This article is the first part of an investigation. The second part can be found here.
We are increasingly numb to mass shootings, the destruction wrought by an alienated man (rarely a woman) who uses a weapon designed for war to kill the innocent at a movie theater or Walmart, synagogue or church, high school or elementary school. These shootings have become so commonplace that the details blur: 16 dead and injured at a Texas outlet mall; 36 at an Alabama birthday party; 14 at a Louisville bank; eight at Nashville Christian school; 21 at a dance hall in California. Just as unsettling, in some ways, are the shootings in recent weeks based on what can only be called a hair-trigger response to a perceived threat. In Kansas City, Missouri, Ralph Yarl, a 16-year-old, was going to pick up his younger twin siblings from a playdate when he went to the wrong address and was greeted by 85-year-old Andrew Lester, who shot him in the head. Yarl is Black, and Lester is white. Around the same time, across the country in New York State, Kaylin Gillis was heading to a friend’s house when her boyfriend mistakenly turned into the wrong driveway. Its owner, 65-year-old Kevin Monahan, fired at the car, killing 20-year-old Gillis. (He’s been charged with murder.) In Texas, two high school cheerleaders were shot in a supermarket parking lot after one of them mistakenly entered a car she thought was her own. Police say that 25-year-old Pedro Tello Rodriguez, Jr. fired multiple shots. Payton Washington, 18, dressed in her cheerleader outfit, was shot in the back and nearly died. These were not criminals with a history of mental illness but legal gun owners who chose to pull the trigger.
Are most gun owners reckless and rage-filled? Probably not. But the data show that the gun lobby’s promulgated myth of the responsible gun owner is just that—a myth. An extraordinary number of gun owners are not responsible stewards of firearms and the assumption that they are informs public policy. Last year, in an opinion authored by Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court struck down New York’s 109-year-old gun law, which required gun owners seeking a concealed carry license to demonstrate “proper cause,” a special need for such permission. In its ruling, the 6-3 majority repeatedly referred to the rights of “law-abiding” and “responsible” citizens. Most importantly, more than 230 years after the ratification of the Second Amendment, the Court discovered a right for these “law-abiding, responsible citizens” to carry handguns in public for their self-defense.
Millions of hunters, sportsmen, collectors, and other ordinary gun owners view the Second Amendment as a right that comes with responsibilities. But there are plenty who are less fastidious.
In two weeks this spring, the country experienced at least 25 mass shootings. In addition, two seven-year-old Virginia twins and a woman were shot after a dispute over a bicycle. Two Maryland men were shot in a road rage incident after they inadvertently cut off a motorcyclist. In a San Antonio, Texas, road rage incident, a man fired into a car, injuring a six-year-old child. Also in San Antonio, a 21-year-old mother and her 20-year-old husband argued over possessing a handgun when it went off, killing an eight-month-old infant. In Fort Worth, Texas, a 14-year-old girl was shot and killed by her older sister after they found a gun in a closet. In Arlington, Texas, a two-year-old boy fatally shot himself with a gun left lying around his home. In Virginia, a three-year-old boy shot and killed himself with a gun he found in a teenage sibling’s room. In Ohio, a four-year-old boy accidentally shot himself in the abdomen after finding his brother’s .9mm pistol in the back seat of his SUV. A 14-year-old boy playing with a gun on a North Carolina school bus accidentally shot a 16-year-old student in the buttocks. A Tennessee woman shot her one-year-old grandson sitting in her lap when she reached into her purse and accidentally pulled the trigger of her gun. And that’s just a partial list.
In New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v Bruen, Justice Thomas suggested that 43 states are sorting out the bad guys by requiring background checks, safety training courses, and measures “designed to ensure only that those bearing arms in the jurisdiction are, in fact, ‘law-abiding, responsible citizens.’”
