By John P. Walsh
updated October 2, 2015.
On a typical day in the United States, at least some firearms (a.k.a. guns) are not used for “hunting,” “sport” or to “protect one’s family” as stated by President Obama in his press conference on October 1, 2015 at the White House in the wake of the mass shooting at Umpqua College in Roseburg, Oregon. At last report, 10 people were killed (including the gunman) and 7 more critically wounded in this latest school shooting – the 44th such type of incident in the USA in 2015. Since the tragic and disturbing Columbine massacre in 1999 (13 killed; 21 wounded) there have cropped up in intervals of about one per week mass shootings in the USA, not all of them school shootings, that have gained intense media attention: the Fort Hood shooting (November 5, 2009), the Gabby Giffords shooting (January 8, 2011), the Aurora movie theater shooting (July 20, 2012), the Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting (Aug. 6, 2012), the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting (Dec. 14, 2012), the Navy Yard shooting (Sept. 16, 2013), the Kansas Jewish Community Center shooting (April 14, 2014), the Charleston Church shooting (June 18, 2015), the Chattanooga recruiting center shooting (July 16, 2015) and now the Roseburg community college shooting. In the wake of this carnage, the mainstream media coverage felt a bit different this time – almost as if this kind of thing could have been happening for the first time – or that they were somehow having to start over in their approach. Reporters seemed to embody a deeper scrutiny of, or despair at, this latest school massacre only four weeks since the murder by gunfire of TV reporter 24-year-old Alison Parker and TV cameraman 27-year-old Adam Ward In Virginia.
There will be gun control in this nation – either by default or design. A Pew Research Center study released on August 13, 2015, shows a large majority of Americans in support of several specific gun policy proposals including 79% who favor laws to prevent people with mental illness from purchasing guns; 70% who support the creation of a federal database to track all gun sales; 57% who support a ban on assault-style weapons and 85% of Americans – including large majorities of Democrats (88%) and Republicans (79%) – who favor expanded background checks. President Obama hinted in his press conference at another finding in the August Pew Research study when he said, “I would particularly ask America’s gun owners — who are using those guns properly, safely, to hunt, for sport, for protecting their families — to think about whether your views are properly being represented by the organization that suggests it’s speaking for you.” His comment was a not-too-subtle reference to the NRA (The National Rifle Association) which the Pew Study finds the public has some changing opinions about.
While mass shooting crimes are, statistically, a snippet of America’s real field of action for gun violence, they are an especially destructive form in itself and its repercussions for the wider community. In addition to a national discussion about the mind or “profile” of a mass murderer (usually devolving into mental health concerns and/or ignorance about a reliable profile), the impact on the local or national community is less explored. While President Obama predicted a routine counter-punch to his gun control comments, it came swiftly, reported by media outlets such as WGN Chicago as a top story featuring gun-rights advocate Mike Huckabee who stated the president was wrong for trying to “exploit” the Oregon shooting and that another mass killing should have no serious effect on the public debate about gun ownership in the USA. Yet the impacts of any mass shooting is never as simple as anybody’s politics. Deleterious effects from the gun violence understandably extend to the victims and their families, but also beyond them. Based on the level of shock associated with these shootings, the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are not only a consequence for more numerous victims and their families but the psychological consequences of directly experiencing or witnessing any part of a mass shooting, especially for children, is often serious and long-lasting. Even extremely realistic school-shooting simulations known as “active-shooter” drills staged by local law enforcement agencies using school grounds and staff and students as actors and thought to be the best way to help first responders prepare for gun-related violence on campus are censured as largely counterproductive by psychologists and other security specialists because the mere simulation of gun violence causes psychological distress among students and their families and may actually make death tolls worse.
A 2013 report cited 547 innocent lives were taken between 1983 and 2012 in 78 public mass shootings. From 2013 into 2015 there were in schools an additional 142 mass shootings and 25 of them suicides or attempted suicides. Everyday in America guns are used to kill about 80 people and wound 300 more – that’s about 560 murders by guns from one Sunday Night Football game to the next week (over 2,000 more are wounded by guns each week). For accidental gun shootings, 3 people die and another 30 are wounded everyday in America.
