Originally published in VICE on October 12, 2015.
Earlier this month, a 26-year-old student at an Oregon community college fatally shot nine people and injured nine others on campus. Soon after, the shooter killed himself. What came next was a sadly familiar story: The president delivered a national speech, liberal politicians vowed to pass comprehensive gun control, conservative leaders—who are still generally opposed to Medicaid expansion—insisted that mental health care would have prevented the shooting. And of course some Serious Public Figures found ways to shift the conversation away from popular reforms like universal background checks to oddities like arming teachers or how the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened if only Jews had more guns.
On Friday, the national news media reported on two more campus shootings, one in Arizona and the other in Texas. But these same outlets paid little or no attention to the two mass shootings that happened in Baltimore this month: On October 10, five people were shot near a strip mall, and several days later, another five people were shot near an elementary school.
This disparity in coverage showcases how a few high-profile shootings can dominate the discourse around gun deaths in harmful ways, as the public focuses on extreme events rather than the everyday tragedy of firearm-related suicides, homicides, and accidents.
“The Oregon shootings fit a pattern of gun violence that still shocks us… mainstream, middle class America can picture itself in a community college classroom in Oregon or in a movie theater in Colorado or an elementary school in Connecticut,” wrote the Baltimore Sun editorial board. “But when it happens on a street corner in Baltimore, we—even many of us who live here—are conditioned to gloss over it. The idea that these are things that happened to someone else, maybe even to someone who had it coming, has by now become so deeply ingrained in us.”
Mass Shooting Tracker, a crowd-sourced database project started in 2013, reports that there have been nine mass shootings in Baltimore in 2015, 13 in Chicago, six in Detroit, five in St. Louis, three in Los Angeles, and four in Philadelphia. The database defines “mass shooting” as any instance where four or more people are shot in one event. (Other organizations define mass shootings as instances where there have been at least four fatalities, building off the FBI’s definition of “mass murder.”)
Shira Goodman, executive director of the gun control advocacy group CeasefirePA, says it can be especially difficult for families living in crime-ridden urban communities to have their experiences go overlooked or underreported. “The gun violence they experience gets written about on the back pages of the paper, or Section B, and it’s just a couple of lines, but for those families, their lives have been irrevocably changed and devastated,” she tells VICE.
Goodman adds that she believes the mass shootings which draw national attention serve as important “teaching moments” and have helped to engage those who aren’t living directly in impacted communities. “I think people do get drawn in for different reasons, which is good, but we have to be very mindful that we are working in all parts of the country, be it cities, suburbs, rural areas—gun violence really is an American problem.”
For public policy experts, though, the fact that national discussions around gun violence seem to reawaken only after mass shootings—not counting those in urban cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Chicago, of course—is incredibly frustrating. Tens of thousands of people die in America every year from gunfire, homicide, and suicide, and mass shootings are responsible for just a fraction of those deaths.
In fact, a growing body of research suggests that the sort of mass shootings that make headlines are statistical aberrations. Many of these cases seem to involved young, mentally ill, isolated white men who unleash their rage on random civilians. But a study published this year in the American Journal of Public Health found that “surprisingly little population-level evidence supports the notion that individuals diagnosed with mental illness are more likely than anyone else to commit gun crimes.” The study cites past research showing about 85 percent of shootings occur within social networks, and that just 3 to 5 percent involve mentally ill shooters. As co-authors Jonathan M. Metzl and Kenneth T. MacLeish put it, “People are far more likely to be shot by relatives, friends, enemies, or acquaintances than they are by lone violent psychopaths.”
Which begs the question: If mentally-ill loners aren’t the only problem, and mass shootings aren’t the cause of most gun deaths, how can this plague of violence be addressed?
“Can gun laws address mass shootings? Honestly, we don’t have the best data to answer that in a definitive, scientific way,” says Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. Such shootings occur too infrequently to allow for sound statistical modeling. “But the only time we talk about gun policy is with mass shootings. We ask, ‘Could this have prevented the Oregon shooter?’ That’s perhaps an interesting question we could ponder, but how relevant is that to the 33,000 killed and another 75,000 treated with gunfire every year?”
While Webster and other experts tend to agree that expanding access to mental health care is an important public health imperative, to say that doing so would dramatically reduce gun violence is not consistent with the evidence.
For Webster, a more relevant question is how could we move to pass expanded background checks on gun sales—a policy that 85 percent of Americans support, including 88 percent of Democrats and 79 percent of Republicans. “Ben Carson and all the Republican candidates are talking about this issue in a way that’s totally disconnected to the much, much larger problem of gun violence,” Webster adds, referring to Carson’s claim that Nazi gun control laws paved the way for the genocide of Europe’s Jews. “For those who don’t want to anger the gun lobby, they change the subject.”
In other words, every time Americans talk about taking away guns from the public, or loopy proposals like arming ordinary people to prevent mass tragedies, they lose focus on legit proposals that might enjoy bipartisan support.
Mark Kleiman, a public policy professor at the University of California in Los Angeles who focuses on drug abuse and crime control policy, says he, too, has grown impatient with the gun control debate, “because it ignores all the ways not related to guns specifically that we can reduce gun violence.” What nearly half of all homicides do share, Kleiman argues, is that those who are under the influence of alcohol commit them. And research finds that the risk of homicide, suicide, and violent death significantly increases with chronic heavy drinking.
To reduce annual homicides, Kleiman supports increasing the tax on alcohol, as intoxication has proven to be a much greater risk factor for gun violence than mental illness. Heavy drinkers, who are particularly prone to violence, consume more than four out of five alcoholic drinks. Doubling the alcohol tax, Kleiman says, could reduce annual murders by 3 percent. Tripling it, which would cost the median drinker less than 20 cents a day, could reduce it by 6 percent. “That’s 800 annual homicides we just wouldn’t have,” Kleiman says.
While Obama pushed for increased funding for gun research after the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, there are still huge gaps in data about guns deaths. A ban on federally funded research into firearms, pushed by the NRA in 1996, has greatly limited the amount of studies conducted around guns over the past two decades. The ban had a chilling effect on not only state and federal agencies, but also academic researchers. The Washington Post reported in January that many private nonprofits have also avoided funding gun-related research proposals.
I asked Kleiman if he thought we’ve made any progress in the national debate since Sandy Hook in December 2012. “No, I don’t think anything has changed,” he said. “This is not an issue that will break through the polarization. Being in favor of gun control is a blue issue, and being against it is red.”
Kleiman says Democrats should focus all their political energy on passing universal background checks, and quit focusing on policies that “fetishize” guns like assault weapon bans. The president is reportedly exploring how he could pass more gun control reforms through executive action, but his options seem limited.
“An outright ban on guns is not politically possible and it’s not constitutionally possible,” says Webster. “Talking about disarming an entire population is nonsense. Let’s talk about the actual issue.”