This report is a part of “Rethinking Gun Violence,” an ABC News series examining the level of gun violence in the U.S. — and what can be done about it.
Paul Kemp, a founding board member and the president of Gun Owners for Responsible Ownership, has been a gun owner for most of his life.
He grew up in Michigan and owns a hunting rifle, a couple of handguns and a .22-caliber rifle.
He also said he was taught about gun safety growing up and thought he had a good understanding of the gun laws in the country.
But when his brother-in-law, Steve Forsyth, a youth sports coach and father of two, was shot and killed by a man armed with an AR-15 style rifle in 2012, “I realized how misinformed I was,” he said.
Kemp said he had “no idea that we had such a patchwork of gun laws around the country.” While he noted the National Firearms Act, first enacted in 1934, the Gun Control Act of 1968 and the Brady Law, which amended the GCA in 1993, there is a “a lot of latitude for very weak gun laws in states,” he said.
Watch ABC News Live on Mondays at 3 p.m. to hear more about gun violence from experts during roundtable discussions. And check back tomorrow, when we look at Chicago’s violence disruptors and how they try to bring peace.
The U.S. is awash in guns, with nearly 400 million in the United States, according to a 2018 report from the Small Arms Survey, a Switzerland-based global research project.
And gun violence has been rising in the past several years (gun deaths are up 56% from 2014-2020, and injuries increased 73% in the same time period, according to Gun Violence Archive).
Many people who own firearms agree that violence is a problem — but fundamentally disagree as to why, leaving the debate at an impasse.
So, ABC News interviewed some gun owners to get their perspective on potential solutions to the spate of gun violence plaguing the country. Their perspectives represent slices of the highly charged debate that plays out at the national level between advocates, legislators and groups such as the NRA.
Here’s what they had to say:
The shooter at the Clackamas Town Center Mall in Oregon killed Forsyth and 54-year-old hospice nurse Cindy Yuille with a Stag Arms AR-15 rifle that he had taken from a friend, who had purchased the gun legally but left it loaded and unsecured in his house, the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office public information officer told Kemp.
He said one of his first thoughts was, “Well, doesn’t Oregon have a safe storage gun law?” The officer told him no.
“I said, ‘You’re telling me that guy who owned that gun faces no consequences?’ and he said, ‘That’s correct.'”
There are 11 states in the U.S. that have some form of safe storage law on the books, according to the Giffords Law Center, a gun violence prevention organization. Massachusetts was the first state to require all firearms be locked up while not in use; Oregon became the second this summer when Gov. Kate Brown signed the Cindy Yuille and Steve Forsyth Act into law, named to honor the two who died in the shooting.
Safe storage laws generally require that a weapon must be stored unloaded, in a locked container or with a trigger lock, a device that goes over a firearm’s trigger and can be locked and unlocked using a key or numerical combination. While Massachusetts and Oregon enacted these rules for all gun owners, regulations in some states, such as Colorado and California, only apply these laws to gun owners who live with a person who is legally prohibited from possessing a firearm.
The punishments vary. In Colorado, it’s a fine and/or up to a year in jail. In Oregon, it’s a maximum $500 fine, which can rise to $2,000 if a minor obtains a firearm as a result of unsecured storage.
Approximately 4.6 million children in the United States live in a home where a firearm is stored loaded and unlocked, according to a national survey conducted by Harvard Injury Control Research Center in 2015. Safe storage could prevent up to a third of suicide and unintentional firearm deaths, a 2019 study published in JAMA Pediatrics found.
And safe storage regulations are popular.
In a 2019 report from the American Public Media Research Lab, more than three-quarters of the 1,000 Americans surveyed said they support mandating locked gun storage.
Universal background checks — including for private sales
Shannon Flores said her family currently owns somewhere around 37 guns at last count. Flores owns a Springfield XD-S handgun. Her wife, Scarlett, is a gun collector and hunter and has multiple kinds of firearms. Plus they have some .22 caliber rifles that their 9-year-old twins use for “plinking” — or practicing shooting clay pigeons, cans and hay bales.
Like Kemp, Flores emphasizes the importance of safe storage.