The Court’s majority made no effort to ascertain whether state laws accomplish that mission, although they were clearly aware that half of the states have “constitutional carry” laws that do nothing to “ensure” that those carrying concealed handguns are law-abiding or responsible. In these 25 states, no background check, mental health check, fingerprinting, permit, or license is required to carry a gun, and in 27 states, no training is necessary to carry one.
Gun purchases in all states require a federal background check, but only if the seller is a federally licensed dealer. In 35 states, criminals can avoid background checks by purchasing firearms from sites like Armslist.com—a sort of Craigslist for guns—through online auctions, buying from friends, relatives, and other private sellers, or shopping at gun shows. Only eight states require a permit to purchase a gun.
These laws—or the lack of them—matter. The young men responsible for the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, which left 13 dead, acquired their firearms at a gun show with the help of an older classmate. The gunman who shot 23 people dead at an El Paso Walmart in 2019 purchased his AK-47 and 1000 rounds of ammunition online.
In states that require a license to carry a concealed handgun, too often, dangerous sorts are still perfectly free to get a permit to pack heat.
Consider stalking. A reliable predictor of intimate-partner homicides in as many as 75 percent of cases, 30 states nonetheless allow convicted stalkers to keep their guns, and 22 let them carry concealed weapons, according to a database compiled by Everytown for Gun Safety. In 31 states, those convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor may not legally own a firearm, but only 17 require those domestic abusers to turn in their guns.
Found not guilty by reason of insanity? No problem. Twenty-one states have no law barring gun ownership by someone found not guilty by reason of insanity, and 23 allow gun purchases by someone found incompetent to stand trial.
And then there’s alcohol, a frequent factor in firearm homicides. A University of California Davis survey of more than 78,000 gun owners over 13 years found that those who legally purchased firearms following a conviction for alcohol-related crimes—primarily DUIs—were nearly three times more likely to commit a violent crime or a crime with a firearm—including murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault—as those with no prior criminal convictions. Nevertheless, only 18 states bar those with multiple DUI convictions from carrying concealed weapons.
In his concurring opinion in Bruen, Justice Samuel Alito writes: “Our holding decides nothing about who may lawfully possess a firearm.” Instead, it tacitly assumes that states have vetted those allowed to carry.
The notion that gun owners are overwhelmingly responsible and law-abiding is not confined to the Court, and it has been baked into our culture by the National Rifle Association. So, according to NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre, “We know that responsible gun ownership exemplifies what is good and right about America.” The lobby’s magazine, America’s First Freedom, assures us that “Owning and carrying a firearm is a great responsibility, which is just how America’s lawful gun owners take it.”
Data on American gun owners paint a different picture. It reveals that millions have little or no training. Sizable numbers are ignorant of the law, careless with their weapons, have severe problems with anger and alcohol, and are regularly involved in violent or criminal activity. And where we find some of the most egregious behavior by gun owners—and dealers—there is almost always a NRA policy to encourage it.
To appreciate why this matters, it helps to understand that the standard measures of gun violence—homicides and suicides—vastly understate the scope of the problem. Imagine if you learned that 1,166 people had been raped, robbed, assaulted, or threatened by someone with a gun today. Well, that’s what happened every day, on average, between 2012 and 2020. That’s more than four million direct victims of gun violence in one decade. And that’s not counting homicides and suicides, which totaled 134,500 and 224,600, respectively, and the more than 192,000 injured in firearm accidents.
If you add indirect victims of gun violence, the numbers are astronomical. To cite just one example, the 380 school shootings (as of May 1) since the 1999 Columbine massacre have resulted in the deaths of 199 students and school personnel (about eight each year) and another 428 injured (about 17 each year), according to a Washington Post database. But 352,000 children attended those schools when the violence took place and, thus, were victimized by it. In a Kaiser Family Foundation poll released on April 11, 19 percent of adults said they had a family member who was shot and killed or committed suicide with a gun. An NPR Marist poll released May 24 found 41 percent of those surveyed said they or someone they know had experienced gun violence either as a victim of a shooting or by being threatened with a gun.
