I can only imagine what the family and friends of those lost in the Sutherland Springs, TX church shooting are feeling, and while my emotions and opinions pale by comparison, after hearing of this recent event marked by unimaginable cruelty and loss of life, my immediate reaction was not of anger or fear or frustration or hopelessness or sadness, but of a vague resigned exhaustion over it all. Another week, another mass shooting. The same questions and suspicions. Who was the shooter? Were there warning signs about his intent to kill? Was he affiliated with ISIS or some other terrorist organization? What was his political orientation? Did he suffer from some personal trauma or mental illness? I’m sure you can think of more examples of the type of analysis that accompanies these sorts of tragedies, but that’s not my point. The point—one that I’m sure is not lost on scores of Americans on both sides of the aisle—is we’ve been here before. Aurora, Charleston, Columbine, Fort Hood, Las Vegas, Orlando, San Bernardino, Sandy Hook Elementary, Tucson, the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, VA—the list of sites of high-profile mass shootings goes on and on, and exceeds what I can or would want to remember. Moreover, when considering these flashpoint instances of extreme violence, the freshness and overlap is such that it exacerbates the extent of our hurting and our sorrow. Before we are even done grieving and saying our prayers for the victims and loved ones of one event, another one occurs and our focus shifts. With act after act of gun violence, a bad dream becomes a recurring nightmare accompanied by the fear we’ll never wake up.
In addition, highlighting the incidence of mass shootings in the United States, in part, obscures the totality of gun-related violence in the country today. As of November 11, the Gun Violence Archive, a not-for-profit formed in 2013 to provide free public access to information about gun-related violence in the U.S., recorded 53,197 gun-related incidents in 2017 alone, 13,375 resulting in death and another 27,338 resulting in injury. This includes 310 mass shootings, 633 instances of children 0 to 11 killed or injured, and 2,825 instances of children 12 to 17 killed or injured; these events, it should be noted, may be concurrent, but the numbers are still upsetting. Even more disturbing is the notion these tallies do not even reflect the majority of gun-related deaths in America: suicides. Over 60% of fatalities involving guns in the United States are self-inflicted. To top it all off, it’s not as if the gun violence situation is getting better. According to the Center for Disease Control, firearm-related deaths in the U.S. rose in 2016, the second straight year of an overall increase in mortality rates after close to 15 years of being largely unchanged. Even if the spikes may be due in large part to violence in places like Chicago, where many of us essentially have come to expect firearm-related deaths and injuries, the specter of guns casts a long and dark shadow on America’s profile. According to a study published in February 2016 in The American Journal of Medicine, Americans are 10 times more likely to be killed by guns than in other developed countries, and 25 times more likely on average to be killed by guns than in the 22 other high-income nations referenced in the study. Even when suicide rates are comparable between the U.S. and a given high-income nation, Americans who take their lives are eight times more likely to do so with the help of a gun. These kinds of numbers would appear to be beyond the power of positive spin to put a shine to them.
It’s about this point in the gun law reform discussion that, in the face of verifiable quantitative data about just how profound the problem of gun violence is in America, the argument usually shifts to consideration of Second Amendment rights and discussions of mental health. Concerning the former, this provision of the Bill of Rights is interpreted as the “right to bear arms” for all people, and as many might contend, perhaps gun ownership shouldn’t be a right so much as a privilege. Certainly, the “right” to bear arms pales in comparison to the rights to, say, food and water, and furthermore, blindly pointing to the existence of the Second Amendment ignores the context in which it was created. That is, this right of gun ownership was intended for militias—not every Tom, Dick, and Harry—and I’m reasonably sure the Founding Fathers were not imagining semi-automatic weapons, assault rifles, or the like when including this provision in the Bill of Rights. As for the latter, the concern for mental health in this context is a red herring. Gun advocates who point to mass shooters as “unstable” sorts are doing so primarily because it is a convenient out. To put this another way, if these people were so concerned about improving mental health and access to affordable, high-quality treatment in the United States, they wouldn’t wait until there’s a tragedy to talk about this matter—nor would they resort to stock answers like this when prompted to respond to acts of unspeakable violence.