She said most of her family’s guns came with a gun lock when they purchased them, they have gun safes for the rifles, small safes for the handguns and Flores’ handgun also has a biometric lock.
But Flores, a Texas-based organizer for Giffords’ Gun Owners for Safety, also pointed to universal background checks — a system that would require all gun buyers to go through the National Instant Criminal Background Check (NICS) before purchasing a firearm — as a potential solution to curb gun trafficking and help prevent people who are prohibited from owning firearms from obtaining them.
Between November 1998 and September 2021, there have been just over 2 million denials out of more than 400 million federal background checks, according to a report from NICS, though this does not account for denials that may have happened due to a state background check. About half the time, FBI data shows, the reason for denial is because a person was previously convicted of a crime.
When combined with data from states that conduct background checks for point-of-contact sales, more than 300,000 people were stopped from buying a gun illegally in 2020, according to FBI data, raising the rate of barred would-be firearm purchasers from 0.6% to 0.8% over the past two years.
But those numbers only account for licensed gun dealers. Under federal law, unlicensed sellers — such as gun shows or private sales — aren’t required to perform background checks. Fourteen states and Washington, D.C., have laws closing this loophole, according to Giffords Law Center, but a majority do not.
Under the concept of universal background checks, the idea is that no matter where someone buys a gun — at a store, a gun show or through a friend or online — they would have to go through a background check via a nationwide database.
For instance, when Scarlett Flores sold a gun to a friend, they headed over to a local gun range in Houston that holds a FFL — a federal firearms license — and could serve as the point of transfer.
“She explains to clerk that she wants to sell a weapon. There’s an exchange of IDs, it goes through the system, small fee like $15, system is updated to prove this weapon was transferred and there’s a background check that goes with that,” Shannon Flores said.
This not only provides a background check of the purchaser, but it also documents that Scarlett no longer owns that gun and records the name of who now does.
Like safe storage laws, universal background check requirements have been popular in recent years: 89% of Americans support background checks for all gun purchases, including private and gun show sales, according to a 2019 ABC News/Washington Post poll.
But there’s mixed data on whether universal background checks are effective — especially if implemented without other gun safety measures.
Conversations about gun violence — and the ineffectiveness of gun laws — often reference Chicago, where there are restrictive regulations but a significant level of violence. Many people committing crimes with guns, some argue, obtain firearms illegally, so universal background checks wouldn’t make a difference.
According to the Department of Justice’s 2016 Survey of Prison Inmates, 43% of people who used a gun in a crime obtained the firearm off the street or in the underground market, 25% got it from an individual, either from a friend or family member or as a gift, 10% purchased the firearm at a retail source like a gun store or pawn shop, 6% stole it and 17% obtained it in some “other” way such as finding it at the scene or the gun was brought by someone else.
But Shannon Flores said having a patchwork of gun laws across the 50 states “makes it really easy to traffic guns” along what’s sometimes called the Iron Pipeline — a route from the South, where gun laws are fairly relaxed, up the East Coast, where gun laws are more restrictive.
“I was one of them, the way I used to think about gun violence and crime in cities … The gun violence makes news all the time,” Kemp said. But then he began “looking into things,” he said. “Everybody says Chicago has some of the strictest gun laws in the country, but Wisconsin right next to them has some of weakest gun laws, and Indiana has some of the weakest gun laws … they feed firearms into Chicago.”
According to a 2017 report from the City of Chicago, 60% of guns that are recovered after being used in crimes come from out of state, especially from Indiana.
“Guns that are trafficked between states nearly always originate from states without strong background check laws,” Rob Wilcox, the federal legal director for Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit gun control advocacy organization, told ABC News.
In May, three Army service members stationed at Fort Campbell, on the border of Tennessee and Kentucky, were charged with the illegal purchase and transfer of dozens of firearms to Chicago. An investigation — which began after Chicago police responded to a mass shooting incident and found five firearms at the scene from the Clarksville, Tennessee area — found that the three soldiers had purchased more than 90 guns from federally licensed dealers in the region, most within five months.
Some gun advocates say that regulation is beside the point and that what is needed instead is proper education.
John Harris, a lawyer and the executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association, a gun rights advocacy group, argued that for decades, guns were not a “prohibited concept that was demonized.”
Teaching firearms safety in school could be something to consider, he said, “so there is an appreciation that firearms are not some video game entertainment item, but that they are useful — but potentially dangerous — items that you have to know how to use, know how to respect and only use respectfully.”
Some schools do teach gun safety. Utah lawmakers recently passed a bill creating a program to provide a firearm safety course in public schools. Both the Connecticut State Department of Education and the Virginia Board of Education have published guides for schools to develop lessons on firearm safety.
Shannon Flores, said her 9-year-old children, who use .22 caliber rifles for sport, have grown up around guns just like she did.
“We have conversations with them regularly about guns and lethality,” she said. “My kids have gone hunting with my wife … I grew up hunting, too, so I grew up seeing what a bullet can do to a living organism.”
Flores acknowledged that not all children grow up hunting or around guns at all. She pointed to a recent gun safety resource in her state called “Keep Em Safe, Texas.” The campaign has materials on safe storage and offers presentations for both adult and child audiences, but since the campaign was just launched in October 2020 there is no data yet as to its efficacy.
“As gun owners, we have to be the ones sending the message” when it comes to teaching gun safety to children who don’t learn about guns the way she did, Flores said. “Not everyone has the opportunity to explore guns in same manner.”
In Oregon, Kemp worked with a pediatrician to create a script for doctors and nurses to talk to teens and their parents about firearms and safety.
The National Rifle Association also has a program called the Eddie Eagle GunSafe program to prevent firearm accidents among children. It aims to teach kids that if they find a firearm, to stop, don’t touch it, run away and tell a grown-up.
“The most effective way to prevent unintentional gun injuries, suicide and homicide to children and adolescents, research shows, is the absence of guns from homes and communities,” according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which also notes that if a family does still keep guns in the home, then they should be store “locked and unloaded, with ammunition locked separately.”
What happens now?
Despite an acknowledgement that the level of gun violence in the United States is much, much higher than it should be, there’s not agreement among all gun owners when it comes to what to do about it.
Many gun owners support what Flores called “reasonable regulations.” The 2019 American Public Media Research Lab report showed more than two-thirds of gun owners supported safe storage laws. A 2019 ABC News/Washington Post poll found eight in 10 people in gun households supported universal background checks.
But there is still a population of gun owners who don’t see any legislative path forward.
The NRA has been waging a battle against numerous gun control efforts for decades, especially when it comes to legislation — and its message has an effect.
A 2018 study from Monmouth University showed that 78% of gun owners who are not NRA members supported background checks for all firearms purchases. That dropped to 69% of NRA members.
“They just became a lot more militant about their stance on things,” Kemp argued. “They have been incredibly effective communicators with their group, and their members are highly motivated and very vocal.”
The organization also has the NRA Civil Defense Fund, which according to its website, offers “legal and financial assistance to select individuals and organizations defending their right to keep and bear arms.”
The NRA Civil Defense Fund currently has ongoing litigation in 20 states.
Harris, who said he feels the Second Amendment gives Americans the “individual God-given right to possess any weapon they may have a use or need for, for political or self-defense purposes,” said there’s nothing he understands about gun control advocates’ position.
This is a position largely echoed by the NRA.
Attitudes about gun control laws have changed in the U.S., even in the past couple of years.
In a ABC News/Washington Post poll earlier this year, 50% percent of Americans said they would prioritize enacting new gun violence laws, while 43% prefer a focus on protecting the right to own guns.
The level of support is down from 57% after the mass school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in 2018.
It is also unclear if proposed measures such as universal background checks have maintained their overwhelming popularity as measured in 2019.
This fundamental divide has resulted in gridlock at the national level, even with mass shootings on the rise as well as homicides and other gun violence.
In Flores’ view, gun owners, who understand guns and how they work, need to come together with organizations such as Giffords’ Gun Owners for Safety or Kemp’s Gun Owners for Responsible Ownership to come up with laws they can agree on — and get politicians on board, too.
“The argument that gun safety laws won’t make a difference is moot, because to not try anything is just to continue the bloodshed,” she said.
ABC News’ Marlene Lenthang contributed to this report.