Gun Control: Experts Discuss First New Federal Law in Decades

Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi in CongressShare on Pinterest
Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi in the U.S. Capitol. Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
  • Four medical and health policy experts provide their perspectives on the federal gun safety law and its likely impact on gun violence in the United States.
  • This is the first major federal gun control law to pass in decades.
  • The majority of Americans support stricter gun laws, according to polls.

President Joe Biden on June 25, signed into law the first major federal gun safety legislation passed in decades, a feat made possible by strong bipartisan involvement.

Support for the legislation solidified in the aftermath of recent mass shootings at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and at a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York.

Earlier in the week, the Senate passed the bill by 65-33 and the House by 234-193, with almost 30 Republicans joining Democrats to stand behind the legislation.

Titled the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, this is the most significant new federal legislation to address gun violence since the now-expired 10-year assault weapons ban of 1994.

But the new law does not ban any weapons and falls short of what Biden and his party had been pushing for. The majority of Americans also support stricter gun laws, according to recent polls.

“While this bill doesn’t do everything I want, it does include actions I’ve long called for that are going to save lives,” Biden said at the White House as he prepared to sign the bill.

The law:

  • Provides $750 million to states to implement extreme risk protection order (ERPO) programs — also known as “red flag laws” — to keep guns out of the hands of people who are a threat to others or themselves. States can also use the funding for other crisis intervention programs.
  • Closes the “boyfriend loophole” in the federal domestic violence law by including people convicted of a domestic violence crime against someone they have a dating relationship with, even if they don’t live with or have a child with them.
  • Requires additional gun sellers to register as Federally Licensed Firearm Dealers; they would then need to administer background checks before selling a gun.
  • Requires enhanced background checks for people under 21 years. This would include a review of juvenile and mental health records, as well as checks of state and local databases in addition to the federal NCIS database.
  • Creates new federal statutes against gun trafficking and straw purchasing, in which someone buys a gun for a person who is unable to legally purchase one on their own.
  • Provides $250 million for community-based violence prevention programs.
  • Increases funding for school- and community-based mental health services for children and families and for improved school security.

We asked four medical and health policy experts for their perspectives on the significance of this new law and its likely impact on gun violence in the United States.

Spencer Cantrell, J.D., is a federal affairs advisor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions in Baltimore.

Dr. Lois K. Lee is an associate professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

Dr. Michael Siegel is a visiting professor of public health and community medicine at the Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston.

Dr. Stuart Sweet is a pediatric pulmonologist with Washington University Physicians in St. Louis, Missouri, and a member of the American Thoracic Society.

Here’s what they had to say.

Healthline: How significant is the passage of the  Bipartisan Safer Communities Act?

Cantrell: I would say that this is historic progress. While it is a compromise bill, it does have provisions that will save lives. So I consider it a step forward. 

However, the excitement at the monumental nature of the legislation is tempered by the Supreme Court decision [on New York state’s concealed handgun law]. So even though the Senate is moving in one direction, the Supreme Court is opening up gun rights even further.

[NOTE: The Supreme Court on June 23 struck down New York state’s handgun law, affirming that the U.S. Constitution protects a person’s right to carry a handgun in public for self-defense.]

Lee: It is very significant that a bill focused on trying to decrease firearm injuries and deaths in the United States has been passed for the first time in 25 years.

I hope this is just the first step to an ongoing conversation and that we will have more bipartisan discussions. Because it’s going to take more than one piece of legislation to really reverse the trend of gun deaths that we’re seeing in the United States.

Siegel: It’s incredibly significant, not because of what is in the bill per se, but because it’s breaking this inertia [around gun safety legislation]. The fact that we’ve gotten anything passed is a huge step. I think it’s going to propel things forward and make it easier to pass legislation in the future.

Sweet: This really demonstrates that bipartisan solutions are possible, and I applaud those who made this happen. In addition, the actions included in the legislation are meaningful changes.

Healthline: Which aspects of the legislation do you think will have the most impact on reducing gun-related violence and deaths?

Cantrell: Partially closing the “boyfriend loophole” by extending restrictions for firearm possession to dating partners convicted of misdemeanors is significant progress. We know that access to firearms is a huge factor for lethality in domestic violence cases. So removing firearms from abusers will save lives.

I’m also excited to see the funding for mental health provisions in the legislation. We know that mental health does not predict violence at all — I would never want to stigmatize mental health or people seeking mental health treatment.

But we also know that suicides are the most common form of firearm violence in the United States. So increasing access to mental healthcare is critical to addressing that form of firearm violence.

Lee: I’m very supportive of the financial incentives to expand the extreme risk protection order laws in the states. Currently, only 19 states and the District of Columbia have these ERPO laws.

Hopefully, the funding will incentivize other states to pass these laws, but also to make sure that they are effective and non-differentially enforced — meaning that the laws will be effective for all individuals who might be at risk for harming themselves or harming somebody else with a gun.

Siegel: There are two major things [in this legislation] that are immensely important. The first one is getting rid of the “boyfriend loophole” in the domestic violence law. We know that a lot of intimate partner violence occurs between people who are not formally married or even living together. So that was a huge loophole that is now covered.

The second thing is the stronger background check for 18- to 20-year-olds. This does not prohibit them from purchasing weapons, but it essentially puts them through an enhanced background check, which requires a check of records at the state and local level.

This closes the loophole that allowed an 18- to 20-year-old to just walk in, buy a gun and walk out. It also sets a model for how I think all background checks should be done — checking state and local records in addition to the federal NICS database.

Sweet: I think encouraging and incentivizing states to implement and run crisis intervention programs is an important step. Increasing funding in mental health programs and school security is important, as well.

Healthline: Are there other steps that need to be taken to further protect Americans from gun-related violence?

Cantrell: We know that banning high-capacity magazines and assault weapons would save lives. We know that raising the age to have a firearm would save lives. And we know that expanded background checks or increases in firearm licensing would save lives.

Lee: I am very happy to see the expansion of the background checks for individuals 18 to 20 years old. However, I think there could be more done to expand universal background checks [for all ages], which is supported by nearly 90 percent of Americans.

Currently, depending on the state, a background check is only performed if you buy a firearm at a federally- licensed gun dealer. So in some states, no background check is performed for private gun sales or guns bought at a gun show.

I would also like to see us expand the data from which these background checks are done. In some states that do background checks, they use just the federal NCIS database. However, other states have more comprehensive universal background checks that access other databases, such as those of local law enforcement.

Siegel: There are a number of other legislative actions that could be taken, in terms of preventing unintentional injury or just reducing overall gun violence. For example, there could be regulations that impose liability on gun owners who don’t properly store their gun and allow a child to get access to it.

Sweet: Anything we can do to move the needle is a step in the right direction, but I think there’s a lot more work to do. In addition, a lot of what was passed [in the new legislation] requires action at the state level. 

So the next steps are for organizations like the American Thoracic Society to advocate at the state level to really make these crisis interventions programs happen, to be sure that the juvenile records that would go into the 18- to 21-year-old background checks are present in the national database, and to talk to legislators about what more can be done to reduce gun violence in our communities.

Healthline: Some researchers have called gun violence in the United States a public health problem. What does it mean to you when you hear that?

Lee: Guns are now the leading cause of death in children 1 to 19 years of age. If you can’t call a leading cause of death for children a public health problem, I really don’t know what you could.

We also know that there are well-researched public health and injury-prevention approaches that could be used to decrease gun-related deaths and injuries — not just to kids but also to adults.

Siegel: In public health, we make a long-term commitment not to accept the status quo. In other words, when a problem is characterized as a public health problem, it is permanently on the agenda until we solve it.

Right now, the gun violence problem is not permanently on the agenda. It just comes and goes — whenever there’s a mass shooting, it gets attention and everyone talks about it, and then interest in it dwindles.

Another thing that characterizes the public health approach is consideration of equity issues. With firearms, we have a major racial disparity in gun violence. People who are Black are more likely to be shot with a gun than people who are white. 

So viewing this as a public health issue means making a commitment to addressing the wide racial disparities in firearm violence.

In addition, with gun violence, we need to look at this, not as an issue of gun owners versus non-gun owners. Instead, we need to look at it as a problem of the interests of the public versus the interests of the gun lobby, which has opposed many laws to reduce gun-related mortality.

Sweet: There are issues [around gun violence] related to public health that have nothing to do with guns. They have more to do with recognizing people who are a danger to themselves and others and being able to give them the help they need so that they don’t harm others.

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