Daily, Invisible Mass Shootings

Photo of Gun Protests. NRA talking points win out even though most Americans – including gun owners – agree on life-saving gun safety measures.
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This article originally published on U.S. News & World Report

One month after the Oregon shooting, approximately 90 Americans a day are killed by guns – but no one wants to talk about it.

The calls stopped before the last victim had been laid to rest.

The reaction to the mass shooting just one month ago at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, had followed the usual script to perfection: shock, outrage, handwringing, resolve, resignation. This tragic yet familiar anomaly in our nation's gun violence epidemic – an unstable loner, nine dead, a cache of weapons – had captured the media's attention, and lenses, just long enough.

I'm an expert in gun violence and its staggering impact on public health, and the calls came in quickly after the Oct. 1 massacre. I did a Q&A interview with The Washington Post, weighed in on CNN and offered analysis of the gun control issue for The New York Times, among others.

But then it was time to move on – music to the ears of the gun lobby.

Many journalists do a remarkable job contextualizing the complex issue of gun violence, but the sweep of the coverage – informed by the misleading narrative of the National Rifle Association and amplified by its supporters in Congress – leaves the unmistakable impression that mass shootings and mental illness are the nation's greatest gun violence concerns.

They are not.

These tragic mass shootings serve as a grim but resounding bell tower chime in the nation's public square. But when the ringing fades, the clock ticks on, if quietly. The equivalent of several mass shootings happen every day: 30 homicides and 60 suicides by guns in individual incidents that I'll never be called to discuss and about which you'll likely never hear.

That's 2,700 lives every month – nearly the number lost on 9/11.

The conversations we do have about gun violence are often misleading. In the wake of tragedies like the one in Oregon, for instance, readers are given false choices and reminded that gun control is "a divisive issue" (it is not), even as gun owners who support new laws are rarely heard. The misguided debate pits the gun lobby's hardliners against advocates for stronger gun laws and allows proponents of weak gun laws to portray background-check requirements for all gun sales as equivalent to unconstitutional government disarming of its citizenry.

The NRA and its supporters want Americans to believe that the choice is between gun ownership and, in essence, gun confiscation. This is a far-fetched framing. We require background checks for all gun sales made by licensed gun dealers, and the system has not been used to create a gun registry or to prevent any person from lawful gun ownership. In fact, federal law expressly prohibits such a registry. Baseless claims of gun confiscation inflame culture wars and stymie the discussion of effective solutions.

The us-versus-them narrative, often told without nuance, titillates news consumers, but it works to the advantage of the gun lobby that is desperately defending the indefensible – a system designed to facilitate gun commerce and allow sales to criminals and traffickers with no accountability. This flawed system is a key reason why our homicide rate by guns is 19 times higher than the average for a high-income Western democracy. Our rates of other violent behavior are unremarkably average among such countries.

A more informed and fruitful discussion about what the United States needs to do to substantially reduce gun violence would abandon these tired frames and take into account the fact that we already have answers to these crucial questions:

  • Do our gun laws allow people with histories of violence, substance abuse and criminality to own and carry guns in public?
  • Do important gaps in our laws make it easy for prohibited persons to obtain guns?
  • Do policies exist that would significantly reduce gun deaths while still allowing law-abiding individuals to have guns?

The answer to each of these questions is, of course, yes.
When laws prohibit gun ownership for a wider share of people who are violent and break laws, fewer people are shot. When we close gaps in the background check system and take seriously the obligation to keep guns from dangerous people, fewer people die.

I'm not merely guessing that these things might happen. Such policy recommendations are backed up by extensive research that I and others have conducted.

We can curb gun violence without disarming law-abiding gun owners. Indeed, the most important things that we need to do to reduce gun violence are not controversial and are supported by the vast majority of gun owners.

Three out of four gun owners favor laws that prohibit people from having guns if they have been convicted of domestic violence, committed a serious crime as a juvenile or used a gun in a threatening manner. The same proportion of gun owners supports specific measures to make gun dealers more accountable than is currently the case under federal law. Ninety percent of the public supports background checks for all gun sales, with little difference across political parties.

The gun debate in this country no longer needs to be a Sisyphean exercise in futility. The next time another of these tragic mass shootings descends upon us, we must redirect our energy toward the shootings that we can anticipate – the ones taking place with appalling regularity every hour of every day across the United States.

Should journalists call me in the wake of another mass shooting to make sense of the senseless, I'll be eager to talk about life-saving laws that large majorities of gun owners support – measures that we know could save lives. 

Comments +

1 comment

May 9, 2017

"The conversations we do have about gun violence are often misleading."

Isn't that the truth? This article itself seems to add to the obfuscation. When Mr. Webster writes things like "This flawed system is a key reason why our homicide rate by guns is 19 times higher than the average for a high-income Western democracy," he is reporting the data in such a way to fit a narrative, not to facilitate understanding. That is, why compare only gun homicides rather than homicides generally? Furthermore, why only include "high-income Western democracies"? The answer is that it makes the US seem like some crazy outlier; however, when one adds all homicides and does not cherry-pick their sample, the US doesn't seem like such an outlier https://mises.org/blog/guns-how-ny-times-manipulates-data

And why the emphasis on suicides committed with a gun? Is it somehow worse than suicide committed by other means? Or does Mr. Webster think these suicides might not have happened without guns?

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