Gun Safety Recommendations for the 118th Congress
Building on a Historic Year Advancing Gun Safety at the Federal Level
Following the tragedies in Buffalo and Uvalde, Congress took a monumental step forward in addressing the gun violence crisis by enacting the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (BSCA), the first major piece of federal gun safety legislation in nearly 30 years. The historic legislation created a federal firearms trafficking statute, required enhanced background checks for firearms purchasers under the age of 21, and addressed the loophole in the law that allows abusive dating partners to access guns. The BSCA also provides $250 million for community violence intervention and $750 million for state crisis intervention court proceedings, which can include extreme risk protection order (ERPO) programs as well as mental health courts, drug courts, and veterans courts.
However, more action is needed to abate the gun violence crisis, which surged to record high levels in recent years. The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that nearly 49,000 people were killed with guns in 2021—an eight percent increase over the already historically high level of gun deaths in 2020. It is unacceptable that gun violence continues to take so many lives each year, and Congress must continue to act.
As the 118th Congress begins, gun safety remains a top five issue for American adults. In spite of a divided government, it is imperative that Congress build upon the work of the 117th Congress and pass more commonsense gun safety legislation to ensure communities are safe from gun violence.
Opportunities for Bipartisan Progress
- Fund Community Violence Intervention
- Invest in Gun Violence Research
- Disarm Domestic Abusers
- Ban Bump Stocks
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Strengthen Background Checks
PASS UNIVERSAL BACKGROUND CHECKS
Universal background checks ensure that people prohibited from purchasing firearms cannot do so through an unregulated sale from an unlicensed or online seller, at an unregulated gun show, or through a sale between unlicensed individuals. The internet has made it increasingly easy for people who have been convicted of crimes to take advantage of loopholes by arranging gun sales with unlicensed sellers in online chatrooms, on social media sites, at auctions, and through classified ad platforms. A universal background check requirement for all gun sales and transfers—with reasonable exceptions for hunting, self-defense, and family gifts—is the strongest policy solution to prevent prohibited individuals from getting their hands on guns. Background checks are proven to be effective: over three million illegal gun sales have been stopped by background checks since 1994, and in 2021 alone, NICS stopped 153,565 sales to prohibited people attempting to buy guns from licensed dealers.
In 2021, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 8, the Bipartisan Background Checks Act, with bipartisan support. H.R. 8 would enact universal background checks requiring a background check for all gun sales and transfers, with exceptions for family members, self-defense, law enforcement, and hunting/target shooting. No votes were taken in the Senate on either H.R. 8 or its Senate companion.
ENSURE THE COMPLETION OF ALL BACKGROUND CHECKS
Background checks on firearms sales and transfers help keep firearms out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) consists of a set of databases maintained by the FBI and is used to conduct background checks on firearm sales and transfers by federal firearm licensees (FFLs), including federally licensed dealers, manufacturers, and importers. Though most background checks are processed within minutes, occasionally a NICS examiner will need time to conduct more research if records indicate the buyer may have a possible firearms prohibition. If the FFL has not been notified by the NICS examiner within three business days that the sale would violate federal or state laws, the dealer may choose to proceed with the sale. When firearms sales proceed by default, ineligible people can purchase guns, like the shooter who murdered nine people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. In 2020 and 2021, more than one million background checks were not completed within the three business day window, potentially allowing thousands of prohibited purchasers to have accessed guns via the “default proceed” loophole.
In 2021, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1446, the Enhanced Background Checks Act, with bipartisan support. This legislation would increase the time the FBI has to complete a background check from three to 10 days, subject to specified procedures. The Senate did not vote on H.R. 1446 or its Senate companion. The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act addressed the default proceed loophole for gun purchasers under the age of 21 by requiring enhanced background checks and increasing the FBI’s time to complete the background check, but did not address the loophole for gun purchasers over the age of 21.
ENACT PERMIT-TO-PURCHASE REQUIREMENTS
Permit-to-purchase laws require an individual to obtain a license or permit from law enforcement before purchasing a gun. Ten states have enacted permit-to-purchase or licensing laws, and in states which have had effective handgun purchaser licensing laws on the books for decades, like Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York, the vast majority of crime guns originate in other states, indicating that gun traffickers seek guns elsewhere.
