After a shooting in America has attracted national attention, the debate usually revolves around some weapons control measures, particularly universal background controls and a ban on offensive weapons. It happened after the April mass shootings at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis. President Joe Biden urged Congress to pass both measures.
But if America really wants to curb gun violence, it should consider another approach: requiring a license to buy and own a firearm.
For one thing, the evidence of the effects of universal background checks and offensive weapon bans is fairly weak. Several studies over the past few years have found that universal background checks, at least on their own, don't seem to have much of an impact on gun death. Similarly, investigations into bans on assault weapons, including the national ban passed by Biden in 1994, have found that they have little impact on gun violence, largely because the vast majority of that violence is committed with small arms.
However, there is solid evidence that a licensing system reduces gun deaths. A 2018 study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that universal background checks alone correlated with more gun murders in urban counties, while licensing systems were associated with fewer gun murders. Other studies have similarly found that licensing requirements result in fewer gun deaths.
One way to explain these findings is that the scope of universal background checks and offensive weapons bans is too limited. The US already has background checks for most legal arms purchases, and any general background checks would cover the minority of arms purchases that were not recorded in the existing system. A ban on offensive weapons would cover a minority of the weapons used in crimes and would likely have loopholes that parts of that minority would miss.
However, a licensing system is more comprehensive. In Massachusetts, one of the few states with a licensing system, obtaining a permit requires a multi-step process that includes police interviews, background checks, a gun safety training course, and more. Even if a person passes all of these, the local police chief can still deny an application. This creates more points at which an applicant can be identified as too dangerous to own a weapon. it makes it harder to get and own a gun.
Whatever you make of all of this, the evidence strongly suggests that the license requirement is working. For one, Massachusetts has the lowest gun death rate in the country.
Washington DC Democrats don't appear to be thrilled, however. Few lawmakers, like New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, have accepted a license requirement. During the campaign, Biden was skeptical of the idea, claiming it would "not change whether or not people buy what weapons – what types of weapons they can buy, where to use them, how to store them".
Public opinion cannot be held responsible here. A recent survey by Data for Progress found that 69 percent of Americans, including the majority of Republicans and gun owners, support a licensing system – more support than an offensive weapon ban obtained in the same poll.
The reality is that Democrats are unlikely to do anything big against guns in the years to come as their scrutiny in the House and Senate is razor-thin. If Biden and other party leaders want to bring up the issue of gun violence, they might as well focus on the politics that has the strongest evidence behind it – especially if that politics happens to be supported by the public.
It is not clear whether universal background checks and a ban on offensive weapons meet these criteria. But needing a license to buy and own a gun is enough.