Young adults stand near a memorial at Robb Elementary School following a mass school shooting on May 26, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
The reflex to say how great America is instead of actually doing something to make it so is our Achilles heel. It’s strongest when it’s most damaging — after a tragedy born of societal failure, begging for solutions.
I’ve reported on guns and gun culture for years, and it’s what happens after almost every mass shooting.
Black Americans are targeted by a racist mass murderer in New York. Children are targeted in a senseless slaughter at an elementary school in Texas. Parade goers in Illinois are picked off by a rooftop sniper.
And politicians get defensive about … it even being a problem.
An exchange between U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and two reporters after the recent Uvalde Elementary School massacre was instructive. The reporters ask why America is the only country that faces this kind of epidemic.
Cruz gets mad.
“Why is that people come from all over the world to America? Because it’s the freest, most prosperous, safest country on Earth,” he said.
It was a bizarre reaction. Cruz should be mad; but not at the question, at the fact that the premise is spot on. America is objectively not nearly the safest country in the world. In fact, an accurate statement from Cruz would have stated, “We are perhaps the most dangerous wealthy nation on Earth.”
In my home state of Idaho, the city of Twin Falls just decided to hire armed security for its elementary schools. I’m not criticizing that decision – it’s understandable given the massacres we’ve seen. But the fact that American cities feel compelled to do that means something is wrong – we should be able to agree on that.
But statements like Cruz’s indicate we can’t, and that is an indictment of us as a nation. We’re the only country in the world where this regularly happens. Of our wealthy nation peers, we are a glaring outlier, and we have trouble even admitting that.
Dr. Michael Anestis, who heads the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center, told me there’s an information gap, and part of the reason for that gap lands squarely on academics like him.
“That’s one of the reasons I took this job was to get out of academic silos and echo chambers where we do work that in theory could have societal value, but it doesn’t have any, because we just publish it in journals that nobody reads,” he said.
Anestis said we journalists, too, share some of the blame for almost exclusively talking about gun violence when mass shootings happen.
“And I’m not going to argue we should talk less about those tragedies,” Anestis said. “But those tragedies represent 1% of American gun violence, despite taking up about 99% of the oxygen in the room when we’re talking about gun violence.”
Suicides and one-off murders account for exponentially more gun deaths than mass shootings. Both get far less attention than mass murders, skewing national perceptions about what is driving gun deaths in America.
“In 2020, 54% of all gun-related deaths in the U.S. were suicides (24,292), while 43% were murders (19,384),” according to information provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Pew Research Center. “The remaining gun deaths that year were unintentional (535), involved law enforcement (611) or had undetermined circumstances (400),” Pew reported on its website.
And when a mass shooting happens – and they happen a lot – we want to talk about everything except the obvious topic. Let’s talk about doors; let’s talk about religion. Oh, mental health – yes that’s something that can dovetail with gun violence and God knows we need better mental health care access. But we do not have higher rates of mental illness than similar countries that have a fraction of the gun violence.
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There is one major difference: There are more guns than people in the U.S. That doesn’t mean we need to agree on solutions, but we need to be honest about the choices we’re making.
Study after study has shown that is the difference between us and our developed nation peers. We have decided that the freedom to easily access guns is worth high rates of gun violence. And that’s a philosophical argument to be made. We mostly agree that trading some amount of security for freedom is worth it. The ability to own guns with few restrictions is one of those freedoms we currently enjoy and there’s a debate to be had about how much security is worth sacrificing for that right.
Only, I don’t hear a lot of gun rights activists being honest about the tradeoff. Many even say more guns equals more safety. But they mostly talk about the “shall not be infringed” part of the Second Amendment. Again, that’s an argument to be made – that the Constitution bars just about any restrictions on guns – but we should be honest about the real-world impact of philosophical choices.
Back to my home state of Idaho – it’s one of the most gun-friendly states in the nation. Over the past few years lawmakers there have dismantled just about any remaining restrictions it had on the books, including doing away with a permit requirement for carrying a concealed weapon. The Legislature has even rejected bills to limit gun access to sex offenders and domestic abusers.
It might surprise some people in my state, but Idaho has one of the highest gun death rates in the country – the 16th most. The vast majority of those are suicides, as is the case across the country, though police shootings are also far above average, too. A look at the numbers, shows that the states with the highest rates for gun deaths, all have high rates of gun ownership.
It pokes a big hole in the more guns equals more safety argument.
On the other side, there are some fanciful notions on the left about what can be accomplished quickly. Thoughts of banning military-style semi-automatic rifles, like AR-15s, having a major impact seem optimistic at best. Any ban, as unlikely as it would be to pass Congress, would almost certainly grandfather in the 20 million AR-15s already in civilian hands.
“I think people look for the flashy idea — there’ll be no assault rifles, and there can’t be mass shootings,” Anestis said. “And it also prompts elected officials to pursue policies based primarily on efforts to stop mass shootings, which again, of course, we should stop — but that’s not what most American gun violence is.”
Anestis does think such a ban could have an impact on mass shootings, but very little impact on overall gun violence. That’s because we’ve boxed ourselves into a corner.
There are an estimated 400 million guns on the street, more guns than Americans. The bulk of those firearms aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, notwithstanding pie in the sky liberal notions of an Australian-style mass gun buy-back program.
And gun sales have been skyrocketing over the past couple years.
That has Deb Azrael, director of research of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center feeling less than optimistic. With a ton of first-time gun buyers represented in those numbers, Azrael worries that one basic conversation is not taking place: weighing the pros and cons of having a gun in your house in the first place.
“The risk of suicide among people newly exposed to guns is high – on the order of three to five fold that of people who aren’t exposed to guns; that people who live with somebody in a household with a gun are also at elevated risk of suicide; and women are at an elevated risk of homicide in those households (with guns),” she said.
She worries most of our gun conversations start with the assumption that people will buy guns in the first place. I own guns and have a child, so gun safety in the home is something I’ve certainly thought about a lot.
“But that conversation is the one that I think we have a hard time having and that gets foreclosed to our detriment,” Azrael said.
On the positive side, Azrael says there’s a lot more gun research out there than even a few years ago. Americans theoretically have the ability to make informed decisions about firearms. But in a world of alternative facts, that research isn’t having the effect she would like it to.
“If empirical evidence is what makes the difference between somebody supporting a law and not, then I think we’re in much better shape than we were a year ago,” Azrael said. “But I’m not convinced empirical evidence is what convinces people.”
There do seem to be some small signs that people with different views on guns are talking. Congress passed an extremely modest gun bill in June and there has been bi-partisan cooperation on efforts to curb America’s astronomical rates of gun suicide.
But we need to start by getting back to a reality-based discussion. I fear in 2022, that itself may be a tall order.
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