This op-ed originally appeared on August 12, 2019, in the Washington Post.
It’s naive to think that any single policy or program can prevent every form of gun violence, ranging from intimate partner violence to gang drive-by homicides, suicides and mall-rampage atrocities. Yet each form of such violence involves one common mechanism: a gun.
We can reduce these risks through a suite of evidence-based policies that do two things — create more careful licensing for gun purchasers and more effectively regulate teenage and young adult gun buyers.
Better background checks for all sales provide the foundation for any effective gun policy. These measures are most effective when paired with a system that requires purchasers to obtain a license from law enforcement. Most states with purchaser licensing require applicants to submit fingerprints, as people must do when applying for occupational licensing. Fingerprint-based background checks are less likely to miss people who are legally barred from buying guns.
Licensing also creates greater accountability, whereby sellers, both licensed and private, can only sell a gun to someone with a valid license. Many studies have found that purchaser licensing reduces homicide and suicide, as well as the number of guns available in an underground market. Sixty-three percent of current gun owners and 81 percent of non-owners support such requirements.
We should also provide more stringent oversight of young people who wish to buy powerful weapons.
The risk of committing a homicide peaks between the ages of 18 and 24; offending rates do not decline until the mid-to-late-twenties. Fully 38 percent of murder offenders with known ages are below age 25. This is due in part to ongoing development of brain domains that regulate impulse control, judgment and long-term planning. Yet people in this age range frequently provide little actionable information about their well-being or trustworthiness to medical or law enforcement authorities.
The angry 20-year-old loner who posts racist or misogynist Reddit manifestos probably hasn’t been convicted of any crime. He’s even less likely to have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution. From the perspective of an administrative system, he’s just another guy who lives at home with his parents, taking part-time classes at community college.
Within the past two weeks, young adults used legally purchased firearms to perpetrate several atrocities across the nation. A 21-year-old suspect is charged with killing 22 people in El Paso on Aug. 3. A 24-year-old gunman killed nine people in Dayton, Ohio, the next day. Only a week before, a 19-year-old killed four people at California’s Gilroy Garlic Festival.
These are just three dramatic examples. They are not typical, but they do underscore gun violence that is occurring among young adults every day in our country. Young adults aged 18 to 24 account for only 9 percent of the population, yet they accounted for 23 percent of all firearm homicide victims in 2017. This increased risk for both perpetration and victimization of gun violence requires us to consider additional oversight of young gun purchasers.
Avis, Hertz and their competitors in the rental car business have figured out that young drivers are greater safety risks than their older friends and relatives, and, consequently, implement more rigorous standards before renting out a car. Why not do the same for guns?
We are not suggesting that individuals under the age of 25 should be barred from buying weapons. But more oversight is warranted. For example, youthful gun purchasers might need to meet higher standards for gun ownership (e.g., no criminal history at all) and additional safety training. There could be a more rigorous licensing process through law enforcement, such as requirements that parents or others provide supporting references.
Or we could take a lesson from motor vehicle safety and create a graduated licensing system for guns. Graduated driver’s licensing has reduced rates of motor vehicle deaths among young drivers by limiting exposure to risky situations that could lead to harm for themselves and others. Of course, exemptions could be extended to those serving in the military or law enforcement.
Our patchwork of state laws makes it far too easy for people who are dangerous to themselves or others to obtain firearms. Coupled with anger and hate, these individuals can cause harm, even when they don’t make the news. The problem is particularly clear regarding assault-style weaponry. As long as assault weapons are legal, licensing standards for purchasing these guns should be higher, including age-based restrictions and oversight. Again, we issue special driver’s licenses for 18-wheelers; more powerful guns should face similar requirements.
These solutions can help reduce gun violence without infringing upon lawful gun owners’ interests and rights. The American public is crying out for effective action.
No single policy will prevent all mass shootings or eliminate everyday acts of gun violence. That’s no reason to be passive. A portfolio of feasible efforts such as these is a great place to start.
Cassandra Crifasi is an assistant professor and deputy director at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. Daniel Webster is Bloomberg Professor of American Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School and director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.