Evidence proves these laws save lives: after Connecticut’s implementation of a permit-to-purchase law, gun homicides decreased by 40% between 1996 and 2005, and firearm suicides decreased by 15%. Conversely, when Missouri repealed its permit-to-purchase system in 2007, gun homicides increased by 25% and firearm suicides increased by 16%. In states with permitting requirements, the odds of a mass shooting are 60% lower than in states without permitting requirements. Congress should consider legislation to require gun owners to obtain a permit from their state or the federal government before purchasing a firearm.
Fund Effective Programs
FUND COMMUNITY VIOLENCE INTERVENTION AND PREVENTION
Community-based violence interventions are evidence-informed strategies that have proven to be successful at breaking cycles of violence. They consist of different models, like street outreach programs and hospital based violence intervention programs, to deploy targeted services for high-risk individuals with the goal of preventing further violence. Street outreach programs treat violence as a communicable disease and work to disrupt its transmission among members of the community. Hospital-based violence intervention programs allow hospitals to provide counseling, case management, and social services to patients recovering from gunshot wounds. These programs all require consistent and reliable funding in order to be successful and sustain their work.
It is critical that Congress increases funding for community violence interventions, allocates funding for a community violence intervention initiative within the CDC, and builds upon the CDC’s 20 years of experience implementing science-based youth violence prevention efforts.
The Consolidated Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2022 established the Community Violence Intervention and Prevention Initiative (CVIPI) within the Department of Justice and appropriated $50 million in dedicated funding for both Fiscal Year 2022 and Fiscal Year 2023 for evidence-informed programs that address community violence. The CVIPI received an additional $250 million divided across five fiscal years from the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. In 2022, the House also passed H.R. 4118, the Break the Cycle of Violence Act, with bipartisan support; this legislation would provide $5 billion in dedicated CVI funding across eight years and establish an interagency office to coordinate community violence funding across the federal government. The Senate did not vote on H.R. 4118 or its Senate companion.
COMPREHENSIVELY FUND GUN VIOLENCE RESEARCH
Each year since Fiscal Year 2020, Congress has appropriated $25 million in dedicated funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study gun violence. This investment has enabled the nation’s premier public health agencies to research gun violence and measures that could help mitigate the crisis. However, we still lack true scientific data about gun violence trends geographically, the types of violence that occur in certain places, and how well-equipped medical providers are to respond to gun violence, among other things. We also need more information about the most effective public health approaches to reduce gun violence, as well as more data analyzing approaches to reduce and prevent community violence.
The historic funding made available beginning in Fiscal Year 2020 was a remarkable bipartisan achievement, and the original investment of $25 million has been maintained through Fiscal Year 2023 with bipartisan support. However, both the CDC and NIH have requested increased funding to enable them to expand the critical research being done to enable them to fund scientific research on gun violence and how to prevent firearm injuries and death.
The 118th Congress should build upon or at least maintain the investments made previously for the CDC and NIH to study gun violence research and appropriate the funds requested by each agency to support gun violence research.
ADEQUATELY FUND THE BUREAU OF ALCOHOL, TOBACCO, FIREARMS & EXPLOSIVES
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is the only federal agency with regulatory authority over the gun industry, making it uniquely positioned to combat gun trafficking; hold rogue gun dealers accountable; and stem the proliferation of “ghost guns” as well as firearms modified with deadly accessories such as bump stocks, auto sears and conversion devices. However, ATF is understaffed and resourced, making it challenging to fulfill its mission.
Ensuring ATF has sufficient staff to oversee the gun industry, particularly gun dealers, is essential to reducing gun trafficking. Gun dealers supply the majority of guns sold to the public, including guns eventually recovered in crimes, but they are subject to few federal regulations and limited enforcement of these regulations, in part due to understaffing at ATF. As of January 2020, ATF employed only 811 Industry Operations Investigators, who are responsible for oversight of both the firearms and explosives industry, including conducting compliance inspections of more than 130,000 federally licensed firearms dealers (FFLs), as well as other manufacturers, importers, and dealers of guns and explosives. As a result of such a vast staffing shortage, only 4.5% of all FFLs were inspected in 2020.
