Gun Control

June 3, 2021
Can the United States reduce gun violence?

Gun control and gun rights issues took center stage this spring, after a spate of mass shootings in the United States, including at spas, a supermarket and a FedEx facility. President Biden announced executive actions to help address the problem and called on Congress to enact legislation. Biden also instructed the Department of Justice to draft a model “red flag” law, which allows guns to be taken away from someone considered a threat, and Democrats in Congress are calling for reinstating the ban on assault weapons. But most Republicans oppose any gun control measures. In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court, which now has a conservative majority, has agreed for the first time in more than a decade to hear a major gun rights case.

Two women mourn their cousin at a vigil for shooting victims in San Jose, California, on May 27, 2021. Christina Gonzalez (right) and Alyssa Rubino mourn the death of their cousin, Michael Joseph Rudometkin, one of eight people allegedly murdered by a disgruntled coworker at a San Jose, Calif., rail yard on May 26. It was one of more than 230 mass shootings this year. (AFP/Getty Images/Amy Osborne)

Nearly every day this spring seemed to bring a report of a new mass shooting, spurring President Biden to issue executive actions to try to tackle gun violence and to urge Congress to act. 1 Two gun-control measures passed by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives stalled in the Senate, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear a major gun control case for the first time since 2008.

Among the mass shootings that rocked the nation recently were:

  • Eight people killed, including six Asian women, at three Georgia spas.

  • 10 shot to death at a supermarket in Boulder, Colo.

  • Eight killed at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis. 2

  • At least 12 mass shootings across eight states during one weekend in late May, which left at least 11 dead and 69 injured. 3

  • At least eight people killed after an employee opened fire at a light rail yard in San Jose, Calif., on May 26. The gunman also was reported to have killed himself. 4

  • Two people were killed and 21 others shot by at least three gunmen outside a South Florida banquet hall after a rapper concert. 5

The killings pushed Biden to issue several executive orders designed to address the problem, ranging from directing the Department of Justice to develop a rule curbing ghost guns — firearms assembled from kits that are untraceable — to asking the department to draft model red flag legislation that states could adopt to temporarily prevent someone deemed dangerous to themselves or others from obtaining a handgun.

“This is an epidemic, for God’s sake, and it has to stop,” Biden said in an April speech after several of the incidents. 6

Biden also asked Congress to end civil immunity for gunmakers, which protects them from lawsuits related to shootings, and called for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. 7

“There’s much more that Congress can do to help that effort, and they can do it right now,” Biden said in his speech. “They’ve offered plenty of thoughts and prayers, members of Congress. But they’ve passed not a single new federal law to reduce gun violence. Enough prayers; time for some action.” 8

Since Biden’s speech, there have been dozens of mass shootings across the nation. By May 24, there had been 230 mass shootings this year, more than 10 per week, according to the Gun Violence Archive. The archive, based in Washington, defines a mass shooting as an incident in which at least four people, excluding the shooter, were shot or killed. 9

In response to Biden’s speech, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., issued a statement saying Biden’s executive orders to the Justice Department “will surely result in unconstitutional overreach. House Republicans will strongly oppose and pursue every option — be it legislative or judicial — to protect the right to keep and bear arms from infringement by this Administration.” 10

However, Republicans do not appear to have a unified stance on gun control measures. Before Biden’s speech, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio said, “tightening the background check system is possible. The House bill is too broad and goes too far for the Senate. But I think something is possible.” 11

During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on ghost guns in May, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas called on Democrats to support a proposal he introduced nine years ago with Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, “targeting violent criminals, going after them, improving the background check system, improving the database, prosecuting felons and fugitives who lie, trying to illegally buy a firearm.” The measure drew bipartisan support in 2013, but it did not gain the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate. Cruz also criticized Democrats for blocking his earlier proposal, alleging, “the objective instead is to target law-abiding citizens. That does nothing to stop crime, but it does a great deal to undermine our constitutional rights.” 12

While mass shootings garner intense media attention, they are “the tragic tip of a much larger iceberg,” says Charles Branas, chair of the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and a member of Columbia SURGE, an effort to use science to reduce gun violence. SURGE stands for the Scientific Union for the Reduction of Gun Violence.