In 2011, 68% of homicides in the USA were gun crimes, even though these and all other crimes have dropped by almost 40% since 1993. Americans, however, continue to view gun crime as a pervasive and even worsening problem. In 2011, 11,068 people died in gun homicides in the USA – but that number reflects a steep decline in gun homicides since the 1980’s and 1990’s. Despite the welcome decline the perceived relationship of guns and murder endures. Statistics support a conclusion that where there are more guns and access to them there is more gun violence, including murder. After covering mass shootings, media turns to cover gun homicides for the local newscast which logically are found in more densely-populated urban areas where there is a likely concentration of guns. Mass shootings frequently occur in rural or suburban settings outside this logical gun-murder mode.
Yet each year most gun deaths in the USA are not mass shootings or homicides but suicides. In 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 19,990 people died by suicide with a firearm. It has been that way at least since the 1990’s. Does more access to more guns lead to more suicides? That gun suicides are less common in states where criminal and mental illness background checks are mandated points to, if not a direct link, then an approach that works like one. Guns kill in three ways: homicide, suicide, or by accident. It is obvious that by having a gun the risk of having an accident increases – but what of homicide and suicide? Suicide attempts by guns are almost always fatal while attempts by other methods cause death only about 6% of the time. This data confirms the firearm’s mortal effectiveness and as the nihilist of second thoughts.
To plumb arrest statistics it is clear that it is not as much a criminal’s race, age, or creed that a citizen may fear – but his gender. Males are arrested for 75% of all crimes. They appear to be adept in all categories: from violent crime to property crime to every manner of assault. Access to a gun aids his criminal facility. For example, in a survey of battered women nearly 72% reported that guns had been used against them and to threaten to kill them. For women who are abused (and not killed) 16% live in homes with a gun. Abused women that were killed, about half lived in a home with a gun. One might ask, perhaps facetiously, why gun control does not simply extend to the USA’s male population? Stats that suggest access to a gun is a risk factor for homicide in abusive relationships is beginning to be taken up by law enforcement in police interviews with battered women.
We know mass shootings are a small percentage of the gun homicide problem but it may be surprising that their frequency and impact have changed little in the last 35 years. To focus public safety on the mentally ill in reaction to these horrific gun crimes is likely to produce small effect on their recurrence. Several studies have shown that while the mentally ill require good health care (and locating funding is a struggle) they are responsible for only about 5% of crimes and not ones normally involving guns. One positive outcome to gun violence – if only based on a misconception – is to provide better health care for the mentally ill. During the Great Recession of 2008 budget cuts for mental health amounted to almost $2 billion. Drug and alcohol abusers engage in violent acts seven times more than the mentally ill and funded substance abuse programs should be important to gun safety advocates. A sad statistic is that the link between gun violence and domestic batterers is far greater than to those with mental illness. Another sad statistic is that of those 80 people killed by guns each week in the USA, 24 of them are children and that gun shootings, after accidents, are the leading cause of death of children in the USA.
In 2009 there existed an estimated 310 million civilian guns (handguns, rifles, shotguns) in the USA with 2012 sales adding $6 billion more. Buying fever has hiked up privately-owned firearms by about 40% since 1994 when there were 192 million guns. Actual concentrations of firearms in the USA is not known – about half of Americans report at least one gun in their home – but the prodigious amount of guns results in a one-to-one gun ownership rate for every citizen in the country. However gun ownership in the USA is heavily concentrated among older white men. Depending on which side of the gun debate one is on, 310 million guns is more than a sufficient stockpile or may not yet be enough. The fact is that the USA has more guns per capita than any land mass in the world. While some poor countries (in Central America, for example) have higher gun homicide rates than the USA, among “developed” nations no other country has more guns per person in private hands nor a higher gun homicide rate than in the United States. The gun industry is prospering and, to paraphrase Charles Erwin Wilson (Defense Secretary under Dwight Eisenhower): “What is good for Sturm, Ruger & Co. is good for the nation.” There is some truth to it. In 2012, the gun industry added $31.6 billion to the U.S. economy due to job creation and new sales taxes. The gun industry also employs about 98,750 workers and another 111,000 workers as suppliers and retailers including mega gun seller Walmart. While recreational use seems to be driving record sales, there is a darker side to one gun advocate’s recent proclamation that “the (gun) industry has entered a golden era, a renaissance of gun ownership that transcends a dedicated segment of Americans who consider firearms a natural part of their lives.”