As a consequence of limited oversight, corrupt gun dealers represent a major source of guns trafficked to dangerous individuals and criminals, either directly or through straw purchasers (who buy guns on others’ behalf) and gun traffickers (who purchase guns to resell on the black market). Guns lost or stolen from dealers who fail to responsibly secure their inventories are also a major source of guns on the illicit market. ATF data shows that from 2012 through 2019, nearly 54,000 firearms were reported as stolen from licensed firearms dealers.
Under the leadership of ATF Director Steven Dettelbach, who was confirmed in July 2022, the Bureau has made some significant strides, including more robustly enforcing penalties for licensed dealers violating federal law. However, without sufficient funding, ATF’s work will be limited. It is imperative that Congress increase funding for ATF to ensure the Bureau can effectively enforce federal law; oversee gun manufacturers, dealers, and importers; combat violent crime; and reduce gun violence.
DISARM CONVICTED STALKERS AND DATING PARTNERS SUBJECT TO DOMESTIC VIOLENCE RESTRAINING ORDERS
For the millions of Americans affected by domestic violence every year, an abusive intimate partner’s access to firearms can mean the difference between life and death: when an abusive partner has access to a gun, a domestic violence victim is five times more likely to be killed. Domestic violence assaults involving a gun are 12 times more likely to result in death than those involving other weapons or bodily force. Women in the US are 21 times more likely to be killed with a gun than women in other high-income countries, making it the most deadly country in the developed world when it comes to women and guns.
In June 2022, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act expanded federal law and added dating partners to the category of people who, if convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence crime, would be prohibited from firearm possession. While this was a significant step forward, gaps in federal law leave victims of domestic abuse vulnerable. Dating partners subject to a domestic violence restraining order remain able to obtain firearms. Convicted stalkers, despite evidence indicating that stalking is often a precursor to further violence, are also not prohibited under federal law from obtaining firearms. The 118th Congress should ensure that all victims of intimate partner violence are fully protected by federal law and that their abusers are unable to obtain firearms to threaten, injure, or kill them.
IMPLEMENT CHILD ACCESS PREVENTION LAWS
Easily accessible firearms in the home are associated with an increased risk of suicide, as well as unintentional injuries and deaths, among children and young people. Between 70–90% of guns used in youth suicides, unintentional shootings among children, and school shootings perpetrated by minors are acquired from their own home or the homes of relatives or friends. Research indicates that a modest increase in the number of American homes with safely stored firearms could prevent nearly a third of youth gun deaths caused by gun suicide and unintentional firearm injury. Child access prevention laws hold adults criminally liable when minors gain access to negligently stored firearms or when parents or guardians directly provide a firearm to a minor. Congress should pass legislation encouraging states to enact child access prevention laws and discourage unsafe storage of firearms.
In 2022, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 748, Ethan’s Law, as part of the Protecting Our Kids Act with bipartisan support. Ethan’s Law would incentivize states to pass child access prevention laws and require gun owners to safely store firearms in their home. The Senate did not vote on Ethan’s Law or the Protecting Our Kids Act.
ALLOW EXTREME RISK PROTECTION ORDERS TO BE FILED IN FEDERAL COURTS
In many states, a gap in the law makes it hard for families and law enforcement to intervene to limit a person’s access to guns even when they have demonstrated signs of a crisis. Extreme risk protection order (ERPO) laws fill this gap, typically allowing family members or law enforcement to petition courts to temporarily restrict a person’s access to firearms when there is evidence that a person is a danger to themselves or others. Extreme risk laws are effective: research indicates that for every 10 ERPOs issued, one life is saved through an averted suicide. Nineteen states—California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington—and the District of Columbia have some form of an extreme risk law. Because a majority of states lack extreme risk laws, it is also critical that family members or law enforcement be able to petition for ERPOs in federal district courts.