While the equivalent of one person a day is killed in mass shootings, Branas says, “hundreds of people are shot daily in the United States.”

In the United States, more than 8,200 Americans died from gun violence between Jan. 1 and June 3, and more than 10,000 killed themselves, according to the Gun Violence Archive. 13 Last year, more than 19,000 Americans were killed by gun violence — a 20-year high. And 24,000 more died by suicide, about the same as in 2019. 14

“The United States has more assaults, deaths and murders by firearms than any developed country in the world,” says Leila Nadya Sadat, professor of international criminal law at Washington University in St. Louis. Sadat argues that with “too many guns and not enough gun safety laws,” the United States violates its obligations to protect its citizens under various human rights treaties.

However, tightening U.S. gun laws faces major political hurdles. Supporters of the nation’s two political parties are diametrically opposed on gun control, according to an April survey by the Pew Research Center. More than 80 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents supported stricter gun laws, compared with only 20 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, the survey found. 15

Nearly three-quarters of Democrats said gun violence is a very big problem in the United States; fewer than 20 percent of Republicans agreed. Moreover, almost three-quarters of Democrats said making it harder to obtain guns would reduce the number of mass shootings, compared with 20 percent of Republicans. 16

Gun Sales

Gun sales have soared in the past year, in the wake of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the protests and civil unrest spurred by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police and during the runup to the presidential election and the civil unrest triggered by allegations of election fraud. The nearly 23 million guns sold in 2020 was up 65 percent over 2019, according to Small Arms Analytics, a Greenville, S.C.-based consulting firm. 17

Photo of a woman waiting at a stand full of firearms at a gun show near West Point, Kentucky, on April 12, 2019. A vendor waits for customers at the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot and Military Gun show near West Point, Ky., on April 12, 2019. The two-day event, which features machine gun owners firing millions of rounds on a nearby range, attracts thousands of visitors each year. Nearly 23 million guns were sold in the United States last year, up 65 percent from 2019. (AFP/Getty Images/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds)

With the spike in gun sales, FBI background checks on gun purchasers also climbed. When much of the country went into lockdown in March 2020 because of the pandemic, the FBI conducted 3.7 million background checks — up by more than 1 million over the previous March. Background checks also rose after Floyd’s death and after the riots at the Capitol in January. The FBI conducted 4.3 million background checks, compared with 2.7 million in January 2020. 18

The FBI is supposed to complete background checks within three days. But because of the surge in demand, almost 300,000 guns may have been sold without background checks during the pandemic. 19

The FBI’s inability to keep up with requests for background checks came as many people were experiencing mental health issues due to the stress created by the coronavirus illness, lockdowns and unemployment.

Amy Swearer, a legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, says gun violence stems from firearms being “in the hands of someone who is not emotionally stable” and voices some support for red flag laws. Rob Pincus, co-founder of the Center for Gun Rights and Responsibility, which works to bring together both sides of the gun control debate, agrees. The mass shootings in Boulder and Indianapolis represented “two incredible failures” in efforts to keep firearms out of the hands of gunmen with histories of mental health issues, says Pincus.

Ronnie Dunn, an urban studies professor at Cleveland State University, also pointed out that the majority of those killed in gun violence “are in Black and brown communities.” However, he added, “We don’t really focus on gun violence until we have these mass shootings, but it’s an ongoing, chronic problem that affects a significant portion of our society.” 20

A study published in December by the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University found that between 2009 and 2017, there were 120,000 firearm injuries each year, on average. 21 And a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that Black males between the ages of 15 and 34 represented 37 percent of victims of homicides involving firearms, even though they make up just 2 percent of the U.S. population. 22

To develop effective solutions, says Branas, more scientific research is needed to determine which measures would actually deter gun violence. While the current focus tends to be on new laws and policies, “we have to be way more creative than that.”

Federal Efforts

Besides asking the Justice Department to outlaw ghost guns, the president ordered the department to clarify at what point a device sold as a stabilizing brace can turn a pistol into a short-barreled rifle, making it more accurate while still allowing it to be concealed.

