The reason why the NRA, the gun lobby, and their shills in congress oppose funding research on gun violence is that they collectively fear the answer the to the questions bound to be raised by such research. Here’s the problem framed by Wired.com in their email Tuesday.
A man with an AR–15 rifle killed 26 people in a small Texas church last weekend. Another man with an AR–15 fired back at the shooter, disabling him. Which means that both sides of the gun control debate can, and have, turned the massacre into a political talking point. But any discussion about whether the AR–15 is an overpowered gun that kills a lot of people or a crucial component of civilian defense is bound to falter. Nobody really knows whether AR–15s do more harm than good in the United States. No one has collected the data.
That’s not completely true. Read on.
Or really, as science writer Adam Rogers explains, no one has been allowed to collect it, or even access the information that does exist. The US political system and the corporate interests that influence it has been hostile to science for decades (consider the now-proven links between fossil fuels and climate change, or between tobacco and cancer). The Trump administration has only escalated that conflict, hiding and obfuscating information about weather, crime, and even how many people live in the United States. And that makes sound public policies nearly impossible to implement. As Adam puts it: “If nobody can know anything, why bother to try to regulate anything? It’s government-by-ignorance—a shrugocracy.”
All that is certainly true. However, enough research has been done to draw some conclusions about what is and is not related to the incidence of mass shootings in America. I’ll start with what is not predictive of the incidence of mass shootings in America.
Adam Gopnik (New Yorker) considers A Mass Shooting in Texas and False Arguments Against Gun Control (Monday, Nov. 6). The recent mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, raises familiar questions—and myths—about guns in America.
Feelings of powerlessness and depression are bound to infect those—by all surveys, the majority of Americans—who would like to see something done to prevent these increasingly common occurrences of mass slaughter. It’s hard to be hopeful. If nothing was done after the killing of twenty school children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut, and if nothing was done—not even the “bump stock” limitation—after the murder of fifty-eight concertgoers from a sniper’s perch in Las Vegas, a month ago, then twenty-six more dead won’t alter things. But there is never a time to give way to hopelessness: the politics are hard but far from insurmountable, and, meanwhile, as with every public crisis, the truth matters and clarifies and brings light, even when the light can’t immediately show a better path forward. If we can’t defeat the gun lobby now, we can out-argue it, and expose it. Here are some myths that are trotted out regularly by that lobby, and that will likely be trotted out again today.
Indeed they were. The Huffington Post describes the explosion of fake news across the internet in The Texas Shooter Was Called A Liberal, Antifa Communist Working With ISIS — Before Anyone Knew Anything. The Post added a “Welcome to the world of right-wing propaganda.” “By late Monday night, hundreds of thousands of users across multiple platforms had shared fake news about the shooter.”
Back on track, I’ll list the myths about gun deaths with Gopnik’s (truncated) rebuttals but my focus is on the very last of Gopnik’s list.
- The kinds of rules and limitations most often proposed—i.e., a ban on military-style weapons of the kind used in the two most recent high-profile gun massacres and in so many others before—wouldn’t have an effect on gun violence in America, which tends to be concentrated on handguns, and more typically involves suicides and domestic disputes. Gun massacres are not the only or even the most lethal form of gun violence.
… Making one kind of gun illegal or restricted makes the broader work of restricting violence more plausible. (Which is, of course, exactly why the National Rifle Association, et al., oppose it.) …
- Why, if there are too many guns in America, is there less crime than there used to be? People keep buying guns and the crime rate keeps going down. Doesn’t that prove that the more guns there are, the less crime there will be?
Well, no—the crime rate, contrary to the picture of carnage that Donald Trump likes to frighten his voters with, has been going down over the past decades in every Western country … The only question worth asking is why, given that crime has declined so universally, does America still have such a uniquely highly level of gun violence? Crime rates descend, gun massacres increase. That’s the “Why” to ask and answer.
- Given the number of weapons of mass murder already in place in the country, any change we can make, any law we might pass—even if we could pass such laws—will be inadequate to the problem. And, anyway, any particular proposal being debated wouldn’t have stopped this or that massacre, whose perpetrator would have escaped its rules.
… Gun control in any form will limit gun violence. Child labor was a terrible thing, and small boys forced to become chimney sweeps was among the worst of it. But if we want to abolish child labor, we don’t put lids on chimneys. We abolish it more broadly, and know that the specific abuse will likely end, too.
- The Second Amendment.
… The argument that the Second Amendment remains a formidable obstacle in the way of gun control, even if there were a political will to pass such legislation, is perhaps the most frustrating of the objections. Only a recent, radical, and bizarre rereading found in it an individual right to gun ownership. The decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, in 2008, which featured Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s invention of a previously undiscovered right to private gun ownership, was 5–4. …
I will have more to say about this “right” to own large-capacity assault rifles when I turn to the data.
- The social science on gun violence is inconclusive.
It will always be a given that it’s impossible to have real controlled experiments. The closest thing in this case would be to have two contiguous countries—both with similar “root” populations, and both subject to massive immigration from abroad. Both would have a frightening number of mentally ill people capable of mass killing. One, however, would have reasonable gun-control laws regularly reinforced, in the light of new kinds of violence—with guns broadly available for recreation and pest control, but the kinds capable of killing many people quickly prohibited or highly restricted. The country on the other side of the border would impose few gun-control measures. Then we would compare the results. One country—let’s call it Kanada—would have a per-capita rate of gun homicide seven times smaller than the other country. That experiment’s been run. The results are in. We really do know. Now we only have to do.
