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Reality Check On Democratic Candidates And Gun Safety Policies

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How much of a difference could new gun laws really make? Democratic presidential candidates who debate this week have embraced them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

KAMALA HARRIS: We need reasonable gun safety laws in this country starting with universal background checks and a renewal of the assault weapon ban.

BETO O'ROURKE: Red flag laws so that if someone poses a danger to themselves or to someone else, they're stopped.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You're going to be the government. Will you buy them back?

BERNIE SANDERS: Yeah.

ELIZABETH WARREN: We can do the universal background checks. We can ban the weapons of war. But we can also double down on the research.

INSKEEP: Kamala Harris, Beto O'Rourke, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, four of the Democratic presidential candidates - their stances their contrast with Republicans who commonly dismiss new gun laws both for ideological reasons and because they say they just wouldn't work. So what's the evidence show?

Lisa Hagen is with us next. She's from member station WABE in Atlanta, and she's been covering these issues and more for the Guns & America reporting collaborative. Good morning.

LISA HAGEN, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So let's think about a circumstance like the mass shooting in California the other day or any number of other mass shootings where someone shows up with a rifle, often an assault weapon. The idea is to reduce the odds of one of those guns in the hands of the wrong person. Can gun laws do that?

HAGEN: Right. Well, I think first of all, it's important to note that mass shootings, while they are horrific and we hear a lot about them when they happen, they make up something like 2% of criminal gun fatalities overall, which makes them pretty hard to study and collect evidence about how to stop them. So with an assault weapons ban, no one really agrees on what the exact definition is, which right off the bat makes it hard to make laws about.

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah. Like, what is an assault weapon? Sure, OK.

HAGEN: Right. Something that comes to mind for most people is something like an AR-15 - a rifle, all black, kind of scary looking. And researchers I talked to get why voters worry about them. But again, mass shootings are pretty rare.

INSKEEP: So is there, given the difficulty in research and given that, in fact, there have been federal restrictions on gun research, is there any way to game out whether, say, an assault weapons ban, for example, or background checks would reduce the likelihood of mass shootings?

HAGEN: What I hear from researchers is that a ban on assault weapons is, from what they know, unlikely to reduce a lot of gun deaths. With universal background checks, I think a lot of why we hear about them is because they're really popular with voters, so that makes it a pretty safe move for candidates. But what researchers are finding is that in states that have comprehensive background checks, they're not actually finding a decrease in gun deaths. Apparently what it does help with is gun trafficking.

INSKEEP: Oh, that's interesting.

HAGEN: But on its own - yeah, there's not much evidence that either of those saves lives.

INSKEEP: But you said on its own. You were starting a thought there. If you combine background checks with other measures, do they become a little more effective?

HAGEN: Right. So what researchers are finding, again, is that universal background checks work to save lives when they're paired with something called gun purchaser licensing or permit to purchase. Basically that means if you want to buy guns, you apply to law enforcement for a license. That process includes a background check and researchers say crucially, fingerprinting, which is less easy to fake. In the nine states that do this for handguns, they've seen significant drops in both gun homicides and suicides.

INSKEEP: We heard Elizabeth Warren there urging more research. Is there a desperate need for more reliable information?

HAGEN: You know, the researchers I talked to definitely said that they were happy to hear Elizabeth Warren refer to that. We have what's called sort of the Dickey Amendment from the mid-'90s that stopped a fair amount of research. But also, there are options that can work is what I hear.

INSKEEP: OK. Lisa, thanks so much.

HAGEN: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's WABE reporter Lisa Hagen in Atlanta. She's part of the Guns & America reporting collaborative. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.