Skip to main content

Why new laws could miss America's bigger gun problem

By Mallory Simon, CNN
updated 12:17 PM EST, Tue January 29, 2013
A trash bin of handguns collected during a gun buyback program in Los Angeles last month
A trash bin of handguns collected during a gun buyback program in Los Angeles last month
  • In 2011, more than 6,000 people died from handgun violence
  • Handguns kill more Americans than all other firearms combined
  • Yet federal legislation is focused primarily on other types of weapons
  • In 2008, Supreme Court struck down a handgun ban, ruling it violated Second Amendment

Can there be a solution to America's gun problems? Anderson Cooper looks at both sides of the debate in "Guns Under Fire: an AC360º Town Hall Special" Thursday at 8 p.m. ET on CNN.

(CNN) -- Trent Brewer drove to a parking lot, planning to sell some weed. The transaction never happened.

Police in Springfield, Missouri, found Brewer, 23, face-down in a pool of his own blood with no pulse on December 12. He was declared dead at a nearby hospital.

Police say Darian Earl Hall, 18, pulled out a chrome semi-automatic handgun before the sale could happen, and opened fire on Brewer as he began to run away.

Hall has denied shooting Brewer, blaming another teen who was with him at the time. What exactly happened will eventually be settled in court.

Brewer's story follows a familiar pattern: drugs, an escalating confrontation and the presence of a gun leading to a death.


Beatriz Cintora-Silva took refuge at her sister's home immediately after telling police in Longmont, Colorado, that her ex-boyfriend had kidnapped her, threatened her and threw her into a car dashboard. It was Saturday, December 16.

The next day, police arrested Daniel Sanchez, 31, who spent Sunday night in jail.

Six hours after Sanchez left the Boulder County jail, a call came into 911:

"No, no, no, please, no," Cintora-Silva said on the call.

Gunfire rang out and the phone went silent.

Then, Sanchez picked up the phone.

"I just shot everyone right now," he said, according to a recording of the 911 call.

"You just shot everybody?" the dispatcher asked. Sanchez calmly replied "Yeah."

She asked for his name, but he didn't answer.

"I'm going to shoot myself right now," Sanchez said on the recording. The dispatcher pleaded with him.

It didn't matter. The line went dead.

Sanchez had shot and killed Cintora-Silva, her sister and her sister's husband before killing himself with one of the most deadly weapons in the United States.

Loesch on AR-15s: One pull, one bullet

It wasn't an AR-15, or an assault rifle -- it was a Glock .45-caliber handgun.

America's most deadly firearm

Mom loses 4th child to gun violence

Trent Brewer and Beatriz Cintora-Silva are among the more than 6,000 people killed each year by handguns.

That's like having a massacre on the scale of Newtown 239 times during one year.

Yet, as the Obama administration moves forward with legislation to stem the toll of gun violence in America, the focus has been on curbing access to high-powered rifles and large-capacity magazines, not the common handguns that account for the majority of gun deaths in America.

CNNMoney: Handgun homicides in the U.S.

Last week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, stood in front of an array of assault rifles and semi-automatic weapons and outlined her proposed legislation to reinstitute an assault weapons ban, as well as outlaw ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.

Gun homicides by weapon type

The graph below details gun-related homicides in 2011 by weapon type. This breakdown has remained consistent across the most recent five years of data made available by the FBI.

Source: FBI Criminal Justice Information Services

But even if these proposals make it through to legislation, what impact will they have on stemming the deaths by America's most deadly firearm?

Despite the National Rifle Association's assertion that Feinstein and other Democrats are taking steps toward outlawing all guns, no lawmaker is calling for a ban on the legal purchase of handguns. These common firearms, which account for the majority of gun-related violence in America but are also used for self-defense, are fully protected by the Second Amendment, according to a 2008 Supreme Court ruling.

Speaking Monday before a meeting with police chiefs and sheriffs from across the country, Obama said he understands that America's gun violence problem runs deeper than the mass shootings that trigger international headlines.

"I welcome this opportunity to work with (law enforcement), to hear their views in terms of what will make the biggest difference to prevent something like Newtown or Oak Creek from happening again," the president said. "But many of them also recognize that it's not only the high-profile mass shootings that are of concern here, it's also what happens on a day-in-day-out basis in places like Chicago or Philadelphia, where young people are victims of gun violence every single day."

There are three main ways that Obama's plan could indirectly stem the toll of handgun violence:

• increasing access to mental health services

• lifting restrictions on federally funded research on gun violence

• extending background checks before the purchase of a gun

It's unclear if any of these proposals would have affected the outcome of the Springfield, Missouri, drug deal that claimed the life of 23-year-old Trent Brewer.