And here are the results In a broader international context reported by Max Fisher and Josh Keller (NY Times/The Interpreter) in What Explains U.S. Mass Shootings? International Comparisons Suggest an Answer.
When the world looks at the United States, it sees a land of exceptions: a time-tested if noisy democracy, a crusader in foreign policy, an exporter of beloved music and film.
But there is one quirk that consistently puzzles America’s fans and critics alike. Why, they ask, does it experience so many mass shootings?
Perhaps, some speculate, it is because American society is unusually violent. Or its racial divisions have frayed the bonds of society. Or its citizens lack proper mental care under a health care system that draws frequent derision abroad.
These explanations share one thing in common: Though seemingly sensible, all have been debunked by research on shootings elsewhere in the world. Instead, an ever-growing body of research consistently reaches the same conclusion.
The only variable that can explain the high rate of mass shootings in America is its astronomical number of guns.
Here’s the (graphically displayed) evidence that “The United States has 270 million guns and had 90 mass shooters from 1966 to 2012. No other country has more than 46 million guns or 18 mass shooters.” There is a correlation between guns and mass shooters but the USA is way, way off scale.
Americans make up about 4.4 percent of the global population but own 42 percent of the world’s guns. From 1966 to 2012, 31 percent of the gunmen in mass shootings worldwide were American, according to a 2015 study by Adam Lankford, a professor at the University of Alabama.
Worldwide, Mr. Lankford found, a country’s rate of gun ownership correlated with the odds it would experience a mass shooting. This relationship held even when he excluded the United States, indicating that it could not be explained by some other factor particular to his home country. And it held when he controlled for homicide rates, suggesting that mass shootings were better explained by a society’s access to guns than by its baseline level of violence.
… the United States is not actually more prone to crime than other developed countries, according to a landmark 1999 study by Franklin E. Zimring and Gordon Hawkins of the University of California, Berkeley.
It’s not that we have more crime. Instead, it is the case “that American crime is simply more lethal. A New Yorker is just as likely to be robbed as a Londoner, for instance, but the New Yorker is 54 times more likely to be killed in the process.”
Similarly, mental health and race do not explain the USA’s unique number of mass shootings because “the mental health care spending rate in the United States, the number of mental health professionals per capita and the rate of severe mental disorders are all in line with those of other wealthy countries.”
Racial diversity or other factors associated with social cohesion also show little correlation with gun deaths. Among European countries, there is little association between immigration or other diversity metrics and the rates of gun murders or mass shootings.
What does matter is gun ownership.
More gun ownership corresponds with more gun murders across virtually every axis: among developed countries, among American states, among American towns and cities and when controlling for crime rates. And gun control legislation tends to reduce gun murders, according to a recent analysis of 130 studies from 10 countries.
This suggests that the guns themselves cause the violence.
But there is one other factor that conspires to influence America’s “leadership” with respect to mass shootings: how Americans think about guns.
In 2013, American gun-related deaths included 21,175 suicides, 11,208 homicides and 505 deaths caused by an accidental discharge. That same year in Japan, a country with one-third America’s population, guns were involved in only 13 deaths.
This means an American is about 300 times more likely to die by gun homicide or accident than a Japanese person. America’s gun ownership rate is 150 times as high as Japan’s. That gap between 150 and 300 shows that gun ownership statistics alone do not explain what makes America different.
The United States also has some of the world’s weakest controls over who may buy a gun and what sorts of guns may be owned.
Switzerland has the second-highest gun ownership rate of any developed country, about half that of the United States. Its gun homicide rate in 2004 was 7.7 per million people — unusually high, in keeping with the relationship between gun ownership and murders, but still a fraction of the rate in the United States.
Swiss gun laws are more stringent, setting a higher bar for securing and keeping a license, for selling guns and for the types of guns that can be owned. Such laws reflect more than just tighter restrictions. They imply a different way of thinking about guns, as something that citizens must affirmatively earn the right to own.
The Difference Is Culture
The United States is one of only three countries, along with Mexico and Guatemala, that begin with the opposite assumption: that people have an inherent right to own guns.
The main reason American regulation of gun ownership is so weak may be the fact that the trade-offs are simply given a different weight in the United States than they are anywhere else.
After Britain had a mass shooting in 1987, the country instituted strict gun control laws. So did Australia after a 1996 incident. But the United States has repeatedly faced the same calculus and determined that relatively unregulated gun ownership is worth the cost to society.
That choice, more than any statistic or regulation, is what most sets the United States apart.
“In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate,” Dan Hodges, a British journalist, wrote in a post on Twitter two years ago, referring to the 2012 attack that killed 20 young students at an elementary school in Connecticut. “Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.”
As I have said before (here, here, and here), every American is complicit in the epidemic of mass shootings - the killing of Americans by other Americans using large capacity [semi]automatic rifles of the sort never envisioned by those who wrote the 2nd amendment. And I mean every American from the president down to the guy that owns a bolt-action hunting rifle (as did my dad). But we can change that at the ballot box. Make gun safety a litmus test for your vote. Does Martha McSally think that killing children is “bearable”? How about Kyrsten Sinema? Ann Kirkpatrick? Demand an answer and vote accordingly. Make the upcoming elections a single issue. Our politicians are willing to live with more mass shootings or they are not. And if they duck the issue, vote them out.
As Gopnik put it in his New Yorker essay: “The results are in. We really do know. Now we only have to do.”