Barring an unimaginable catastrophic gun crime event (or a series of them), the prospects for further gun control in the USA remain bleak. Fewer than half of Americans think that gun laws should be stricter, although another half believes they are too strict already or just right. In a culture where money increasingly defines free speech and second amendment rights are permitted liberal construction, an incredibly prosperous gun industry as well as at least half the population of the United States will not be laying down its arms any time soon. Gun safety measures may have a more receptive audience than attempts at gun control, including background checks but there is also a “mindset” associated with some elements of gun-rights advocates that may divide the gun owners’ attitudes about certain potential gun control measures. This is part of what President Obama was getting at when he asked law-abiding gun owners to reflect on “the organization that suggests it’s speaking for you.” An extreme and controversial example of this mindset is the so-called NRA embrace of “insurrectionist ideology” that asserts that the intent of the second amendment is to permit American citizens to shoot and kill federal agents and law enforcement officers in the event that they believe those agents are attempting to facilitate or impose some form of government tyranny. On the NRA specifically, the American people remain divided: 40% say the NRA is too influential over gun laws while 52% say it has too little or the right amount of influence. While positions on the NRA grow entrenched and polarized, there is slight but significant movement on another issue pertaining to guns. In 2015 Americans did an about face on the question as to whether it was more important to control gun ownership (50%) or protect the right of Americans to own guns (47%). Once more as 57% of whites favor gun rights over gun control, 75% of blacks and 72% of Hispanics favor gun control. Changing demographics as well as marginally shifting overall American opinion on gun control may be the sliver of hope President Obama perceived when he said in his October 1 news conference: “It will require that the American people, individually, whether you are a Democrat or a Republican or an independent, when you decide to vote for somebody, are making a determination as to whether this cause of continuing death for innocent people should be a relevant factor in your decision. If you think this is a problem, then you should expect your elected officials to reflect your views.”
While several polls found that over 60% of the public thinks background checks are a good idea, neither the gun industry nor many gun owners want that extra burden. In an almost $32 billion a year industry ($6 billion in sales) background checks would be a major government intrusion. As long as the number of gun fatalities is status quo– that is, on par with the number of traffic fatalities – there likely will be no greater impetus for gun control than there is for automobile control. In some states – Arizona, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Michigan, Nevada and Oregon – the rate of gun deaths has exceeded traffic fatalities (they are equal in Ohio and Pennsylvania) but such comparisons fail to enlighten or be relevant to either problem. It is and will continue to be a subjective decision by individuals and the general populace – half of which are gun owners and 95% of which own cars –as to whether 30,000 fatalities in each category of these combustibles is an acceptable and fair price to pay in society for their continued unabridged access and use. Even if, as Russ Thurman writes, “Gun ownership has gone mainstream…It’s the fun factor of firearms that has been restored to the culture,” this cannot be a responsible gun owner’s first or only matter of importance. The tragedy of gun violence is that like other forms of violence it only requires some resistance to exist – but it is nearly always lethal.
Pew Research Center study – http://www.people-press.org/2015/08/13/continued-bipartisan-support-for-expanded-background-checks-on-gun-sales/ – retrieved October 2, 2015.
Ask America’s gun owners…to think about whether your views are properly being represented by the organization that suggests it’s speaking for you- http://time.com/4058961/oregon-shooting-president-obama-transcript-speech/?xid=tcoshare -retrieved October 2, 2015.
Effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)- see http://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/newsletters/research-quarterly/V18N3.pdf;
especially on children – comments by Dr. Alan Lipman director of the Center for the Study of Violence and professor at the George Washington University Medical Center – https://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2012-12-17/mass-shootings-and-their-effect-american-psyche- retrieved October 2, 2015.
“active-shooter” drills – http://americanfreepress.net/bloody-school-shooting-drills-in-vogue/ – retrieved October 2, 2015.