Sen. Feinstein takes on assault weapons
Sheriff: Citizens should take gun classes
General: Need discussion on gun control
The challenge of buying a gun in Japan

But in domestic violence incidents, like the one that killed Beatriz Cintora-Silva, even something as simple as considering an accuser's mental state could make a difference, according to CNN's mental health expert Dr. Charles Raison.

For example, if police detained accused abusers for a longer time, would that allow for a cooling off period and a decreased chance of violence?

"The only way to interrupt (violent incidents) is to lock up and intervene tons and tons of times, where everyone who exhibits symptoms is locked up," said Raison, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "But then as a society, where do we want to strike a balance between personal freedom and intervening to stop the high rate of violent acts?"

Who do you think should have guns?

Despite all his concerns, Raison said he finds the discussion about opening up access to mental health services promising, but also "an extremely slippery slope."

According to the FBI, 6,220 people were killed by handguns in 2011 and many law enforcement and public health experts say that shows much more needs to be done to seriously address the gun violence epidemic -- even more than what the president or Congress proposes.

"These are all steps in the right direction to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them, the mental health issues, those are all good things," said Mike Bouchard, a retired agent with the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms and president of Security Dynamics Group, a consulting firm that ensures companies are compliant with firearm regulations.

"But I don't know that it's going to reduce the homicide rate."

Searching for answers

Trent Brewer and Beatriz Cintora-Silva were part of a fairly typical pattern of homicides in December 2012, the same month as the Newtown mass murders.

Exactly how many others across the United States met the same fate that month?

Crowds grow at gun shows
March for gun control in Washington
Gingrich and the Second Amendment
Dems' internal problem with gun control

There's really no way to know. That's because of a lack of data. The FBI details homicides each year but it often has a lag time in reporting and does not specify the exact type of weapon. While the CDC has a National Violent Death Reporting System to collect data for violence prevention research, it is only operational in 18 states.

A slew of researchers, professors and experts successfully urged Vice President Joe Biden to include researching gun violence as one of the proposals he submitted to the president. Biden led the gun violence task force created by Obama in the wake of last month's Newtown shootings.

Harold Pollack, co-director of the Chicago Crime Lab and one of the researchers who penned the recommendations to Biden, said he hopes this federal action will reverse the stifling of research and data since the 1990s.

That's when the powerful pro-gun National Rifle Association effectively ended federal funding for gun violence research, citing its opposition to taxpayer-funded studies on gun violence.

How the NRA wields its influence

That type of research is exactly what Pollack said can eventually prevent some of the senseless deaths as a result of guns.

"If you look at 'How did someone get that gun that led to that person getting killed?' we might be able to find ways to have interfered with it," Pollack said. "Maybe it's related to the gun dealer, maybe it's a type of gun commerce that we can interrupt, or maybe there's a social service intervention before any of that."

He noted that studies of infant deaths and car accidents led to decreased rates of deaths in both cases.

Traffic accident research led to the discovery that many deaths were the result of impacts inside the car, not the car hitting a tree, for example.

That, Pollack said, is why we have airbags and seat belts. Those lifesaving additions to cars were a direct result of the tedious research.

That is how guns should be addressed, he said.

"We have to be able to use the tools that we have ... to try and make sensible policy," Pollack said. "If our data about critical matters is left in a dusty box of a basement in a courthouse, there isn't a whole lot we can do."

Obama has ordered the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal agencies to immediately begin research on gun violence, its impact and any prevention measures.

There is only one hurdle standing in the way: Congress has to give them funding.

Tracing gun sales

It can takes weeks or even months, if law enforcement is lucky, to trace a gun back to its origin.

Because many states don't require guns to be registered, or private sales to be documented, no one really knows who owns many of the guns in circulation in the United States.

That means authorities are often unable to find out how criminals got their guns.

While most people assume, perhaps because of TV shows or movies, that authorities can plug in a serial number and gather all the data about a gun, Mike Bouchard said that actually couldn't be further from the truth.

Bouchard, who works with firearm dealers to make sure they are compliant with the law, likens the situation to underage drinking: If someone can't get a beer, they may find someone who can buy it for them. The same is true of guns, he said.

"The rules are easily defeated," he said. "If (criminals) want a gun they are going to get a gun."

That's a hole that President Obama hopes to address with universal background checks, stronger control of gun sales and laws that would make it a crime to sell your own gun to someone without a background check.

Universal background checks would mark an important turning point in stemming gun violence, according to gun control advocate Lindsay Nichols.

"This may be the single most important gun violence prevention measure that the government could adopt," said Nichols, an attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. She said it would close a loophole that gave "dangerous criminals and dangerously mentally ill individuals ... a most unfettered access to firearms."

But NRA president David Keene suggested to CNN's Candy Crowley that he has little faith in universal background checks, saying they don't work.

That's because, Bouchard said, it assumes criminals will follow the law.

"These criminals don't care what the law says," he said.

While he said he believes expanding background checks is a step in the right direction, Bouchard said the real solution would be creating a database that tracks weapons purchases.