In 2022, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 2377, the Federal Extreme Risk Protection Order Act, with bipartisan support. The Federal Extreme Risk Protection Order Act would allow federal courts to issue extreme risk protection orders and incentivize state and local governments to pass their own extreme risk laws. The Senate did not vote on H.R. 2377. However, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act included $750 million for state crisis intervention court proceedings, which can include extreme risk protection order (ERPO) programs as well as mental health courts, drug courts, and veterans courts. While the funding is significant, only states creating or implementing an ERPO program may use those funds toward their program, leaving more than half of the country without access to an ERPO program.
Accountability for the Gun Industry
REPEAL GUN INDUSTRY IMMUNITY
The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) provides broad immunity to gun manufacturers and dealers in federal and state courts. Enacted in 2005, PLCAA prevents plaintiffs from filing lawsuits against gun manufacturers or dealers in cases where there has been “criminal or unlawful misuse” of a firearm or ammunition even if a manufacturer or dealer has been negligent. Such immunity is unique to the gun industry and removes any incentive for manufacturers to innovate and adopt new gun safety practices. In other industries, civil liability has historically played an important role in injury prevention: lawsuits against the tobacco industry forced cigarette manufacturers to adopt new ways to market their products to prevent youth smoking, and lawsuits against car manufacturers have incentivized the industry to adopt better safety measures to reduce automobile deaths. Absent this accountability, the gun industry has sat idly by while our nation’s gun violence crisis continues unabated.
In 2022, the House Judiciary Committee approved H.R. 2814, the Equal Access to Justice for Victims of Gun Violence Act, but the House of Representatives did not hold a floor vote on H.R. 2814.
Stop Extremists and Protect Communities
LIMIT ASSAULT WEAPONS AND LARGE-CAPACITY MAGAZINES
Assault weapons are designed to maximize the ability to shoot a high number of people in the shortest amount of time. They are a relatively new class of weapon, developed based on high-powered military designs, and they are frequently the guns of choice for individuals who carry out horrific public attacks. The key feature of assault weapons is the ability to accept detachable large-capacity ammunition magazines, which are magazines with a capacity of more than 10 rounds of ammunition. Firearms—and in particular, assault weapons—become more lethal when equipped with large-capacity magazines, which allow a shooter to fire repeatedly without needing to pause and reload.
An analysis of mass shootings between 1990 and 2017 found that attacks involving large-capacity magazines resulted in a 62% higher death toll. Estimates suggest that nearly 40% of guns used in serious violent crimes, including murders of law enforcement officers, are equipped with large-capacity magazines. In fact, large-capacity magazines have been used in all ten of the deadliest mass shootings in the last decade. During the 10-year period when the federal assault weapons ban was in effect, mass shooting fatalities were 70% less likely to occur compared to the periods before and after the ban. One study found that in several major cities, the share of recovered crime guns that were assault weapons declined by at least 32% after the federal ban was adopted. Americans are demanding action on assault weapons: nearly 70% of voters support a ban on assault weapons and almost 80% support raising the minimum purchase age to 21.
In 2022, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1808, the Assault Weapons Ban, which would prohibit the future manufacture of assault weapons, as well as the future manufacture and sale of large-capacity magazines, while allowing gun owners to retain weapons they currently possess. The House also included a large-capacity magazine ban in the Protecting Our Kids Act (POKA). The Senate did not hold a vote on H.R. 1808 or its Senate companion, or POKA.
BAN BUMP STOCKS
Bump stocks and similar devices that use trigger recoil power enable shooters to mimic the rapid, continuous fire of an automatic firearm while using a semi-automatic firearm, allowing shooters to fire multiple rounds of ammunition through a single trigger pull. Bump stocks were used to perpetrate the deadliest mass shooting in American history: on October 1, 2017, a shooter armed with firearms equipped with bump stocks opened fire at the crowd attending the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas, Nevada, killing 60 people and injuring more than 400 others.
