What fact checks tell us about school shootings and guns

A vigil was held after the school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, that left 10 people dead. (EPA/EFE)
A vigil was held after the school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, that left 10 people dead. (EPA/EFE)

Another school shooting, this time in Santa Fe, Texas, and plans for a vigil against gun violence in Milwaukee on May 24, 2018, give cause to reflect on some of what we know about school shootings and guns.

Here’s a look at our latest relevant fact checks, each of which was done in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., in February 2018.

They touch on gun control, as well as on the number of guns and the number of school shootings in the United States.

"Paul Ryan has blocked all action to strengthen our gun laws."

-- Giffords PAC, a political action committee named for Gabrielle Giffords, a former Democratic U.S. representative from Arizona (in 2011, she survived a mass shooting in Tucson in which the shooter killed six people and wounded 13 others)

Our rating: Mostly False.

At least a dozen gun-control measures didn’t get to a vote in the House since Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican, has been speaker. So, it’s clear that Ryan did not move to bring those measures to the floor. But that’s not the same as Ryan himself blocking the measures. Also, a bill that would strengthen background checks did pass the House.

"A quarter of our guns are sold outside of the background checks."

-- Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a possible Democratic contender for president in 2020, on a visit to Milwaukee

Our rating: Mostly False.

The latest study that surveyed gun owners on the topic found that, among gun owners who had acquired a gun in some way within the previous two years, 22 percent had done so without a background check. But that took into account people who acquired guns either by purchasing them, or by simply receiving them, for example as a gift. Among those surveyed who had purchased a gun within the previous two years, only 13 percent said they had done so without a background check.

Says 97 percent of gun owners support universal background checks.

-- U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., who is running for re-election in 2018

Our rating: Mostly True.

Her claim accurately cited a figure in the latest national poll, but it applied to households in which there was a gun, not to gun owners per se.

We "have laws on the books designed to prevent people with mental illnesses from getting firearms."

-- Ryan

Our rating: Half True.

A federal law, and some state laws, do prohibit people adjudicated as "mentally defective" or involuntarily committed to a mental health facility from possessing a gun. But experts say that standard includes people who do not pose a danger to others. And it does not account for a much larger set of people who might be dangerous but have not been diagnosed with, or treated for, a serious mental illness.

"There are more guns in this country than there are people."

-- Kevin Nicholson, one of two Republicans running for Baldwin’s seat

Our rating: Half True.

There is no official count of the number of firearms in the United States. In one estimate, for 2009, the number of guns exceeded the population. But the most recent estimate cited by gun statistics experts put the figure at 265 million guns as of January 2015, when the population was 320 million.

"In the rest of the world, there have been 18 school shootings in the last twenty years. In the U.S., there have been 18 school shootings since January 1."

-- University of Wisconsin-Madison alumnus Jeff Greenfield, a TV journalist and author

Our rating: Mostly False.

By one count widely cited in the news media, there had been 18 incidents at that time in which shots were fired inside or outside of a school or university building in the United States so far in 2018. But only three involved a mass shooting. And the count included two suicides, three accidental shootings and nine incidents in which there were no fatalities or injuries. As for the rest of the world, an expert relied on by the New York Times for gun violence statistics told us there is no way to know how many school shootings -- using the definition Greenfield relied on -- have occurred outside of the United States over the past 20 years.

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