In a nation where as many as 81 million adults own an estimated 434 million firearms (about half of the world’s supply), the assumption that “most” are responsible and law-abiding may be accurate. But that still leaves plenty of room for bad stuff to happen, which it does, every day.
Alito, for his part, is dismissive of gun violence statistics. “[W]hat does this have to do with the question whether an adult who is licensed to possess a handgun may be prohibited from carrying it outside the home?” he asked last June.
The answer is that courts have traditionally balanced the government’s interest in public safety against Second Amendment rights. Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion in the 2008 Heller case established an individual’s right to keep a handgun in the home for self-defense while allowing many gun regulations to remain on the books, including bans on concealed weapons.
Bruen is a more radical decision, weirdly concerned with gun regulations during a brief 77-year period of the 18th and 19th centuries. So Bruen’s majority evinced no interest in how the New York law worked in practice. Rather than weigh a gun law’s impact on public safety, Bruen instructs courts to ascertain only if the law is “consistent with this nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.”
That could prove difficult for judges trying to determine if states can ban habitual drunk drivers from owning firearms or if guns can be prohibited on subways and buses, in movie theatres, and baseball stadiums. None of these situations existed in 18th -and 19th-century America. Indeed, the entire population of New York City at the time the Second Amendment was ratified could fit in Yankee Stadium, with 20,000 seats to spare.
In Bruen’s wake, gun restrictions that have withstood constitutional challenges for decades are being struck down by judges who say they can find no historical analogs. Among them are state laws that ban guns in places of worship, libraries, museums, bars, subways, domestic violence support centers, and summer camps.
It’s impossible to know how many people carry concealed handguns on any given day. Still, a 2017 PEW survey suggests that more than 15 million may carry all the time and an additional 18 million some of the time—about 10 percent of the population. Concealed carry promoters insist that these “armed citizens” make us safer, and they attest that licensed gun owners are among the most responsible and law-abiding citizens.
There is, however, a growing body of evidence to suggest that the growth of concealed carry has made us less safe, not more. Here are a few examples:
- A National Bureau of Economic Research study released last June found that right-to-carry laws increased violent gun crimes by 29 percent and gun homicides by 13 percent in the largest U.S. cities, while gun thefts increased by 35 percent.
- During the first eight years after Wisconsin passed its concealed weapon law in 2011, the state experienced a 33-percent rise in gun homicides compared to the previous eight years, a 56-percent increase in aggravated assaults with firearms, and a 63-percent increase in assaults on police officers.
- Records I’ve examined for Michigan, Wisconsin, and Florida show that more than 71,000 carry licenses were suspended or revoked during the last five years, largely due to felony and misdemeanor arrests or convictions and domestic violence injunctions. Extrapolating nationally—and assuming a similar lawlessness rate – would amount to more than 900,000 licensed and not-so-responsible gun carriers.
Earlier this year, the Transportation Security Administration reported that in 2022 it had found 6,542 guns in carry-on bags at 262 U.S. airports, about 18 guns per day. That number surpassed the previous record of 5,972 guns in 2021, which was no surprise to the TSA. Except for 2020, when people stopped flying because of Covid, the numbers have increased yearly since 2009. During the past decade, the TSA confiscated 33,000 of these illegally transported firearms.
What, if anything, do these numbers tell us about how committed millions of gun-carrying Americans are to responsible gun ownership? Most of those stopped by the TSA offered an Elmer Fudd, “I forgot I was carrying” defense which, even if true, is hardly comforting. “What we see in our checkpoints really reflects what we’re seeing in society,” TSA administrator David Pekoske told the Associated Press. “There are more people carrying firearms nowadays.” The NRA hasn’t weighed in on these particular gun owners but has offered this guidance: “The armed citizen must be conscious of his responsibilities 24/7.”