He also proposed investing in evidence-based community violence interventions, such as allotting $5 billion to connect at-risk individuals with job training and other services designed to prevent violence. 23

In addition to asking Congress to ban high-capacity magazines and assault weapons and pass a federal red flag law, Biden also asked lawmakers to close “boyfriend” loopholes that allow people to possess firearms despite having been found guilty of domestic abuse.

But the Constitution’s Second Amendment protections that allow Americans to keep and bear arms “limits what he can do in terms of policy,” says Swearer, who calls Biden’s moves “a lot of playing politics.”

In his April announcement, the president nominated David Chipman, a gun control advocate, to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the primary federal agency charged with enforcing gun laws. He is likely to face a tough Senate confirmation battle.

The National Rifle Association (NRA), the nation’s foremost opponent of gun control measures, announced it was launching a $2 million TV, digital and direct mail campaign to fight Chipman’s confirmation and any proposed gun control measures. 24

However, the organization faces its own problems, including internal turmoil and a recent bankruptcy filing, which its chief executive, Wayne LaPierre, kept secret from other top NRA leaders. New York’s attorney general sued the NRA in August 2020, attempting to shut it down, after some members accused the organization of corruption and mismanagement. 25 A federal judge rejected the bankruptcy request in May, saying it was an attempt to avoid legal scrutiny, and criticized the organization’s “secrecy and lack of transparency.” 26

Despite the group’s struggles, its power persists. “The NRA transformed public attitudes and legal opinion,” said Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America. “An idea thought to be off the wall — that the Second Amendment protected individual gun rights — is now very much on the wall,” he added. 27

Even before the most recent shootings, the House had passed two measures designed to expand and strengthen background checks on gun buyers. The bills would require all gun purchasers to pass background checks that ask questions about a person’s criminal background, mental health issues and domestic violence history. They would also extend the amount of time for the FBI to perform the checks from three days to 10.

Senate Republicans oppose both measures, saying they will not curb shootings and would only hamper gun rights. 28

Many doubt that either bill can pass the Senate, where 60 votes are needed for approval. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, said he’s “open to the discussion” on gun control measures, but added that he is “not attracted to . . . something that doesn’t work.” He did not specify what ideas he might support. 29

Some have focused on a bipartisan proposal from 2013 sponsored by Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, and Pat Toomey, R-Pa. It would extend federal background check rules to sales by unlicensed dealers at venues such as gun shows and on the internet. The measure did not get enough votes in 2013, and Manchin said he had no idea how many votes it could get now. “I still support background checks on commercial sales,” Toomey said. “We’re having preliminary conversations and I hope we can get something across the goal line. But, you know, it’s very difficult.” 30

Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, a longtime gun control advocate who introduced a bill in March to expand background checks, said he is optimistic that the measure could get at least 60 votes in the Senate, because the politics on guns have “shifted dramatically” in recent years. “I’ve gotten a lot of calls from Republicans in the Senate who don’t want to fight this fight any longer because the NRA’s authority is fading, the anti-gun violence movement’s impact is increasing,” he added. “I think we have a chance.” 31

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court appears ready to jump into the gun rights debate during its term that begins in October after announcing it would review a suit challenging a New York law. 32

Under that law, anyone seeking a license to carry a gun outside their home must show “proper cause.” Two men who were denied licenses under the law, as well as the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, an NRA affiliate, filed suit. They said the law “makes it virtually impossible for the ordinary law-abiding citizen to obtain a license.” 33

“We’re confident that the court will tell New York and the other states that our Second Amendment right to defend ourselves is fundamental, and doesn’t vanish when we leave our homes,” said Jason Ouimet, executive director of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action. 34

The court now has a 6-3 conservative majority, after former President Donald Trump appointed Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. Last year, Kavanaugh wrote in a court opinion that he thought lower courts were not sensitive enough to Second Amendment rights and said: “The court should address that issue soon.” 35

The court’s decision on the New York law could “profoundly impact the number of guns legally carried on the streets of New York, Los Angeles and Boston,” predicted Winkler. “In these cities, only a handful of residents have permits to carry firearms.” 36

