like to become one of the people we’re financially accountable to, click here to subscribe.
Daniel Friend is a reporter for The Texan. He participated in a Great Books program at Azusa Pacific University and graduated in 2019 with a degree in Political Science. He has studied C.S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy and in his spare time you might find him writing his own novel partly inspired by the series.