Two summers ago I paid my first visit to Canada, and my first trip out of the country in a few years. In an Uber with some friends coming back from brunch, we started chatting up our driver: a Quebec native, he told us he’d never been to the United States. When we asked why not (Montreal is barely an hour from the border), he chuckled to himself.
“There are too many guns. I don’t want to take my family there, because I don’t want to get shot.”
I had to chuckle too – the reasoning sounds ridiculous. My friend, a Texas native, assured him that while she’d seen plenty of guns growing up she had never felt unsafe, let alone threatened. I told him the only gun I’ve seen was at a shooting range. We tried to explain that the mass shootings the world kept hearing about are shocking and tragic, but in reality few and far between. The chances of one happening on your hike to the Hollywood sign are slim; yes, America has an problem with guns, but the media has a way of blowing it out of proportion.
Years of reading, researching and listening have shown me how misleading that assertion is. Sure, it’s probably unwarranted to warn tourists about getting held up. But our gun violence epidemic is not the sum of its news coverage, and especially as someone who’s never crossed paths with a gun, I can’t speak for the country’s health as a whole.
Because for millions of Americans, firearm violence is a daily threat – victims of domestic abuse or those in cities with high crime rates don’t live with the lullaby of “it could never happen here.” And in the last few years, national media has begun covering the sheer number of black men shot by police officers, a conversation no doubt kindled by Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and the rise of Black Lives Matter.
Each of these issues is unfathomably complex, intersecting at every plane of identity and privilege that we have. In one group, there’s the horrific body counts in communities whose names become shorthand for the slaughter: Columbine, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Orlando, forever scarred. According to a Washington Post report, the perpetrators were virtually all men, mostly between ages 20-49, nearly half taking their own lives at the scene; the issue is the lone-wolf “troubled child,” the root a flawed mental health system. Then there’s the one-offs, the 56 suicides and 31 homicides out of 91 gun deaths per day of escalating domestic disputes and the bar brawls gone wrong – the children who stumble on an improperly stowed gun and don’t know any better. Domestic and gang violence become their own sphere, targeted by awareness campaigns and after-school programs. The killings of unarmed black men are then the product of an institutionalized racism that has been a part of our lifeblood since before 1776, “drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history… an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.” Ta-Nehesi Coates doesn’t shy away from our fundamental shortcomings and neither can we, so long as it means young black men gunned down in our streets. It’s certainly not as simple as increasing background checks.
But a common denominator across the board is still guns. The hard truth is that those issues are systemic and deep-rooted in our political system – we’ve spent decades deciphering them and we’ll spend decades more untangling them. But that hard work doesn’t excuse our inaction.
After the 1996 Port Arthur, Tasmania massacre that left 35 people dead and 18 wounded, Australia could have tried turning to mental health reform. Instead they passed sweeping gun reform legislation that included tightened licensing regulations, banned the importation of automatic and semiautomatic weapons, and established national gun registration system. On top of what American Democrats would call “commonsense” reforms, Australia instated a nationwide gun buyback program, voluntary surrenders and state gun amnesties. The Australian package spent $500 million to purchase nearly 600,000 semiautomatic and automatic weapons from private owners; British Medical Journal report tracked the aftermath, defined by “more than a decade free of fatal mass shootings, and accelerated declines in firearm deaths, particularly suicides.”
Similar initiatives in the UK and Finland have seen success as well. Critics insist that these nations are smaller and more homogeneous, with arguably less of the intersectional complexity that our melting pot facilitates, and that’s why everyone can agree. They’re right. But blood is flowing all the same. A gun in the house significantly increases the risk of some kind of homicide. And if we’re going to seriously reduce their impact in America, we have to look at how it affects all of us, every day. Smoking leads to lung cancer, so we started taxing cigarettes. Climate change threatens us across the board, so we create environmental regulations. So if guns are a leading cause of death among Americans, how can we treat them as anything other than a danger to the public?
It starts at the core of our democracy. In all its unambiguous glory, the Second Amendment reads “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The United States is one of only four nations to write gun ownership into its constitution. While anyone else could pass a semiautomatic ban tomorrow, amending our constitution involves supermajority support in both chambers of Congress and 3/4ths of the states thereafter. Recognizing the futility in that fight, legal scholars have instead tried needling the definitions of “well-regulated Militia” and “right of the people,” leaving the courts to interpret how Madison and Jefferson would want this handled. Our founding documents still glue together many of the ideas we govern on today, and any attempt to rescript the list of protections for the people against a tyrannical government is threatening; as long as we all hold close to “all men are created equal,” others will cling just as hard to “shall not be infringed.”
That delicacy dictates how politicians today talk about gun reform; the Bill of Rights is nothing but sacred no matter which side of the widening chasm you stand on. And the more that chasm expands, the farther we get from negotiation that could actually solve the problem. “Compromise” is a dirty word for modern Democrats and Republicans, a call not to meet in the middle but force the other side to cave in the name of “doing their job.”
Politicians in both parties give quick handshakes across the aisle: Democrats almost always preempt their calls for gun reform with “I’m a proud gun owner,” “I believe in the Second Amendment,” and “it’s the right of the people,” while Republicans make clear they don’t condone the slaughter while slamming Democrats for “politicizing the issue.” The partisanship has grown starker even in the last few years; Hillary Clinton toted the novelty of gun culture during the 2008 Democratic primary, but she’s since marched back to her camp on the left where her 2016 platform makes no mention of the Bill of Rights. Her primary opponent this year, Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, lost a lot of ground while Clinton hammered him for voting for a gun manufacturer liability shield. Democrats sickened by San Bernadino, Orlando and more NRA lobbying saw his moderate stance as irredeemable, especially as Sanders didn’t try very hard to appease them. That intolerance amongst our politicians and ourselves has made it impossible for a Republican to vote for simple safety regulations or a Democrat to challenge a federal ban on assault weapons, and any misstep toward middle ground is a betrayal matched appropriately by smear campaigns, attacks on character and the ever-insulting “F”.
“Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” but people holding guns kill more people than those not holding guns. And as long as 2nd amendment fanatics refuse to discuss basic safety measures while their accusers frame the impasse as an NRA witch hunt, we will continue to suffer. Because the only way we move forward is by recognizing the indiscriminate body count: Democrats and Republicans, but all Americans. Guns don’t discriminate by political party, so neither should the approach to curbing their appetite.
But the media inevitably follows their example to exacerbate the problem, with wall-to-wall coverage of mass shootings and their political response that polarizes as well as politicizes the tragedy before we know how many have been killed. While each of these events is more abhorrent than the last, they’re often so paralyzing that the media can’t break free of its feedback routine: Democrats demand action by Republicans, Republicans accuse Democrats of taking advantage of the tragedy, and a few weeks in deadlock allow a new crisis to command our attention while the latest body count drifts out of the news cycle. Democrats score points for condemning the non action, Republicans lose a few if they’re endorsed by the NRA, but the chatter dies along with the headlines. Gun control activists are happily shouldered with a lot of the dirty work (isn’t stalking fun?), and the partisan divide devolves into a fault line. We turn to softer ways to mitigate the damages: omitting the shooter’s name in news reports, enshrining the victims, anything we can to diminish the inevitable “copycat effect.”
More importantly, the media’s sensationalist commentary on Columbine and Newton and Orlando inexorably weld those names to the campaign against gun violence, so that every legislative battle is centered around our reaction to tragedy. But mass shootings account for only 2% of annual gun deaths; AK-47s, AR-15s and the like are undoubtedly deadly, but a relatively tiny part of the problem. Meanwhile, 35 Americans were killed by firearms just this Friday, and dozens more were injured. In 2016 alone, 2,034 were killed or injured during home invasions, 1,794 were shot accidentally, and 1,877 were victims of officer-involved shootings. Of 48,639 gun violence incidents this year, only 332 were tied to mass shootings.
If the media continues to treat these deaths and injuries as a separate issue, and we refuse to give them the same weight as a rampage, the gun reform debate will never break free of its apathetic pattern. Until we can all zoom out and regard this violence as a whole, we’ll never get to talking about the real issues, or the real solutions.
And that uncertainty is only encouraging more Americans to buy guns.
In an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air, Evan Osnos of The New Yorker didn’t talk about closing gun show loopholes or fortifying the mental healthcare system against potential perpetrators – more Americans than ever are obtaining concealed carry permits, he announced, and that behavior is both a cause and effect of the gun violence problem. The “concealed-carry” lifestyle is the gun rights movement’s new calling, as much for the market as for the political statement. If you’re in a restaurant and someone starts shooting, don’t you wish you could whip out your pocket gun and staunch the carnage? If your child was at school and another student pulled out a pistol, wouldn’t you be grateful to the teacher with her own in the desk drawer? As Donald Trump so eloquently puts it, “If we had people, where the bullets were going in the opposite direction, right smack between the eyes of this maniac…you know what, that would have been a beautiful, beautiful sight, folks.”
As the carnages unfold on live television month after month and politicians make no concerted move to curb it, some Americans are taking up that call to arms. It’s a credible response. And while sure, in many a James Bond movie, the aforementioned scenarios sound heroic, we have no success stories of concealed carry owners interrupting a shooting in progress. In an NRA-sponsored class in the basics of using a pistol and, should the day come, how to wield it in public, Osnos was taught to expect that everyone could be armed. Interviews with his classmates revealed that paranoia doesn’t go away – the idea of other armed citizens tends to put more concealed weapon owners on edge, sometimes putting innocent lives at risk. So the cycle continues.
Do fewer guns lead to fewer gun deaths? We actually don’t know that for sure. Since 1996, the right government agencies with access to the right data haven’t been able to study all the links between gun ownership and gun crime, selling practices and unlawful use, or accidental discharges and death. One of the last investigations – a report linking guns in the home to an increased risk of homicide – had the National Rifle Association at Congress’ throats, one of the most powerful interest groups in America threatening to cut support if these government-backed appeals to gun control continued. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, operating within the federal Department of Health and Human Services, yielded to the 1996 appropriations directive that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the CDC may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” The Dickey Amendment appropriated the $2.6 million used the previous year for firearm injury research to traumatic brain injury prevention, and despite President Obama’s post-Sandy Hook repeal there’s been no move to resume the exercise.
I’ve studied gun violence for a long time now, but its taken me too long to look past the live broadcasts and passionate op-eds for the real solution to America’s problem. It sounds simple, but like so many of our other social and economic issues the problem is embedded in our systems. Yes, fewer guns in America should logically lead to fewer gun deaths. But for so many people, America’s freedom is what makes us great, and any threat to that security won’t be tolerated. We need an overhaul of the conversation first. If fewer Americans suffering from mental illness got guns in their hands, maybe more would find their way to the help they need. If domestic abuse victims didn’t have to worry about a partner’s firearm, maybe more would have the capacity to leave. Perhaps if the police weren’t so nervous about concealed weapons, fewer encounters would escalate so tragically.
Until we can empathize with all these victims, America will be stuck with a public health crisis defended only by ink not even 300 years old. Its up to us to understand the entire picture, and to have to discussions our representatives are neglecting. More ignorance will only yield more blood.
Chapman, S., et al. “Australia’s 1996 Gun Law Reforms: Faster Falls in Firearm Deaths, Firearm Suicides, and a Decade Without Mass Shootings.” British Medical Journal: Injury Prevention 12.6 (2006): 365–372. Web.