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Orlando to Las Vegas: Guns, Law, and Mass Shootings in the U.S.

Professor John Donahue

Professor John Donahue

On Sunday, October 1, a gunman, using what is believed to have been automatic firepower, opened fire on the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas, killing at least 59 people and injuring hundreds more. And once again, Americans are asking why—how could this happen? But it was not a wholly unusual occurrence. According to a New York Times report, there have been 521 mass shootings in the United States since June 12, 2016—when 49 people were gunned down at an Orlando nightclub. In this Q&A, Stanford Law Professor John Donohue III discusses the law, guns, and this most recent mass shooting in Las Vegas.

Can you tell us about the regulation of firearms in Nevada, where the gunman lived? He reportedly had an enormous arsenal of guns in his hotel room and used an automatic weapon.

Gun regulation in Nevada is much like that in most states around the country—quite lax. Although not all the details are in, my understanding at this time is that the particular assault weapons that Stephen Paddock used in this shooting were not automatic weapons (or machine guns) but rather modified semi-automatic weapons that allowed them to be fired faster than a normal semi-automatic assault weapon. Sound analysis from the videos of this shooting and the recent shooting in Orlando that killed 49 reveals how much faster the bullets were fired in Las Vegas than they had been in Orlando.

How different are gun laws state to state? For instance, can you legally purchase and use automatic guns anywhere in the U.S.? It has been reported that the gunman outfitted one gun with a “bump stock,” a device that enabled it to fire hundreds of rounds per minute.

Automatic weapons are controlled more tightly than semi-automatic weapons under federal law, although there are still many grandfathered automatic weapons in circulation. One lamentable aspect of the Las Vegas story is that this episode has helped future mass killers understand that widely available devices to increase the lethality of semi-automatic weapons can aid in their homicidal ambitions. While all the weaponry on display in Las Vegas was likely wholly legal both in Nevada and in most states throughout the country, a number of states such as California, Connecticut, and New York have bans on the assault weapons and high-capacity magazines that were used in the Las Vegas massacre. Unfortunately, NRA litigation is trying to overturn such bans as violations of the Second Amendment. Indeed, California’s referendum from last November that was passed with 63 percent of the electorate approving was supposed to completely ban high-capacity magazines from the state as of July 1, but a federal judge enjoined that ban at the NRA request in June.

How much regulation of guns happens at the federal level? And is there any effort underway to restrict gun purchases in the U.S.?

Sadly, the Trump administration has overturned a number of Executive Orders that the Obama administration had put into place to reduce gun violence, and is now trying to expand gun availability by widening the ability to carry concealed handguns throughout the United States (the so-called “national reciprocity” bill that would require all states—even those that limit concealed carry of guns—to allow anyone with a permit from another state to carry without restriction).

The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to take action on Norman v. Florida, which asks asked whether the constitutional right to bear arms includes the right to carry them openly in public. Can you talk about the case?

New York and California are more restrictive than most states in limiting the ability to carry guns outside the home—whether openly or concealed. The NRA has now sued California for these restrictions and there is a split in the circuits on the issue of whether the Second Amendment confers a constitutional right to carry a gun outside the home. The best empirical evidence on the impact of freely allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons is that it would increase violent crime by about 13-15 percent over a ten year period.  In other words, citizens in the states that currently restrict such carrying will be at greater risk should the Supreme Court accept the NRA arguments.

I understand that there is legislation in Congress aimed at making gun silencers legal. Can you explain the proposed law would mean? Former New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton called it “insane”, but thought it had a good chance of passing.

Yes, the Trump initiative designed to make silencers freely available is a very bad idea, unless one’s goal is to facilitate criminal use of guns (or simply to promote the profits and sales of gun manufacturers). As former astronaut and naval officer Mark Kelly (husband of the grievously wounded former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords) noted:

“Incredibly, Congress is currently working on legislation that would weaken our gun laws. Imagine how much worse last night’s shooting could’ve been if the gunman had a silencer. Imagine the confusion for first responders if they arrived on the scene to a bunch of civilians wielding their own guns, attempting to return fire.”

While there is little chance that Congress will enact useful legislation in response to this latest tragedy, this latest massacre may help to blunt these NRA-backed moves to further weaken gun laws in the U.S.

John J. Donohue III has been one of the leading empirical researchers in the legal academy over the past 25 years. Professor Donohue is an economist as well as a lawyer and is well known for using empirical analysis to determine the impact of law and public policy in a wide range of areas, including civil rights and antidiscrimination law, employment discrimination, crime and criminal justice, and school funding.