"If people knew every transaction of a gun was going to be recorded somewhere, I think they'd be more responsible with who they transferred their weapon to," he said.

Based on his experience, Bouchard said it would be pretty easy to establish a database to track weapon purchases and sales on a national level.

But he admits he doesn't know anyone who supports a nationwide gun registration.

Experts know that reducing the number of Americans killed by guns isn't a problem that will be solved overnight, let alone in a few years. It may take a long-term game of trial and error.

But with 12,000 to 15,000 people being killed by guns each year, Bouchard said the country has to start somewhere. Anywhere.

"Our whole society controls how much you can drink, how many pills you can buy, we have controls we accept on everything else in this society -- except guns," Bouchard said. "Those things are all acceptable to us. But with guns most people will not even discuss restrictions."

CNN's Emily Smith contributed to this report

Watch Anderson Cooper 360° weeknights 8pm ET. For the latest from AC360° click here.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones, the president and acting CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, discuss the lethal mix of domestic violence and guns.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Fri May 30, 2014
Gun rights and gun control advocates largely agree there should be restrictions on mentally ill people obtaining firearms. The case of Myron Fletcher illustrates how difficult it is to put that into practice.
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed a wide-ranging gun bill into law Wednesday that has critics howling and proponents applauding.
updated 6:52 AM EDT, Thu June 13, 2013
Six months after a gunman burst into a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school and slaughtered 20 children and killed six others, promises of stricter national gun control laws remain largely unfulfilled.
updated 2:44 PM EDT, Wed June 25, 2014
Next time there's a mass shooting, don't jump to blame the National Rifle Association and lax gun laws. Look first at the shooter and the mental health services he did or didn't get, and the commitment laws in the state where the shooting took place.
updated 7:20 AM EDT, Sat June 8, 2013
The sign at the door of the Colt factory displays a gun with a slash through it: "No loaded or unauthorized firearms beyond this point." Understandable for workers at a plant, but also a bit ironic, considering one of the largest arsenals in America lies just beyond.
updated 7:18 AM EDT, Sat June 8, 2013
Much attention has been paid to the defeat in Congress of proposals to ban assault weapons and expand background checks for firearm purchases.
updated 9:04 AM EDT, Sat June 29, 2013
Morgan Spurlock's "Inside Man" gives CNN viewers an inside and in-depth look at the issue of firearms -- as viewed from behind the counter of a gun store. Here are five things to know about the debate.
updated 1:28 PM EDT, Mon May 5, 2014
The Supreme Court continued its recent hands-off approach on gun control, refusing to accept a challenge to New Jersey's restrictions on carrying weapons in public.
updated 11:02 AM EDT, Thu April 18, 2013
The Senate defeated a compromise plan to expand background checks on firearms sales as well as a proposal to ban some semi-automatic weapons modeled after military assault weapons.
updated 8:03 PM EDT, Thu April 11, 2013
As Congress grapples with major gun control legislation proposals, brothers and sisters, mothers, fathers and children write about the people they loved and lost to gun violence and how it changed their lives.
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Thu April 11, 2013
Hear from both sides of the gun debate as opinions clash.
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed May 1, 2013
It was a bit awkward the first time Kate Daggett asked the question.
updated 9:41 AM EDT, Wed April 10, 2013
Many Americans and lawmakers are in favor of continuing or expanding background checks on gun purchases, but few understand how the checks work.
updated 3:35 PM EDT, Thu April 4, 2013
Still stinging from the shooting deaths at Sandy Hook, Connecticut lawmakers approved what advocacy groups call the strongest and most comprehensive gun legislation in the nation.
updated 9:53 AM EDT, Fri March 29, 2013
It took fewer than five minutes for Adam Lanza to squeeze off 154 rounds, upending life in Newtown, Connecticut, and triggering a renewed national debate over gun control.
Who should get them? Join the gun control debate and share your perspective on CNN iReport.
updated 11:24 AM EDT, Tue April 2, 2013
Before having children, she was a firm believer that guns were dangerous. Now this mother of three has a different perspective.
updated 6:54 PM EDT, Tue March 19, 2013
In the biggest fight over firearms since December's massacre at a Connecticut elementary school, gun-control advocates are poised to notch a victory in an unlikely place.
A former drug addict turned anti-violence crusader, and a man who lost his father in a temple shooting. These are just two of many in the conversation.
updated 1:22 PM EST, Fri February 1, 2013
At a town hall that brought all sides of the gun debate together, was there a consensus? Sort of.
updated 10:51 AM EST, Tue February 5, 2013
The federal background check system for gun buyers didn't stop a mentally ill man from buying a gun, which he used to kill his mother.
updated 7:37 PM EST, Thu January 31, 2013
In disputes over the future of gun laws, people espousing different positions often literally don't understand each other.