Otherwise, critics of gun control cling to the notion that having one or more guns in this situation—you know, not possessed by the shooter but by someone who intercedes to stop him or her—would save lives, and/or separately allude to the perpetrator not being a “responsible” gun owner. This time, I’ll begin with the latter. Identifying someone as a responsible gun owner is a nebulous distinction. By this, I mean to say that there doesn’t appear to be a broad consensus as to what constitutes responsible gun ownership. Is it keeping a firearm in a locked box or safe? Is the weapon stored separately from the ammunition, or does one keep it loaded out of necessity to act fast in the event of an intruder? I may be merely telegraphing my own ignorance about gun ownership as a non-owner here, but standards of care or safe storage look to vary by locale or with the assumption of risk of the user. I personally don’t want a firearm in my house for my own protection, and I definitely would not want a gun in the house if I had one or more children under my roof. On the part of the former, there’s a term for this belief: “the good guy with a gun” assumption. Even with respect to the Sutherland Springs massacre, Donald Trump and his FOX News-watching brethren will point to instances like Stephen Willeford, neighbor and bystander, shooting the assailant in the leg and torso and chasing him in a car after the fact. Not only did this all still equate to a loss of life, however, but the evidence suggests these types of interventions are outliers more so than the norm. We all are not John McClane in Die Hard. Trying to play hero could get you or other innocent people killed.
While much ado is made about who uses firearms in cases of extreme violence, why they do so, where and when the shootings take place, and how they go about procuring these deadly weapons, in looking at the big picture and trying to answer the big question of “What can we do to reduce gun violence rates in America?” the obvious crux of the matter is that there are simply too many guns. Statistically speaking, there is about one gun for every person in the United States, far surpassing the next-closest nation. As apparent as the problem of access to guns is, any action that is retroactive in nature to address the pervasiveness of the gun violence crisis is liable to produce a conflict of epic proportions, one that would see clashes between the liberal left and conservatives and libertarians who hold individual and states’ rights sacrosanct. Myth-making or not, the NRA and other Second Amendment supporters seem to have succeeded in spreading the narrative that the “godless” left is “coming for your guns.” Cue Charlton Heston’s famous line about prying his gun from his “cold, dead hands,” and so on and so forth. That there wasn’t a more significant backlash in the wake of the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by an armed “militia” led by Ammon Bundy speaks to our national fixation with guns, not to mention it highlights a profound difference in the way whites with firearms and people of color with firearms are approached. With story after story about blacks being shot by police during routine traffic stops or low-level arrests, it appears only too likely the occupation in Oregon would have transpired much differently—and with way more bloodshed—if these armed militants were black or brown.
If taking people’s guns is therefore not a viable answer, and if people aren’t willing to cede possession of their weapons, looking forward, how do we enact policy that allows us to make real progress on the subject of gun control and gun violence? Going back to the idea of gun ownership being a right versus a privilege, let me deal in the context of an analogy, as I so often like to do on this blog and—annoying my friends and family in the process—in my personal life. Automobiles, like guns, involve pieces of metal moving at relatively high rates of speed. Based on their size, weight, momentum, and other factors, cars et al. have the power to injure and kill. This applies to not only drivers, but pedestrians as well, a thought reinforced by an alarming number of recent acts of violence on innocent bystanders at political rallies and as part of terroristic attacks. Owing to how dangerous operation of a motor vehicle can be, ownership and use is more of a privilege than an absolute right. Beyond the potential limitation of cost, there are numerous proverbial hoops through which to jump if one is to legally be able to share the road. You must be of a certain age specified by the state in which you reside, you must pass both a written and road test, you must register and insure your vehicle, and you must regularly maintain it, not merely for issues of performance and long-term viability, but to pass inspection and satisfy federal standards designed to ensure safety and to limit the emission of substances regarded as damaging to the Earth’s environment. These provisions of law, mind you, did not happen overnight, but are a function of the efforts of automobile safety advocates and other interested parties. Buying, driving, and owning a car is, in short, a big deal.
