Every time a massacre occurs we take part in a futile debate between those advocating for gun control and those arguing that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. For the most part, I think they are both correct.
We need to ask a different set of questions – starting with the fact that, while America is unique in the mass active shooting situation, the question remains whether that makes America inherently more violent than other societies and, if not, how do other cultures and nations have the desperate and the mentally ill manifest their anger and aggression?
Part of what we are missing in the simple guns/no guns debate is why such killing sprees occur. Almost always, the gunman ends up dead, either through suicide or suicide by cop. Clearly, the killers are set on this being their final act. They are, in effect, domestic terrorists, using the fear and uncertainty they generate to gain attention for themselves as a platform to promote themselves and their grievances against society.
If we take away their guns, what do we have? In other places, we have suicide bombers, mass knife attacks and other massacres such as occurred in China and Japan. And if we take away guns, will people find other ways to inflict mass damage on society?
As usual, I think we have to start with facts and data.
We know, for instance, that shooting sprees are not rare in the U.S. Mother Jones tracked and mapped shooting sprees over the past three decades from 1982 to May of last year. Their data found “at least 61 mass murders carried out with firearms across the country, with the killings unfolding in 30 states from Massachusetts to Hawaii.”
Another survey by the Congressional Research Service found 78 incidents with 547 killed. Somewhere, about 80 percent of the time, the weapon was obtained legally.
Gun ownership in the U.S. has been declining over the last forty years. A survey found that gun ownership reached a record low in 2010, with 31 percent of adults owning a weapon, down from the peak of nearly half in 1977 to 1980.
Survey data released last year by the Pew Research Center broke down the demographics of gun ownership. Gun ownership, not surprisingly, is predominantly among older adults, rural residents, and whites, especially white Southerners. Whites in the South are more likely to own guns than those in other regions.
But, while gun ownership is declining, active shooting events have been on the rise. A report published by the FBI last year, found, from 2000 to 2007, an average of 6.4 active shootings per year. Since 2007 that number has jumped dramatically to 16.4 incidents per year.
This is a point that gun advocates should focus on – for it shows that, as gun ownership has declined, shootings have increased. It lends credence to the idea that the crucial variable is not guns, but media attention.
The U.S. is a much more violent country than most. Duke University Sociologist Kieran Healy tracked assault death rates from 1960 to 2013.
His data found that the U.S. is far more violent than other OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, except Estonia and Mexico. At the same time, the U.S. is moving back to the pack, as it was much more violent in 1970 than it is now.
So, again, the trend of mass killings is running counter not only to the trend in gun ownership but also to the trend in overall U.S. violence.
What may surprise people is that the more rural South is by far the hotbed for assault deaths within the U.S. Professor Healy again shows that the rural South is by far the leader in assault deaths since 2000, at over 7 per 100,000. The West and Midwest are in the clear middle band, with the Northeast by far the lowest.
But it shouldn’t be a surprise based on the next two data points…
There are two statistics that play against the party line for gun advocates. The first is that more guns correlates to more homicide. The Harvard Injury Control Research Center found substantial evidence to back that up and the finding holds both across countries and states.
Second, states with stricter gun control laws have fewer deaths from gun-related violence. In 2011, economist Richard Florida examined the correlations between gun deaths and other kinds of social indicators.
Some of what he found ran against conventional wisdom. For instance, he writes, “It is commonly assumed that mental illness or stress levels trigger gun violence. But that’s not borne out at the state level. We found no statistical association between gun deaths and mental illness or stress levels. We also found no association between gun violence and the proportion of neurotic personalities.”
He continues, “Some might think gun violence would be higher in states with higher levels of unemployment and higher levels of inequality. But, again, we found no evidence of any such association with either of these variables.”
Those who argue for immigrant-based explanations may be surprised to find that “states with more immigrants have lower levels of gun-related deaths.”
Instead, he found that states with tighter gun control laws appear to have fewer gun-related deaths.
He writes, “Firearm deaths are significantly lower in states with stricter gun control legislation. Though the sample sizes are small, we find substantial negative correlations between firearm deaths and states that ban assault weapons (-.45), require trigger locks (-.42), and mandate safe storage requirements for guns (-.48).”
Despite this data, gun control is not politically popular and its popularity has been on the decline.
Since 1990, the Gallup Poll has been asking Americans whether they think gun control laws should be stricter, and has found increasingly that they do not think so.
“Less than half of Americans, 47%, say they favor stricter laws covering the sale of firearms, similar to views found last year,” Gallup says. “But this percentage is significantly below the 58% recorded in 2012 after the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, spurred a nationwide debate about the possibility of more stringent gun control laws. Thirty-eight percent of Americans say these laws should be kept as they are now, and 14% say they should be made less strict.”
On the other hand, 2013 data from Pew Research Center found that, while the majority of Americans support the right to bear arms, they support specific regulations like background checks, assault weapons bans and a federal database to track guns.
Finally, Pew Research Center also found that these shootings do not impact views on gun control.
Add that all up and what do we have? We see that the trend away from gun ownership and the decline in crime are not linked to the rise in mass shootings. That suggests that a mass shooting is unlikely to be linked to either the availability of guns or the overall crime rate – meaning that it is a separate phenomenon.
I argued at the outset that mass shooters are essentially individuals committing their final act, as they usually kill themselves or are killed by the police. And as data from other countries suggest, there are other means to carry out massacres without guns, even if guns represent a convenient way to do so.
Let me present an absurd analogy. In baseball there were a large number of incidents where fans would run out on the field. This represented a huge security risk to the players and it interfered with the game. It was attention-seeking activity where the fans were trying to get on TV running around, as well as drawing audience attention.
One way baseball attempted to combat this was by cutting away from the field and focusing the camera on the announcers rather than the fan. I have not seen data on it, but it seems to have greatly reduced the number of on-field incidents because the fans do not get the publicity.
It is hard for the news media not to cover a massacre, but perhaps that is the strategy that can work to reduce the number of mass shootings.
Eric Harris, the infamous shooter in Columbine, would point out in a journal entry that it is not about guns, it is about television, film and fame. Cut out that part of the equation and you might see a reduction in mass shootings. It is, of course, not easily done, but worth investigating.
—David M. Greenwald reporting