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Can stricter gun laws prevent shootings?

Stephanie Höppner
May 12, 2023

Gun violence and mass shootings are a regular occurrence in the United States and other countries. Can stricter gun laws prevent these tragedies?

Protesters hold signs at a vigil after the May 6 shooting in Texas
Efforts to introduce tougher gun laws have so far failedImage: LM Otero/AP Photo/picture alliance

On May 6, a 33-year-old man shot and killed eight people, including children, in a shopping center in Allen, Texas. While the shooter's motive remains unclear, local police said he had ties to the neo-Nazi scene. Only a few days prior, in a separate incident, a Texas man fatally shot five neighbors after being asked to stop shooting in his yard.

These very reports are merely the proverbial tip of the iceberg when it comes to shootings. According to the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive, an average of 55 people are shot every day in the United States. Whereas some guns are fired with the intent to kill, other incidents are mere accidents. Not long ago, a US teen was shot just for ringing the wrong doorbell.  

Texas gunman kills at least eight at shopping mall

The Gun Violence Archive reports that as of May 11, 2023, a total of 15,170 people were either intentionally or unintentionally killed by firearms, or committed suicide using a gun. The organization put the number of mass shootings, defined as incidents in which at least four people are injured or killed, at 202.

The US, however, is not the only country affected by gun violence. Recently, two mass shootings took place in Serbia, and a shooting in Hamburg in March has reignited debate around stricter gun laws in Germany.

Which measures can prevent shootings?

After the recent Texas mall shooting, US President Joe Biden called for tougher gun laws and a ban on the AR-15 rifle, which was used in this latest mass shooting and in many previous incidents. So far, however, his efforts have been blocked by the opposition Republicans.

A crowd of protesters are seen in Belgrade
Serbians took to the streets in mid-May to protest against gun violence Image: Zorana Jevtic/REUTERS

Scientists disagree whether tougher laws would actually bring down the number of shootings, as one might expect. While experts do see a correlation between stricter laws and the number of mass shootings in different US states, research assessing which laws are truly effective is still ongoing. This research field has gained momentum since Biden took power, but is still massively underfunded.

Scholars with the RAND Corporation have studied the effects of various different laws and evaluated studies on this subject. They found that only one law, namely a ban on high-capacity magazines, had a measurable effect on reducing the number of shootings. High-capacity magazines can hold more than 20 handgun rounds and more than 10 rifle rounds.

The researchers found that the evidence regarding the effectiveness of other measures — such as imposing a minimum age for owning guns, banning violent individuals from possessing firearms, or conducting general background checks — was inconclusive. RAND researchers said there was inefficient data to draw any conclusions in this regard. 

What's more, they said all laws and regulations would need to be monitored for compliance — a point that is also raised by critics of stricter laws in Germany. Such monitoring, experts say, would be difficult and time-consuming.

Ubiquity of guns a problem

Other experts, however, see a clearer link between legislation and levels of gun violence. The Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions in Baltimore, Maryland, for instance, compiled data from several US states with varying gun laws spanning a period of 30 years. Daniel Webster, a professor at Johns Hopkins, did, however, tell US radio broadcaster NPR that it's "a really hard and, frankly, inexact science."

The comparative study still found that three measures were especially effective in reducing gun violence: issuing gun licenses, banning high-capacity magazines and banning semiautomatic weapons, which can fire many rounds and kill scores of people.

Other experts are convinced that the availability and sheer quantity of guns in the US plays a key role. "I think the explanation is simple: the overwhelming availability of firearms in the US compared to other countries," political scientist and criminologist Daniel Nagin of Carnegie Mellon University told DW. "That's the only credible explanation; virtually all of these mass-killing events are with firearms."

It's impossible to know the exact number of guns in the US, as it's not mandatory to register firearms. However, estimates based on surveys and sales data paint a grim picture. According to the Statista Research Department, around 45% of US citizens surveyed in 2022 said there was at least one firearm in their household.

A man holds a firearm
Guns are very popular in certain parts of the USImage: Tayfun Coskun/AA/picture alliance

German arms manufacturers, meanwhile, are earning a tidy sum selling guns to US buyers. Companies like Heckler & Koch, for example, are well-respected in the US and also often represented at National Rifle Association meetings.

According to recent revelations by German daily Tagesspiegel and public broadcaster ZDF, the German Economy Ministry even organized and partially funded a booth for German weaponmakers to exhibit their guns at the world's largest firearms trade show in the US. After decades of supporting Germany's firearms industry abroad, the ministry will end the practice this year.

This article was originally published in German.