In terms of overall utility, a gun is far less useful than an automobile. With respect to a car, this may be a necessity for the individual, especially if his or her job/profession involves driving and relying on public transportation is impractical. Guns, meanwhile, are designed to intimidate, injure, or kill. Sure, there’s the notion that a firearm can be carried and owned as a measure of self-defense, but even then, the optimal outcome is that shots aren’t fired. In this sense, guns primarily confer the benefit of a sense of protection for the holder—even when this may be illusory. (By the way, don’t even get me started about the use of guns in hunting. If we’re talking about it as pure sport, I have no regard for this “tradition.” Play a deer-hunter simulator, why don’t you?) So why are guns so much more readily available in the United States when they have a far less redeeming social value than something like a motor vehicle. By now, it should be evident that the gun lobby in the United States has more clout and more influence than most single-issue advocacy groups. Whether or not you approve of their stances on various topics under the gun control/gun law reform umbrella, the National Rifle Association, represented in its lobbying efforts by the Institute for Legislative Action, is effective in impacting policy and mobilizing its members and supporters. Like President Trump, the NRA appeals to anti-government types and stokes feelings of anger and fear that “their” way of life is at risk of being taken away by runaway liberalism. It also makes use of gun clubs, gun magazines, gun shops, and other methods of communication to amplify its voice. The NRA is as entrenched a group in American politics as they come, and this has made, to a large extent, resistance to change so resolute.
So, does this mean that the gun lobby is unassailable and that positive steps forward become too long and heavy to take? No, I don’t believe this is the case, and I think analogies like the car vs. gun binary can be instructive. In saying this, I am mindful of the reflexive defense employed by gun advocates that cars kill thousands of people a year and we don’t blame the cars for the violence they help create, so why vilify guns? For one, as we’ve talked about heretofore, a car’s worth to society easily exceeds that of a gun’s. Guns are not critical to the American economy like cars are, nor are they essential for most people’s survival. In this respect, the comparison to automobiles as brutal killing machines is an apples-to-oranges parallel. Moreover, assuming we are putting dissimilarities aside in line with the wishes of Second Amendment fanatics, let’s put our money where our mouth is and treat gun ownership like car ownership. Let’s require that prospective gun users pass both a written and physical proficiency exam before they can become licensed to carry and operate a firearm. Let’s mandate that these weapons, like cars, get registered by their owners, and furthermore, that these owners obtain proof of insurance in the event of an incident. In the interest of safety, and if we can do this for cars and other vehicles, why can’t we do it for guns? In the case of a car accident, your seat belt and/or the airbag might save your life. In the case of a shooting, unless you happen to be wearing a bulletproof vest, the odds of not dying are decidedly not in your favor.
The straightest path to progress on this issue is a legislative one, and whether we are talking reform at the federal or state level, it initially appears we are chasing our tails by offering a solution at odds with the wishes of the gun lobby. The pursuit of advancement on gun law reform, however, was always going to be a marathon, not a sprint, and commensurate with the notion of the long haul for gun control, changing the political process and elevating new leaders to become lawmakers will take time. Both of these efforts are worth the time and energy, though, as much as our sense of exasperation over the same tragedies repeating themselves ad nauseum—not to mention the sheer stupidity and embarrassment of the Trump administration—may be. Despite the bluster of the NRA and other Second Amendment apologists, most Americans want sensible measures enacted to limit the ability of individuals who would do harm to others to legally procure deadly weapons, even if, in specific cases, existing gun laws may not have been sufficient to prevent a tragedy such as Sutherland Springs. We’re all sick and tired of hearing about these kinds of shootings. Let’s not allow our fatigue to bring us to a state of complacency when authentic change is possible.