What to Expect in the U.S. Gun Debate—This Time


Trump on guns and schools

The school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that claimed 17 lives in February has reinvigorated the gun-control debate in Washington. Even President Donald Trump and some of his Republican Party allies in Congress, who normally find more common ground with the National Rifle Association, say they are open to considering some changes. After decades of stricter gun-control measures failing to gain traction in Washington, the advocacy of students who survived the Florida school shooting has renewed the debate around old ideas, such as improving background checks, and new ones, like arming teachers.

Improve Background Checks

Existing law requires licensed gun sellers to check the National Instant Criminal Background Check System to see if someone is eligible to buy a gun. Federal and state agencies are supposed to report records, such as criminal convictions, to the database. But the system is full of holes, with millions of records missing, sometimes with deadly consequences. In 2017, it failed to stop the purchase of a semi-automatic rifle by a gunman who killed 26 churchgoers because the U.S. Air Force hadn’t reported his 2014 domestic-violence conviction. Congress is now considering the "Fix NICS Act," sponsored by senators in both parties, which would penalize federal agencies that fail to report information and create incentives for states to improve reporting. Trump has suggested he supports that change. But some pro-gun House lawmakers say they will only accept the bill if it allows concealed-carry permits issued by one state to be recognized in all 49 others.

Expand Background Checks

Some advocates of stricter gun laws would like background checks to include a larger pool of sales. Licensed firearm dealers are required to run background checks, but private sellers -- those who only sell firearms occasionally, or are selling parts of their personal collection, for example -- don’t need licenses. The so-called "gun-show loophole" refers to the fact that unlicensed sellers are allowed to sell firearms at gun shows alongside licensed dealers, but don’t have to run background checks. A 2013 attempt by senators in both parties to close that loophole and include all commercial sales, while excluding sales between families and friends, failed. One Republican senator, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, said he may try to bring the proposal back. Many Democrats would go further and call for "universal" background checks, which would apply to virtually all firearm sales. A Quinnipiac poll conducted between Feb. 16-19 found that 97 percent of respondents favored universal background checks. Trump favors adding mental-health information to the NICS system and does not support closing the gun-show loophole.

Arm Teachers

Trump and the NRA strongly advocate arming teachers to protect students. “It would just be a very small group of people that are very gun adept,” Trump told governors. He also said armed teachers should "get a little bit of a bonus." Many teachers and parents oppose the idea. Teacher groups, including the National Education Association, have raised concerns that guns in the classroom would put additional burdens on educators and could even lead to fatal accidents. While the federal government provides support for education, U.S. states and local districts set most policies for public schools.

Raise the Age for Buying Weapons

Current law requires handgun buyers to be 21 but the minimum age for rifle purchases is 18, which explains how the 19-year-old Parkland school shooter was able to legally acquire an AR-15. The pressure on lawmakers to take action has boosted the prospect of increasing the age rule for purchasing rifles to 21. Governor Rick Scott and Senator Marco Rubio, both Republicans from Florida, say they support doing so. Trump also has voiced support for increasing the age limit, a position the NRA opposes.

Ban Certain Firearms

A 1986 law signed by President Ronald Reagan, who had been shot five years earlier, banned the ownership of new automatic weapons, or machine guns. Those manufactured before 1986 and owned by civilians are allowed, although strict rules govern the transfer to a new owner. In 1994, when Congress created the background-check system, it also banned new semiautomatic weapons that resemble assault weapons. That ban, which included the AR-15 rifle, expired in 2004. While an AR-15-style firearm was used in the Florida high-school incident and in several other recent mass shootings, and while many Democrats say they favor reinstating the ban, Congress isn’t moving in that direction, largely because of Trump’s and the NRA’s opposition.

Ban Bump Stocks

There is bipartisan support to prohibit bump stocks, a device that fits on the butt of a semi-automatic rifle and uses the natural kick of the weapon to fire it rapidly, thus mimicking a fully automatic rifle. In 2017, a shooter in Las Vegas used a bump stock to fire more rapidly into a crowd of concertgoers, killing 59 people and injuring hundreds more. After the Florida school shooting, Trump directed the Justice Department to move forward with a national ban on bump stocks, but some legal experts say he lacks the authority to bar the device without congressional approval.

Prohibit Large-Capacity Magazines

The 1994 Assault Weapons Ban also prohibited large-capacity magazines, devices that store and feed ammunition, for 10 years. Under the law, "large-capacity" was defined as anything holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition. Since the ban expired in 2004, gun owners have been able to purchase magazines capable of holding 100 rounds of ammunition. Democratic lawmakers led several unsuccessful attempts to reinstate the ban, including after the 2017 Las Vegas massacre.

The Reference Shelf

  • A Bloomberg QuickTake explainer on guns in America.
  • Council on Foreign Relations report compares gun laws in the U.S. to those in other wealthy democracies.
  • Small Arms Survey compares rates of private gun ownership by country.
  • Data showing non-fatal gun-related crime falling from 1993 to 2011.
  • Library of Congress report summarizing gun control laws in 18 industrialized countries and the European Union.
  • Mother Jones calculates gun violence costs the U.S. $229 billion a year.
    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.