Colorado Democrats were unanimous in mission last week: They had to take action after the Boulder King Soopers mass shooting in March, and three new guns bills were the result.
“Coloradans have wanted change since 1999 after Columbine,” Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg of Boulder said April 29. “They wanted change since 2012 after the Aurora theater shooting. And they’ve once again asked for change over the past month.”
The tricky part, however, is not what bills lawmakers here and across the country can pass, but whether the policies have the intended impact. There is no centralized national public health research to back up some proposals (though some states have conducted small studies) and that’s because the 1996 Dickey Amendment banned the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using federal funding for gun control.
Experts say the tide is shifting and more federal resources are being allocated to research. Plus, Colorado is proposing with HB21-1299 to create a gun violence prevention office, similar to what’s in California, Washington, Massachusetts and New York, as a means of setting up state-funded research centers.
“One of the things that we’ve seen happen, particularly when there’s a mass shooting, is that people are so horrified and politicians want to respond, they want to do something,” said Dr. Amy Barnhorst, mental health and firearm expert at the University of California, Davis. “ … So they pass together some piece of legislation that in people’s minds might have prevented that particular incident but often isn’t applicable to even other incidents of mass violence, let alone the other 99.5% of firearm deaths are happening every year in this country.”
Barnhorst runs the Bullet Points Project, funded by the state through the University of California Firearm Violence Research Center, as a means to teach health care providers how to intervene in gun violence. It was the first in the nation, created in 2017 to address whether state policies reduce gun violence and examine public health data around the issue.
A lack of federal dollars for gun violence research over the last two decades also meant fewer researchers studying the questions and policies, according to Cassandra Crifasi, deputy director of the Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy at Johns Hopkins University.
Private foundations filled in some of those funding gaps, but that led to fragmented data, especially because similar laws from state to state may have differing components. The Giffords Law Center tries to gather some of that data, and the RAND Corporation’s Gun Policy in America Initiative researches the effects of some gun policies.
Centers like the one at Johns Hopkins were launched in direct response to the Dickey Amendment, and then there are the few states who’ve funded their own offices, but Crifasi notes those agencies are “going to be most interested in questions relevant to their state.
“So California is doing these really great surveys, answering some questions around gun ownership and perceptions, but it’s about California, which is a large and diverse state and you can answer some really important questions, but it’s hard to then generalize that to the nation as a whole,” she said.
One of the biggest challenges, she added, is that federal law is the floor for gun laws, leaving states to put in additional regulations.
“This creates a patchwork of policies across the country, and states with strong gun laws can be at the mercy of states with weaker laws, because, by design, borders are porous — people and products move freely across them,” Crifasi said.
For example, part of the new gun bill package in Colorado is SB 21-256 dealing with local control — permitting local governments to implement their own firearm laws beyond the state’s own laws. Only five states currently allow this (and two others provide limited authority for local control), according to the Giffords Law Center.
Crifasi understands that states need to be able to address their own communities’ concerns. While there’s not much research on the issue of local control (also called preemption), she said, “logically and sort of conceptually, allowing jurisdictions more flexibility to address the problems that are present there could help them reduce gun violence.”
Another issue Barnhorst at UC Davis sees is that much of the focus on new state laws comes after mass shootings. But there are many types of gun violence, she said, and there’s not one solution to fix it all. It will require different policies that can intersect with each other, she added.
“And in order to do that, we really need good research and good data on what works, what has positive effects, what might have unintended negative effects,” she said. “And then we need to educate people about how to implement some of those policies and actions.”
Early in Dr. Emmy Betz’s career, “well-meaning mentors” recommended she find an issue other than gun violence to research. She’s now director of the nonpartisan Firearm Injury Prevention Initiative at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus (and an emergency room physician).
“We’ve been really behind in finding solutions, and behind especially when you compare it to things like motor vehicle safety, traffic safety,” Betz said.
She focuses on community-based solutions for firearms prevention, because 75% of firearms deaths in Colorado are suicides.
Speaking on behalf of herself and not the CU initiative, Betz said she’s a big proponent of the state’s plan for the Office of Gun Violence Prevention.
Washington state launched its own Office of Firearm Safety and Violence Prevention this year, which is focusing on addressing community gun violence, sometimes called urban gun violence.
Director Kate Kelly said the singular focus is key, because evidence-based solutions for this type of violence (generally involving firearms that were not legally obtained) is different from mass shootings, domestic violence shootings or suicides. Plus, she said, every community and every neighborhood is different, so the office can approach their issues in a deeper way.
Colorado’s office would also be tasked with prevention and crisis intervention efforts on a community level.
“No single policy will be the cure-all that resolves the public health crisis of gun violence once and for all,” Colorado Democratic state Rep. Jennifer Bacon of Denver said in late April. “But by leaning in and taking several coordinated and bold steps, we’ll be able to make progress and save lives in communities like mine.”
Betz hopes that the state’s office will figure out Colorado’s patterns of firearm injuries and deaths, including in different counties and towns — because what works for domestic violence incidents may be different than what works for suicide prevention in rural counties. She also wants people to know it’s not about gun rights, but public safety.
“It’s so critical we find ways to work on this together, that this is not about confiscation, it’s not about knee-jerk infringement on rights or trying to change people’s views and culture,” she said. “But I think it really needs to be about recognizing that as Coloradans, none of us want our families injured. None of us want these horrible things happening.”
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis already signed two gun bills into law this year — HB21-1106 to require the safe storage of firearms, which advocates hope will reduce suicides by firearms, and SB21-078 to require that lost or stolen firearms be reported within five days. The third introduced, HB21-1255, would strengthen a 2013 law and require those charged with domestic violence to give up their guns (it’s headed to the House chamber for a vote).
Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia already have bans for people convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors, according to the Giffords Law Center, and 13 states with some form of violent misdemeanor prohibition. Research from UC Davis showed that people who were denied firearms purchases because of violent misdemeanors were less likely to be arrested for new violent crimes.
After the Boulder shooting, Democrats not only introduced the bill to create the Gun Violence Prevention Office and the local control bill, but also HB21-1298 to expand background checks. Under it, those convicted of violent misdemeanors would not be able to buy a gun for five years. It also closes the so-called Charleston loophole, allowing a person to buy a gun after three days if their background check still hasn’t come back.
This loophole, something Democrats in Colorado’s congressional delegation have called for closing at a national level as has President Joe Biden, allowed more than 4,000 people to obtain a gun in 2016 that later had to be confiscated, according to FBI data.
Nine states have passed laws to address the loophole, according to the Giffords Law Center, though the laws vary in whether they either extend the time for background checks or, like in Florida and Utah, prohibit them until the check is complete.
A study from Boston University’s School of Public Health found that universal background checks and some violent misdemeanor laws were associated with a reduction in gun-related homicides between 1991 and 2016, though the authors noted that more research was needed.