As incidents of gun violence continue to increase across the nation, legislative action to address this public health crisis is imperative. On April 19, 2023, the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium (RGVRC), together with the University of Connecticut’s Center for Advancing Research, Methods, and Scholarship (ARMS) for Gun Injury Prevention and the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center at Rutgers University, hosted a webinar to better understand the priorities in the three states for reducing gun violence. Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon (NY), Senator Troy Singleton (NJ), and Representative Steve Stafstrom (CT) joined the panel to share their insights. Here are five key takeaways from the conversation.
Easy Access to Firearms Increases Gun Violence
A well-documented fact is that an increased presence of firearms can lead to more gun violence and firearm-related fatalities. As such, a key focus of the proposals discussed by the webinar’s panelists was on saving lives by ensuring that firearms are kept out of the hands of individuals who may use the weapon to harm themselves or others.
Under the Gun Control Act of 1968, there are certain categories of individuals who are prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms, including those who have been convicted of a felony, have been adjudicated as mentally defective by a court, or have been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor. Strengthening background check laws and improving related systems can help to keep firearms out of the hands of prohibited persons, as can closing the dating partner loophole (also known as the “Charleston loophole”).
Another method to limit the availability of firearms is through Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs), also known as “red flag” laws, which permit the temporary removal of firearms in cases where a person poses a high risk of danger to themselves or others. The first ERPO law was passed in Connecticut in 1999 and the state’s law, which has become the model legislation for other laws around the country, was most recently updated in 2022. Presently, ERPO laws are currently in place in 19 states and the District of Columbia, though other states, such as Tennessee, are considering similar legislation. This is due, in part, to resources made available through the passage of the historic Bipartisan Safer Communities Act in 2022, which allocated $750 million in federal funding to keep firearms and other deadly weapons out of the hands of dangerous individuals.
A challenge to these laws, however, is the variability across states in who can apply for ERPOs. While most states empower law enforcement to file these orders, others, like New York, extend out to other potential filers, including school officials and healthcare practitioners. For ERPOs to be used effectively, there must be funding and other resources in place, including efforts to raise public awareness about how and when to use such a practice and ensuring that the process to do so is streamlined.
We heard from our mayors that a lot of the gun violence we saw during the pandemic and on our streets was either guns flowing in from out of state and these ghost guns that are being purchased online and assembled here in Connecticut.
— Representative Steve Stafstrom (CT)
Similarly, secure storage practices are critical to reducing gun violence. With many stolen guns ending up on community streets, states have begun implementing secure storage requirements both for the home and for vehicles. Such efforts have not only been effective at reducing gun-related crimes but also firearm suicides in states like New Jersey.
Other policies to reduce gun violence highlighted by the panelists included limiting access to privately made firearms (commonly referred to as “ghost guns”), banning bump stocks and bulk purchases, holding gun manufacturers liable, rolling back open carry laws, closing loopholes in states’ assault weapons bans, state-level licensing of gun dealers, and increasing penalties for individuals who violate existing laws (e.g., large-capacity magazine bans).
Lack of Federal Action Shifts Burden to States
Despite the passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, federal legislative action to prevent and respond to gun violence remains largely stalled. This has considerable implications for state-level efforts. While states like those represented in the webinar continue to work together, sharing ideas and resources, efforts nationally are largely patchworked on a case-by-case and state-by-state basis. This leads to considerable variability in laws across states, which, in turn, creates added challenges for lawmakers.
One way in which this occurs is through firearms trafficking along the Iron Pipeline. With little federal oversight, firearms from states with more permissive gun regulations regularly flow into states with more restrictive laws. In New York, for example, a study conducted by the state attorney general’s office found that an estimated 70 percent of likely-trafficked guns originated in Iron Pipeline states, including Virginia, Georgia, and Ohio, all of which have weaker gun laws. Similarly, the majority of crime guns in New Jersey also originate in these and other Iron Pipeline states.
Until we have really strong federal protections, we are going to continue to have the Iron Pipeline fuel so much of the gun violence in our states.
— Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon (NY)
Legislation Has to Evolve
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the necessity for gun violence prevention efforts, including associated legislation, to evolve. Across the nation, including New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, there were record spikes in gun violence during the pandemic. As legislators continue to work through the fallout from the pandemic, including the fear and anxiety among their constituents that can impede such efforts, creative and innovative approaches to address gun violence are needed.
One alternate strategy to reduce community gun violence impacts is to utilize Medicaid funding for programs such as crisis intervention, peer support, counseling, and other hospital-based and trauma-informed treatment programs. Hospital costs to treat gun injuries can top $1 billion per year, with two out of every three patients, on average, being uninsured or covered under Medicaid or other public funding sources. Connecticut (with Illinois) was the first state to pass legislation authorizing the usage of this funding to prevent gun violence, and both New Jersey and New York are considering similar bills.
Legislation is making its way through the New Jersey Senate that will require community violence prevention services to be covered by Medicaid. These services are all evidence-based, trauma-informed treatment programs like peer support, counseling, and crisis intervention frankly aimed at improving the health outcomes and promoting more positive behavioral changes…this coverage is critical throughout the duration of a survivor’s physical and psychological well-being and recovery.
— Senator Troy Singleton (NJ)
Historical Foundations Are Shaping the Future of Gun Violence Prevention
The decision by the United States Supreme Court in the case of New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, which was handed down around the same time as the passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, has also had a considerable impact on how legislators work to prevent gun violence in their states. In 2022, the nation’s highest court struck down New York’s Sullivan Law, enacted in 1911, which gave police discretion when issuing pistol permits (known as “may issue”). In doing so, the Supreme Court created new standards for firearms legislation that requires lawmakers to ground their efforts in historical traditions.
In response to Bruen, New York passed legislation outlining both sensitive and restricted places where guns could be prohibited. Sensitive places include schools, government buildings, polling places, public transportation, protests, and spaces with large congregations of people (e.g., Times Square). Other states, including New Jersey, have enacted similar restrictions. The restriction of firearms in sensitive places is currently being challenged in the courts. The Supreme Court declined to grant an emergency request in January 2023, instead allowing the cases to work through the lower courts.
Other efforts being proposed by the states, however, may be implemented by state legislators utilizing the historical tradition standard established in Bruen. For instance, mandating liability insurance and training for permit holders may be established based on surety standards from the mid-19th century, which required individuals to post bonds before publicly carrying firearms. It remains to be seen which, if any, states utilize this or similar approaches.
Data-Driven Decision-Making is Critical
Given the contentious nature of firearm regulation in the United States, it is important to ensure that any policies enacted to address gun violence are grounded in research. As was echoed by all panelists, it is important to follow the data to implement practices that will work and invest in programs that have evidence of their efficacy. Placing facts over fear will ensure that good policy is paired with good politics to ensure that any action taken meets its goal of protecting citizens’ safety and well-being.
Click here to watch, “2023 Policy Priorities for Gun Violence.”
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Jaclyn Schildkraut is executive director of the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium at the Rockefeller Institute of Government
Kerri Raissian is associate professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut and director of UConn’s Center for Advancing Research, Methods, and Scholarship (ARMS) in Gun Injury Prevention
Michael Anestis is executive director of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center and an associate professor in the Department of Urban-Global Public Health at the School of Public Health at Rutgers University