New gun legislation won't eliminate mass shootings but will still save lives, say experts

The new measures will reduce homicides and suicides, experts say.

July 08, 2022, 6:14 AM

The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act signed into law last month most likely would not have prevented the recent Fourth of July massacre and won't eliminate future mass shootings -- but the legislation can still save lives, mental health and gun violence experts told ABC News.

Congress' new gun safety package -- the first if its kind in almost 30 years -- was signed into law by President Joe Biden just nine days before the July 4 shooting in Highland Park, Illinois, that that left seven dead and dozens injured.

"God willing, it's going to save a lot of lives," Biden said while signing the bill.

The new law commits at least $8 billion to programs that support mental health. It also includes enhanced background checks for gun buyers under the age of 21, plus incentives for states to pass "red flag" laws to remove firearms from people deemed to be a danger to themselves or others.

Despite those measures, experts say that most red flag laws would not have helped prevent the Highland Park shooting -- even though the gunman previously had two encounters with the police, including one after he allegedly threatened to kill members of his family, which led officers to confiscate 16 knives. That's because the suspect didn't yet own any guns at the time of those incidents.

According to Daniel Webster, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, which focuses on research and gun violence prevention advocacy, red flag laws are meant to respond to risk "in the most immediate sense."

"The whole system seems to be reactive," Webster told ABC News. "When an assessment was done of when there was clear and present danger, there were no firearms. So there were no firearms to remove."

PHOTO: A woman looks a photographs of victims at a memorial near the scene of a mass shooting that took place at a 4th of July celebration and parade in Highland Park, Ill., July 7, 2022.
A woman looks a photographs of victims at a memorial near the scene of a mass shooting that took place at a 4th of July celebration and parade in Highland Park, Ill., July 7, 2022.
Tannen Maury/EPA via Shutterstock

"I can't a month later say, 'Come take away his guns because a month ago he was suicidal and homicidal,'" said Dr. Jeff Temple, a psychologist and founding director of the Center for Violence Prevention at the University of Texas Medical Branch, which focuses on gun policy research and community education. "And that's the problem with these red flag laws: It puts it on the family and takes it away from the legislative process and takes the power away from the police."

Webster said the new legislation lacks provisions to prevent the "initial acquisition of firearms" by people who may present danger to themselves or others.

"We have to prove that you're too dangerous to have a gun, and the way that we do that is a fairly rigid system that sets a pretty low bar for being able to get a gun," Webster said.

However, several experts said that the new law will save lives in other ways.

The legislation includes $750 million to help states implement and conduct crisis intervention programs like mental health courts, drug courts, and veteran courts, and provides funding for mental health programs and school security, including $150 million for the suicide crisis hotline and $250 million for community mental health.

"The best thing about it is, even though I wish it was more, the money for mental health services is going to save lives," said clinical psychologist Dr. Joel Dvoskin. "It's going to help a lot."

The new measures are "going to reduce suicides and they're going to reduce homicides," Temple said.

Experts also praised the legislation's expansion of an existing law that prevents people convicted of domestic abuse from owning a gun, so now it includes not only spouses but also individuals in "serious dating relationships."

"The most important thing about this is the closing of the 'boyfriend loophole,'" said Temple. "Now it applies to dating relationships, which is huge, because about half of domestic violence incidents and homicides are within dating partners."

Nevertheless, Jaclyn Schildkraut, interim executive director of the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium at the Rockefeller Institute of Government, said she's concerned that most of the provisions in the law won't address the underlying factors that are known to cause mass shootings.

PHOTO: A police vehicle blocks the road on Central avenue where multiple people were killed during Fourth of July celebrations, July 7, 2022, in Highland Park, Ill.
A police vehicle blocks the road on Central avenue where multiple people were killed during Fourth of July celebrations, July 7, 2022, in Highland Park, Ill.
Nam Y. Huh/AP

"I don't want to be non-optimistic that the legislation that was passed will not help people in our country -- it absolutely will," said Schildkraut, a national expert on mass shootings research. "Will it stop mass shootings? No."

John Cohen, a former ranking Department of Homeland Security official who is now an ABC News contributor, said that in order for the legislation to actually prevent mass casualty shootings, "every local jurisdiction across the nation [needs to operate] under a consistent threat assessment and threat management process."

"I would say that this law, when combined with a national, consistent level of threat assessment and threat management, could be highly effective," Cohen said. "The law by itself doesn't necessarily give you any insight or whether [Highland Park] could have been prevented or not."

Threat assessments, which are an evidence-based approach to identifying individuals who may pose a threat and providing intervention before a violent incident occurs, are not a new concept, Cohen said.

"Local jurisdictions like Los Angeles, New York City and Montgomery County, Maryland, have threat management units," Cohen said. "These are units that integrate mental health and law enforcement expertise in order to engage in these types of activities. At the local level, they can be highly effective in preventing these types of mass shootings."

Schildkraut told ABC News that Congress' new legislation lacks specific provisions for threat assessments that might have helped stop recent mass shootings.

"Threat assessment is designed to catch anybody who's in crisis who needs assistance," Schildkraut said. "It's especially helpful in instances where there are potential mass shooting plots, and where somebody brings that information forward."

Schildkraut also decried the legislation for failing to impose more sweeping measures like requiring universal background checks or banning the sale of large-capacity magazines or military-style rifles.

"We have policies that we know can work, like universal background checks," Schildkraut told ABC News. "We have different things that we know can help, but they're not being done."

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