142 mass shootings in schools; 25 suicides or attempted – http://everytown.org/article/schoolshootings-/- retrieved October 2, 2015.
are used to kill about 80 people and to wound 300 more – https://www.press.umich.edu/158723/private_guns_public_health#sthash.fmNmMTxZ.dpuf\- retrieved October 2, 2015.
accidental firearms shooting – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-helmke/private-guns-public-healt_b_38208.html
Gun crimes drop 40% – http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?iid=4616&ty=pbdetail;
Americans don’t sense decline in gun violence- http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/05/07/gun-homicide-rate-down-49-since-1993-peak-public-unaware/
19,990 died by suicide by firearm -http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr63/nvsr63_03.pdf;
Suicide by firearm less common in states with background checks – http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0091743512003295;
Males 75% of crime – https://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0325.pdf; 72% battered women report guns used against them – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1448464/; 16% live in homes…yet 50% of abused women… – David Hemenway, “Private Guns, Public Health,” University of Michigan Press, 2006 p 123; Beginning to be taken up by law enforcement in police interviews – http://www.dangerassessment.org/DA.aspx and http://www.newrepublic.com/article/politics/magazine/102779/domestic-violence-vawa-maryland-abuse-women.
310 million civilian guns (2009) & 192 million firearms (1994) –http://www.gunpolicy.org/firearms/citation/quotes/6676;
gun ownership in the USA is heavily concentrated among older white men – http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonkblog/wp/2015/06/18/11-essential-facts-about-guns-and-mass-shootings-in-the-united-states/
Mass shootings tiny percentage of homicide – https://s3.amazonaws.com/s3.mayorsagainstillegalguns.org/images/analysis-of-recent-mass-shootings.pdf; frequency and impact have changed little in the last 35 years- http://www.boston.com/community/blogs/crime_punishment/2012/08/no_increase_in_mass_shootings.html;
Mentally ill responsible for 5% of crime – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20591996; mental health budget cuts – http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/12/17/seven-facts-about-americas-mental-health-care-system; drug and alcohol abusers engage in violent acts seven times more – http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/18/health/a-misguided-focus-on-mental-illness-in-gun-control-debate.html; link gun violence and domestic batterers – http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/26/opinion/gun-laws-and-the-mentally-ill.html;
Good for the gun industry good for the nation – http://www.nationalreview.com/article/352429/whats-good-america-robert-w-patterson;
At least one gun in home – http://www.csmonitor.com/Business/2012/1217/US-gun-industry-is-thriving.-Seven-key-figures/47-percent;
$6 billion sales (2012) – http://www.csmonitor.com/Business/2012/1217/US-gun-industry-is-thriving.-Seven-key-figures/6-billion;
USA more guns per capita for all & highest per capita rate for “developed” nations – http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2012/12/15/what-makes-americas-gun-culture-totally-unique-in-the-world-as-demonstrated-in-four-charts/;
No higher gun homicide rate than USA – http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2012/12/14/chart-the-u-s-has-far-more-gun-related-killings-than-any-other-developed-country;
Add $31.6 billion to economy & employment numbers – http://www.thegunmag.com/firearms-industry-bright-spot-in-struggling-world-economy/;
“A renaissance of gun ownership” – http://www.shootingindustry.com/u-s-firearms-industry-today-2012/
Fewer than half of Americans think gun laws should be stricter – http://www.gallup.com/poll/162083/americans-wanted-gun-background-checks-pass-senate.aspx; Money defines free speech – see 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission; 60% think background checks good idea – http://www.pollingreport.com/guns.htm; http://www.gallup.com/poll/162083/americans-wanted-gun-background-checks-pass-senate.aspx;
Insurrectionist ideology – http://www.examiner.com/article/flirting-with-treason-the-insurrectionist-ideology-of-the-nra-leadership
PEW research study results on NRA and question of gun rights versus gun control – http://www.people-press.org/2015/08/13/continued-bipartisan-support-for-expanded-background-checks-on-gun-sales/ – retrieved October 2, 2015.
Gun death rate exceeds traffic fatalities – http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/01/09/guns-traffic-deaths-rates/1784595/; 95% car owners – http://photos.state.gov/libraries/cambodia/30486/Publications/everyone_in_america_own_a_car.pdf
©John P. Walsh. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by an means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system.