State and Local Actions

Less than two weeks after the shootings at the Georgia spas, that state’s House and Senate passed a law loosening gun restrictions by allowing the state to honor concealed-carry licenses from any state. But because the Senate version amended the House bill, the measure was sent back to the House for final approval, but the legislature adjourned before approving it. 37

In contrast, Georgia’s Democratic legislative minority is pushing for tougher gun control measures, such as establishing a five-day waiting period for gun purchases and requiring background checks for gun purchases. 38

Gun control measures generally split along party lines. Since the 2012 massacre of more than two dozen people, most of them 6- and 7-year-olds, at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., 13 Democratic-controlled states have enacted or expanded background checks, and 15 Republican-led states have approved laws allowing residents to carry guns without a permit. 39

Meanwhile, Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted his support for any measure that would “defy any new federal gun control laws,” making his state a so-called Second Amendment sanctuary state. 40

But experts say such sanctuary measures carry little weight. “The practical effect, if anything, is really at the margins,” said Darrell Miller, co-director of the Duke Center for Firearms Law. “It doesn’t mean the Department of Justice can’t enforce federal firearms laws in the state of Texas. It just makes their job more difficult, because they can’t rely on assistance from state or local government agents to help them out.” 41

Some local jurisdictions are acting. In April, the city of Chicago sued Westforth Sports in Gary, Ind., alleging that the gun store had “engaged in a pattern of illegal sales that has resulted in the flow of hundreds, if not thousands, of illegal firearms into the City of Chicago.”

Chicago has been beset by gun violence, with more than 3,200 shootings injuring or killing more than 4,000 people last year, according to Chicago police data. Most of the shootings occurred in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. 42


MayAfrican American George Floyd is killed by Minneapolis police, triggering coast-to-coast protests and civil unrest. … Gun sales rise.
NovemberDemocrat Joe Biden, who supports tougher gun laws, defeats Republican Donald Trump in the presidential election.
JanuaryTrump supporters storm the U.S. Capitol, protesting the election results. Five people die, along with two Capitol police officers. … National Rifle Association files for bankruptcy.
MarchU.S. House of Representatives passes bills aimed at strengthening background checks on gun buyers, but the measures face stiff Senate opposition. … Eight people, including six Asian women, are killed during shootings at three Atlanta-area spas. … A gunman kills 10 people, including a police officer, at a supermarket in Boulder, Colo.
AprilPresident Biden announces executive actions to tackle gun violence and nominates gun control advocate David Chipman to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives. … A former employee kills eight people at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis. … The Supreme Court agrees to hear its first major gun control case in more than a decade.
MayFederal judge rejects National Rifle Association’s bankruptcy request. … Nation continues to be plagued by mass shootings.


[1] Madeline Holcombe and Dakin Andone, “The US has reported at least 50 mass shootings since the Atlanta spa shootings,” CNN, April 20, 2021,

[2] Daniel Victor and Derrick Bryson Taylor, “A Partial List of Mass Shootings in the United States in 2021,” The New York Times, May 24, 2021,

[3] Amir Vera and Hollie Silverman, “There were at least 12 mass shootings across the US this weekend,” CNN, May 24, 2021,

[4] John Bacon and Jorge L. Ortiz, “ ‘Horrific day for our city’: At least 8 killed in shooting rampage at San Jose rail yard; gunman was VTA employee,” USA Today, May 26, 2021,

[5] “Manhunt Intensifies as New Video Shows Different Angle of Miami-Dade Mass Shooting,” NBC 6, June 2, 2021,

[6] Kevin Breuninger, “Biden says gun violence in U.S. is an epidemic, unveils executive actions and calls for national red flag law,” CNBC, April 8, 2021,

[7] Ibid.; Tyler Olson, “Biden announces slate of gun control actions, claims ‘public health crisis,’ ” Fox News, April 8, 2021,

[8] Ibid., Breuninger.

