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Closing the Gap

How to reform U.S. gun laws to prevent another Tucson.

When Jared Loughner walked into the Sportsman’s Warehouse in Tucson, Arizona, to purchase a Glock 19 on November 30, 2010, he had every right to walk out the legal owner of the semi-automatic handgun. In hindsight, after he used that weapon to kill six innocent people and wound more than a dozen during an attempted assassination of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, it is easy to question that sale. Given current U.S. gun laws, however, there was no reason to prohibit the transaction. What’s more, even if we changed the specific laws that, in the wake of the shooting, many people are criticizing, Loughner still would have been able to purchase a gun.

But that doesn’t mean something can't be done to prevent such tragedies in the future. Indeed, there is one politically realistic step that might have prevented Loughner from making his purchase: Reforming how we deal with the dangerous intersection between mental illness and gun ownership.

Many politicians and pundits are criticizing Arizona law as being at the root of Loughner’s ability to commit his crime. One of the more vocal critics has been the man in charge of the investigation into the shooting, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik. “I have never been a proponent of letting everybody in this state carry weapons under any circumstances that they want. And that’s almost where we are,” Dupnik complained in a recent press conference. The sheriff was referring to, among other laws, Arizona’s 2010 statute that allows gun owners to carry and conceal loaded firearms without a permit—making Arizona one of only a few states with such permissive legislation.

Then, there has been talk about the availability of semi-automatic firearms nationwide. In 1994, Congress enacted a temporary ban on the sale of certain assault weapons, which, among other things, prohibited the sale of high capacity ammunition clips that carried more than 10 rounds. When the ban came up for expiration in 2004, Congress did not renew it. As a result, Loughner was able to purchase magazines that carried over 30 bullets per clip, allowing him to empty a full clip into a crowd in approximately 15 seconds. Announcing that he would introduce legislation to prohibit the sale of such clips in the future, Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey said, “The only reason to have thirty-three bullets loaded in a handgun is to kill a lot of people very quickly. These high-capacity clips simply should not be on the market.”

But, even if Arizona were to repeal its carry-and-conceal law and the federal government were to ban extended clips, the sad fact is that the Tucson shooting likely still would have happened. For starters, Loughner probably would not have concerned himself much with a state law that prohibits carrying a concealed weapon. He was going to commit a murder, and it’s doubtful someone determined to take lives would be concerned with whether or not he would be violating a much more minor law en route to the scene of the crime. Moreover, even if Loughner showed up with a six-bullet revolver as opposed to a 30-round Glock, he likely still would have shot people. What’s more, a person set on inflicting mass casualties will get around any clip prohibitions by having additional clips on his person (as Loughner did anyway) or by carrying more than one fully loaded weapon (as Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho did).

To be sure, this doesn’t mean better legislation shouldn’t be enacted, in order to place as many obstacles as possible in the way of would-be criminals. As New York Times columnist Gail Collins noted this week, while the assault weapons ban might not have prevented the Tucson shooting, had it been in place, “we might not have lost a federal judge” and five others. So Arizona should certainly repeal its 2010 law, and Congress should certainly reinstate the assault weapons ban. But the more important legal changes we should seek are those that actually might have prevented Loughner from ever buying a gun in the first place. 

The right to own a weapon in America is not absolute. Federal law prohibits the sale or transfer of guns to several categories of people, including felons, illegal immigrants, and drug abusers. Critically, the Brady background check required prior to the sale of a weapon also flags an individual who “has been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution.”

Jared Loughner seems to have suffered from some form of mental illness. His college had a long record of run-ins with him over his disruptive behavior, requiring campus police to intervene on five different occasions. One of his classmates eerily predicted that he might “come into class with an automatic weapon.” And his algebra professor told NPR: “Even when I wrote on the whiteboard, I would keep a lookout the corner of my eye just to keep close surveillance on him and make sure he was not doing anything unusual or pulling out a weapon out of his bag or anything to hurt anyone.” Eventually, Loughner was barred from Pima Community College and told he could not return until he received “a mental health clearance indicating, in the opinion of a mental health professional, his presence at the College does not present a danger to himself or others.”

But that was the extent of public intervention. Loughner was apparently never “adjudicated” as having mental health issues, let alone committed to any institution. As such, he was not prohibited from buying a gun. The problem is that state and national laws are too narrow to catch dangerous individuals like Loughner. When Congress returns, one of the legislative changes it should consider is passing a law that would require all public entities, as well as all organizations that receive public funds, to file a report on any affiliated individuals (e.g., employees or students) that they deem to be public mental health concerns. These confidential reports (which would be provided to the person in question) would then be entered into the Brady database, called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, and serve as grounds to prohibit immediate firearms purchases. People would ultimately have the opportunity to prove their mental stability and have the reports revoked in a timely manner—but, until then, or if unable to prove stability, they could not walk into a gun store and buy a weapon. Period.

Gun lobbyists are correct when they note that the vast majority of gun owners do not kill. Likewise, mental health professionals are correct when they note that the vast majority of unstable people do not kill either. The combination of these two types of people, however, can be lethal. The Tucson shooting is a disturbing reminder that, as a society, we have to do more to keep those with mental health issues unarmed.

Louis Klarevas is a member of the clinical faculty at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, where he also serves as coordinator of graduate transnational security studies. He can be followed on Twitter at: