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Analysis

2020 Will Be a Big Year for the Gun Issue

We asked 13 experts to help us get a jump on what's ahead.

There are plenty of reasons to believe that 2020 is poised to be pivotal for the issue of gun violence. Yes, there’s that looming election, and all the policymaking power it puts up for grabs. But between now and November, plenty of other storylines will also unspool. From the Supreme Court, we’ll get a decision with a wide range of possible implications for state and local gun regulations. Red flag laws are gaining acceptance at the state level, but they could face increasing resistance from far-right extremists. Researchers probing the causes of and possible cures for shootings will welcome an infusion of government funding, even as they lobby for more robust spending. 

To begin to get a sense of how it all may play out, we asked 13 experts on the policy, politics, and science of gun violence to size up the year to come. 

The Democratic presidential primary will present a golden chance to elevate community gun violence prevention. But how much will the issue carry over into the general election? 

Community gun violence kills more young black men than the nine other top causes of death combined, an outrageous fact that has nonetheless barely registered in the platforms of national politicians. But that’s beginning to change, thanks in part to the advocacy of the Community Justice Action Fund (CJAF) and its counterparts. Gun violence prevention groups led by people of color helped push members of Congress to hold unprecedented hearings last fall on the shootings that scar some city neighborhoods. Democratic presidential candidates released ambitious plans for tackling community violence head on. 

With the first tests of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary now just weeks away, the work of directing attention to community gun violence prevention is all the more urgent, says Greg Jackson, who leads CJAF’s national advocacy efforts. Black voters may play a critical role in deciding the party’s crowded nominating race. And because of that, Jackson notes, they have the power to force the issue into greater prominence on the national stage. Hoping to seize the opportunity, CJAF has partnered with a nonpartisan voter-engagement group to engage those voters. “Voter excitement and mobilization is going to be a big challenge” as the Democratic contest plays out, Jackson says. “We’re trying to mobilize around this issue in a way that hasn’t been done before.”

Dave Cullen, the author of “Parkland: Birth of a Movement,” expects Democrats up and down the ballot to continue to champion gun reforms as 2020 campaigns progress to the general election phase. “Politics is a momentum game, and the movement has been building a powerful head of steam: beginning with Sandy Hook, and super-charging after Parkland” as March for Our Lives and other youth anti-gun violence groups transitioned from mass demonstrations to tactical voter registration drives. “But I think the prime mover this year could be the candidates themselves,” Cullen says. “Most of them have been hiding from guns for the past generation, until the 2018 midterms, when large numbers of them came out of the gun closet, mostly to success. That will bring a lot more out, who will make it central to their campaigns.” 

The old wisdom among election pundits was that candidates who embrace gun control risk provoking the National Rifle Association and the diehard Second Amendment activists who heed the group’s get-out-the-vote efforts. Certainly, the NRA asserted its muscle in 2016, when the $30 million it poured into electing Donald Trump made the group the biggest outside spender in support of his campaign. In 2020, the NRA may be unable to spend as lavishly as it did four years ago, thanks to its recent multi-million dollar deficits and ongoing (and expensive) legal battles. But Robert Spitzer, a professor at the State University of New York at Cortland who has written extensively on gun politics, thinks the unique dynamics of the 2020 presidential race may dilute the group’s influence, regardless. “Gun voters highly coincide with core Trump supporters to begin with,” Spitzer says. “So they may not need strong prodding from the NRA, as they will likely be receiving considerable messaging from other conservative, pro-Trump organizations.” 

And though gun violence prevention groups will work to prove him wrong, Spitzer is also skeptical that guns will be a top stump issue for Democrats. “There are many, many issues at play, from immigration and the environment to the economy, security, integrity in government, Trump himself, and more. So the gun issue is likely to be sidelined by both sides,” he predicts. 

The Supreme Court will resolve the biggest gun case it’s considered in years. The Justices may not stop there.

The results of this November’s presidential and congressional elections will obviously shape what gun measures, if any, may break the impasse on major firearm legislation in Washington.

Eric Ruben is among the court watchers who will be looking for the lasting repercussions that the voting returns will have on the federal bench. “The election will not only determine possibilities for near-term federal policy, but also who gets to nominate judges to determine future Second Amendment challenges,” says Ruben, an assistant law professor at Southern Methodist University and a fellow at the liberal Brennan Center for Justice

President Trump’s two Supreme Court appointments have already tilted it toward a conservative majority open to more expansive gun rights. In 2020, the justices will issue their ruling in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. City of New York, the most significant gun case to reach the Supreme Court in years. Their decision could have implications for cities’ and states’ ability to regulate how guns are carried outside the home. (Unless the justices decide the whole dispute is now moot.) “Beyond that litigation,” Ruben adds, “I wouldn’t be surprised if the high court accepts another, more important case in the coming year — perhaps regarding public carry restrictions or bans on assault weapons.” 

Federal dollars will hasten the expansion of gun violence research. The money still won’t be nearly enough.

In late December, Congress set aside $25 million in federal funding for gun violence research, thawing a nearly two decades-long spending freeze. Scholars and activists say a priority for 2020 will be working to ensure that the money is the start of a sustained and growing infusion, rather than a one-time stopgap. 

For all the political significance of the bipartisan congressional spending deal, several experts we spoke with stressed that $25 million is a relatively paltry sum to invest in understanding a public health threat as pervasive as gun violence. “One study on one jurisdiction might cost anywhere from $400,000 to $500,000,” says Dr. Caterina Roman, an associate professor of criminal justice at Temple University. A study to examine the effects of gun violence across cities, she continues, might cost north of $2 million. “We need a lot more money.”

Linda Degutis, the former director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s  National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, cautions that a single-year appropriation brings other constraints. “If you don’t get a grant that says you are going to have money for three years or five years, you are more limited in what you can propose,” she says. “It’s unrealistic to expect a lot of significant results in one year. And it’s also important for researchers who are considering this field as a career: Before they say, ‘Oh, I’m going to start doing this research,’ they want to know who’s going to pay their salary.” She draws a contrast between the limited windfall that gun violence prevention researchers are expecting and the comparative largess enjoyed by the scientists at the National Cancer Institute. “You know that they are going to be funded from year to year, and that they have a budget that they can somewhat count on over time.” 

Amber Goodwin, head of the Community Justice Action Fund, stresses the importance of ensuring that the limited federal funding helps to diversify the small-but-growing gun violence research field and the questions it is exploring. “We need to be making sure [those dollars] are adequately flowing to researchers of color and people on the front lines.”

While the influx of government dollars will advance scholarly understanding of gun violence prevention, “It’s not like we’re suddenly going to have all the answers,” says David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. 

He’s among those hopeful that foundations, state governments, hospitals, and other healthcare providers will continue to do their part to chip away at the shortfall. One new and significant private spender is the National Collaborative for Gun Violence Research, launched with $20 million in seed funding from the philanthropic organization Arnold Ventures. (Laura and John Arnold, the founders of Arnold Ventures, give financial support to The Trace. Here’s our policy on editorial independence.) 

In 2019, the National Collaborative awarded nearly $10 million in grants to more than 12 researchers and research teams, some of whom are now probing gun violence for the first time. On January 3, it opened another round of funding worth up to $9.5 million, and notably is now drawing contributions from corporate and philanthropic patrons. 

States will remain the hothouses for new gun safety measures. Out: Unregulated DIY guns. In: Funding for neighborhood programs.

In 2020, as has been true for more than a decade, the liveliest grounds for gun policymaking will be state capitals. Where conservative Republicans hold majorities, look for measures that reduce or eliminate the requirements for carrying concealed guns, allow guns into more kinds of buildings and venues, and expand “stand your ground” protections for gun owners who shoot someone while claiming self-defense. On the gun violence prevention side, three policy trends present opportunities for progress this year, according to Nico Bocour, state legislative director at the gun reform advocacy organization Giffords: 

  • Funding for community violence prevention. California, Maryland, Delaware, New York, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania are among the places where Bocour expects lawmakers to pursue state funding for community-level gun violence prevention strategies this year. 
  • Bans on ghost guns and 3D-printed weapons. In 2020, Bocour says we’ll see more states joining California, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York in cracking down on homemade, untraceable weapons that can arm people who could not pass a background check. “As technology is changing and weaponry is evolving, we need to make sure our laws are appropriately keeping up,” she says.
  • Extreme risk protection orders. These policies, known colloquially as red flag laws, allow law enforcement officials to confiscate guns from individuals deemed to pose a threat to themselves or others. A dozen states have enacted some version of the measure since the Parkland school shooting in early 2018. “We’re seeing that it is saving lives in the states where it’s enacted,” says Bocour. “That will continue to be a top policy priority in states that don’t yet have extreme risk laws,” like Virginia, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and New Mexico.

Red flag laws will help law enforcement thwart armed extremists. They’ll also give extremists a rallying cry.

Extreme risk protection orders are also on the radar of Nick Martin, the founder of a new media outlet called The Informant, though he’s got different reasons for tracking them in 2020. Martin is a former investigator for the Southern Poverty Law Center, and The Informant will be dedicated to a single beat: hate and extremism in the United States. 

In a country where guns are abundant, extreme risk protection orders could give law enforcement a new tool for disarming would-be domestic terrorists before they can strike. Martin points to a recent case in Washington State. “Federal authorities worked with locals to convince a judge to order guns seized from Kaleb Cole, a leader of the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division,” Martin explains via email. “I’ll be interested to see whether authorities elsewhere use this same tactic on similar, dangerous extremists.” 

But Martin has also noticed that extremists and right-wing militias are themselves seizing on extreme risk protection orders as a potent rallying cry. Under the orders, gun owners temporarily lose access to their firearms, but in the shorthand of the far right, they boil down to the bogeyman of gun confiscation. “I expect we’ll continue to see leaders of various hate and extremist movements using the threat of red flag laws to rile up their members,” says Martin. “There’s been increased chatter from anti-government types talking about a ‘second Civil War’ because of the laws. And neo-Nazis who hope for the collapse of modern civilization have cheered on the laws as a way to kick off widespread chaos.”

During the first weeks of 2020, Martin says he’ll be paying especially close attention to Virginia, where a bill that would create extreme risk protection orders is among the slate of gun legislation that the new Democratic majority in the General Assembly is expected to push forward. “Militias and so-called ‘constitutional sheriffs’ are already mobilizing against the proposed red flag law there.” 

‘Never again’ will unfortunately happen again. But the keys to preventing mass shootings will become increasingly clear.

Cullen, the Parkland author, notes a grim variable to the contours of the gun issue in 2020. “Sadly, the answer will partly depend on the nature and timing of this year’s mass murders,” he writes in an email. “More sad: no ‘if’ in there.” 

In 2019, a media database tracking public mass killings in the United States recorded a record high: 41 incidents, including 33 mass shootings, leaving 120 people dead. Jillian Peterson and James Densley, the academic duo behind The Violence Project, are hopeful that this is the year Americans rally behind efforts that can reduce the terror and bloodshed of gun rampages. “Our interviews with mass shooters and our database of mass shootings show that they really are preventable,” they write in an email. “We can intervene in early childhood, to mitigate the trauma that haunts the lives of mass shooters. Or during the crises when mass shooters turn suicidal and their grievances become motivations. Or online and in our culture, where public fear of and fascination with mass shooters feeds social contagion. Or in the rules and routine activities that permit far too easy access to firearms and the people and places where mass shootings occur.

“Let 2020 be the year,” they conclude, “that mass violence prevention, not reaction, goes mainstream.” 

A tumultuous era will add yet more complexity to the gun debate. In ways we can only begin to predict.

Other crucial factors that may shape the fights over gun safety in 2020 – and the years to come – lie outside the issue. These swirling forces reveal gun violence as one issue bound up with the great political and cultural battles of our time, observes Duke University’s Kristin Goss. A professor of public policy and political science, Goss is the co-author (with Philip Cook) of “The Gun Debate: What Everyone Needs to Know,” a new edition of which is due out in March. 

“It’s impossible to think about the gun issue in isolation from broader and deeper currents in America: a three-year groundswell of mobilizing and organizing, particularly on the left; massive voter registration and turnout efforts around the 2020 elections; mounting pressures for nonpartisan redistricting in 2021; unrelenting mass shootings and other incidents of domestic terrorism involving firearms; and, as I watch the news this morning, the possibility of global war,” Goss wrote to The Trace on January 3, as conflict between the United States and Iran escalated.

“Any one of these factors has the potential to scramble gun politics, with great uncertainty about which side of the debate will gain advantage.” 

By Champe Barton, James Burnett, Ann Givens, Jennifer Mascia, Daniel Nass, and Will Van Sant.