[9] Saeed Ahmed, “There Have Been, On Average, 10 Mass Shootings In the U.S. Each Week This Year,” NPR, May 10, 2021,; “Gun Violence Archive,”

[10] “Leader McCarthy Statement on President Biden’s Gun Control Executive Actions,” Office of Kevin McCarthy, U.S. House of Representatives, April 8, 2021,

[11] Morgan Phillips, “Is compromise possible? Republicans have gun control proposals too,” Fox News, March 25, 2021,

[12] “Sen. Cruz: Democrats Are Using Topic of ‘Ghost Guns’ to Distract from Failure of Gun Control Policies in ‘Big Democrat Cities,’ ” Office of Ted Cruz, U.S. Senate, May 11, 2021,

[13] Gun Violence Archive,

[14] Reis Thebault and Danielle Rindler, “Shootings never stopped during the pandemic; 2020 was the deadliest gun violence year in decades,” The Washington Post, March 23, 2021,; “Past Summary Ledgers,” Gun Violence Archive, May 22, 2021,

[15] “Amid a Series of Mass Shootings in the U.S., Gun Policy Remains Deeply Divisive,” Pew Research Center, April 20, 2021,

[16] Ibid.

[17] Martin Savidge and Maria Cartaya, “Americans bought guns in record numbers in 2020 during a year of unrest — and the surge is continuing,” CNN, March 14, 2021,

[18] Ibid.

[19] Jemima McEvoy, “Nearly 300,000 Americans May Have Bought Guns Without Background Checks Amid Pandemic,” Forbes, Sept. 15, 2020,

[20] Thebault and Rindler, op. cit.

[21] “Study Shows 329 People are Injured by Firearms in U.S. Each Day, But for Every Death, Two Survive,” Penn Medicine News, Dec. 7, 2020,

[22] Thebault and Rindler, op. cit.

[23] “Fact Sheet: The American Jobs Plan Will Support Women’s Employment,” The White House, April 21, 2021,

[24] Tom Hamburger, “NRA launches $2 million campaign to oppose Biden gun-control agenda,” The Washington Post, April 21, 2021,

[25] Danny Hakim and Mary Williams Walsh, “Embattled N.R.A. Chief Kept Bankruptcy Filing Secret From Deputies,” The New York Times, April 11, 2021,

[26] Tom Hamburger and Mike DeBonis, “The NRA just had a major legal setback. But its hold on the gun control debate endures,” The Washington Post, May 16, 2021,

[27] Ibid.

[28] Catie Edmondson, “House Passes Gun Control Bills to Strengthen Background Checks,” The New York Times, March 11, 2021,

[29] Sahil Kapur, “In wake of shootings, Senate renews efforts to overhaul U.S. gun laws,” NBC, March 23, 2021,

[30] Ibid.

[31] Mark Moore, “Sen. Murphy thinks he can get 60 votes in Senate on gun control measure,” New York Post, March 28, 2021,; “Murphy on Meet the Press: The NRA’s Authority is Fading, the Gun Violence Prevention Movement is Stronger, and We Have a Chance to Pass a Bill that Expands Background Checks,” Office of Chris Murphy, U.S. Senate, March 28, 2021,

[32] Adam Liptak, “Supreme Court to Hear Case on Carrying Guns in Public,” The New York Times, April 26, 2021,

[33] Ibid.

[34] Robert Barnes, “Supreme Court to hear gun-control case next term on carrying weapons outside the home,” The Washington Post, April 26, 2021,

[35] Liptak, op. cit.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Jeff Amy, “Georgia lawmakers move to loosen gun laws after shootings,” The Associated Press, March 30, 2021,

[38] Virginia Chamlee, “Ga. Legislature Pushes to Loosen Gun Laws 2 Weeks After Spa Shootings,” People, March 30, 2021,

[39] Reid J. Epstein, “Across States, a Checkerboard of Gun Laws Reflects Partisan Tilt,” The New York Times, March 23, 2021,

[40] Sami Sparber, “Texas Republicans are vowing to defy any new federal gun rules. Experts say it’s largely a symbolic gesture,” The Texas Tribune, April 19, 2021,

[41] Ibid.

[42] Grace Hauck, “ ‘Eye-popping numbers’: Chicago sues Indiana gun store tied to 850 firearms recovered from crime scenes,” USA Today, April 27, 2021,

About the Author

Susan Ladika is a freelance writer in Florida.


Document APA Citation
Ladika, S. (2021, June 3). Gun control. CQ researcher.
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