In 2018, ATF issued a rule classifying bump stocks as machine guns and regulating them under the National Firearms Act to ban the future manufacture, importation, and sale of bump stocks, as well as mandating that civilian-owned bump stocks be destroyed or turned over to the ATF. However, a federal appeals court recently ruled that ATF lacks the authority to make such a regulation. Congress should pass legislation banning bump stocks and protect the public from the dangers of bump stocks and similar devices.
In 2022, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 5427, Closing the Bump Stock Loophole Act, as part of the Protecting Our Kids Act, with bipartisan support. The Closing the Bump Stock Loophole Act would classify bump stocks as machine guns and regulate them under the National Firearms Act. The Senate did not vote on Closing the Bump Stock Loophole Act or the Protecting Our Kids Act.
FOCUS ON AUTO SEARS AND CONVERSION DEVICES
Auto sears and similar conversion devices are inserted into semiautomatic firearms to convert them into fully automatic firearms, capable of firing multiple rounds with a single trigger pull. Sometimes referred to as “switches,” these conversion devices can be easily inserted into firearms in a matter of seconds and enable a shooter to rapidly fire multiple bullets with a single trigger pull, mimicking machine-gun fire. Versions of these devices are sold under the guise of serving other purposes to avoid regulation.
Auto sears are regulated under the National Firearms Act as machine guns, meaning it has been illegal to manufacture or import them since 1986. However, access to 3D printers and the commercial availability of auto sears on the internet (often marketed as a different product or available on the dark web) has made the existence of these devices more common. According to an investigation conducted by Vice and The Trace, from 2017 through 2021, prosecutions for the illegal possession of autosears notably increased. ATF has been tracking the illegal importation of these devices, which has increased in recent years, as well as recovering more and more firearms equipped with auto sears or other conversion devices from crime scenes. In 2021, ATF recovered more than 1,500 firearms equipped with illegal autosears or similar conversion devices, a significant increase from 2020 when the ATF recovered only 300. Congress must pass legislation to address the proliferation of these deadly devices.
S. 4606, Preventing Illegal Weapons Trafficking Act of 2022, would prevent the future importation and trafficking of auto sears and conversion devices, including 3D printed devices. Neither the House nor Senate held votes on the Preventing Illegal Weapons Trafficking Act.
REFORM POLICING PRACTICES
Many policies intended to reduce gun violence require the involvement of law enforcement and strong relationships between police and the communities they serve. However, the lack of trust between communities and law enforcement is a major driver of gun violence in America’s cities. When communities experience disparate treatment at the hands of the criminal justice system—which often takes the form of over-enforcement of minor infractions and under-protection from shootings and murder—they are less likely to report shootings, cooperate with the police, and serve as witnesses. 2020 was undoubtedly a tipping point in the need to change the current iteration of American policing. Congress should pass and sign into law the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act to hold police accountable for their actions and invest in community safety.
In 2021, the House passed H.R. 1280, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, with bipartisan support. This comprehensive bill would hold law enforcement accountable for their actions while acting in the line of duty, develop uniform standards for law enforcement, increase law enforcement misconduct data collection, improve police training and policies, require identifiable federal law enforcement officers to wear body cameras, limit the transfer of certain military equipment to local law enforcement, change the use of force standard for federal law enforcement officers, and incentivize states to establish laws prohibiting no-knock warrants in drug cases. The Senate did not vote on H.R. 1280 or its Senate companion.
RESTRICT GUNS AT POLLING PLACES
Increasingly, gun rights extremists are brandishing firearms as a key tactic at protests and as a form of intimidation. In the days both before and after the 2020 election, heavily armed protestors contributed to numerous violent incidents, including the attack on the Capitol on January 6, which resulted in seven deaths and numerous injuries. The presence of guns makes it more likely that heated confrontations will turn deadly. Guns at the polls serve both as a means to attempt to intimidate voters as well as have the potential to escalate scenarios into violent, potentially deadly standoffs. The right to vote is a fundamental pillar of American democracy. Polling places should not be sites of intimidation, threats, or fear. The 118th Congress should protect the sanctity of the American democratic process and bar firearms from polling places.
H.R. 4722, the Vote Without Fear Act, would ban guns within 100 yards of an election site. Neither the House nor Senate held votes on the Vote Without Fear Act.