Mass shootings are a policy choice!

As always on these horrible issues, great stuff from German Lopez:

In every country, people get into arguments, hold racist views or suffer from mental health issues. But in the U.S., it is easier for those people to pick up a gun and shoot someone.

That reality is what allowed an 18-year-old to obtain an assault rifle and kill 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school classroom in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday. And it is what makes the U.S. a global outlier when it comes to gun violence, with more gun deaths than any of its peers.

This chart, looking at public shootings in which four or more people were killed, shows how much the U.S. stands out:

Where there are more guns, there are more gun deaths. Studies have found this to be true at the state and national level. It is true for homicides, suicides, mass shootings and even police shootings.

It is an intuitive idea: If guns are more available, people will use them more often. If you replaced “guns” in that sentence with another noun, it would be so obvious as to be banal.

Stricter gun laws appear to help. They are associated with fewer gun deaths, in both a domestic and global context, while looser gun laws are linked with more gun deaths…

The U.S. is always going to have more guns, and consequently more deaths, than other rich countries. Given the Second Amendment, mixed public opinion and a closely divided federal government, lawmakers face sharp limits on how far they can go…

But since America’s gun laws are so weak, there is a lot of room to improve — and at least cut some gun deaths.

To reduce mass shootings, experts have several ideas:

  • More thorough background checks might stop some gunmen, like those in the church shootings in Charleston, S.C., in 2015 and in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in 2017.

  • “Red flag” laws allow law enforcement officials to confiscate guns from people who display warning signs of violence, like threatening their peers or family members. The laws might have applied to the gunman in the Parkland, Fla., school shooting in 2018.

  • Assault weapon bans would restrict or prohibit access to the kinds of rifles shooters often use. A ban could at least make mass shootings less deadly by pushing gunmen toward less effective weapons, some experts argue

Most shootings in America never appear in national headlines. The majority of gun deaths in 2021 were suicides. Nearly half were homicides that occurred outside mass shootings; they are more typical acts of violence on streets and in homes (and most involve handguns). Mass shootings were responsible for less than 2 percent of last year’s gun deaths.

Stricter gun laws could also reduce the more common gun deaths. It all comes down to the same problem: More guns equal more gun deaths, whether a gang shootout in California, a suicide in Wyoming or a school shooting in Texas.

I also came across this substack from political science professor, Brian Klass, on the issue and it’s terrific, “It’s the Guns.: America is the only rich democracy that features the routine mass slaughter of its citizens with guns. Why does this happen? The data show a really clear picture: It’s the guns. Yes, it’s that simple.”

It’s got a series of false claims and then the reality.  I strongly recommend the whole thing:

Licensing, Training, and Safety Regulation

Most of the gun debate in the United States focuses on gun purchasing and background checks. But what’s often lost in the mix is the standard array of regulations around gun ownership that exist in almost every other country on the planet.

Just to take one example, the United States is one of the only countries in the world that doesn’t require gun owners to have a license in order to own a gun. This graphic is from Politico:

The New York Times has put together a fantastic guide that compares how easy it is to buy a gun in the United States compared to other peer countries. It’s really worth a look to see just how much of an outlier America is—which matters, because it’s not just about gun laws, but also about regulation, licensing, and responsible gun ownership training…

Moreover, the gun lobby and elected Republicans have made a policy choice that they are willing to tolerate tens of thousands of gun murders each year—including in terrifying mass shootings, even in schools. As a result, most sensible gun laws are dead on arrival in Congress, and until the balance of power tips substantially more toward the Democrats, the odds are low that any meaningful gun legislation will pass.

State legislation is crucial, even if it won’t solve the problem (due to what I described as the Chicago Problem above). But it’s going to be a generational battle, to shift America’s gun culture and bring it substantially more in line with other countries.

My message, though, is this: America’s gun violence is not inevitable. It’s a choice.

Parents in the United States are buying bulletproof backpacks, children are being traumatized by mass shooting drills, and an increasing number of people stay away from crowded events because they’re worried they’re going to be shot.

I’ve lived in the United States and I’ve lived in the United Kingdom. In the UK, there’s a key difference: I never think about guns. I never think about mass shootings. Never. It’s just not part of life. It’s not a problem that exists.

Every other rich democracy has solved this problem. The United States can solve it too. But it’s going to take a lot of effort, a lot of persuasion, and a lot of hard-fought election victories. It’s worth it, because nobody wants to live in a broken, violent society in which you have to look for the nearest exits when you go to a concert, a movie theater, or a school.

It’s a choice, it’s a choice, it’s a choice. It’s a democracy and we have a say.  We don’t have to live like this.  And we should reject politicians (yes, 99% Republicans) who tell us we do have to. 


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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