After [insert tragedy here], it’s time to get serious about gun control

The details might change, but the facts never do.

Oct 2, 2015, 1:51 pm

Internet Culture

Gillian Branstetter 

Gillian Branstetter

Mike Linksvayer/Flickr (PD) | Remix by Jason Reed

In the wake of the tragedy at Umpqua Community College, President Barack Obama issued yet another statement mourning a mass shooting in the United States. “Somehow this has become routine,” the president said. “The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it. We’ve become numb to this.” In the spirit of a government that repeatedly does nothing in the face of such overwhelming tragedy, here is a template to be used by publications upon each new mass shooting.

Once again, the nation finds itself in mourning as [X number of people] have been gunned down in [location] by an armed man. [Shooter] is only the most recent example of what has become an epidemic unseen elsewhere in the Western world, tallying the [X]th mass shooting in the U.S. this year. Each one is an abhorrent tragedy, only worsened by the seeming ineptitude of a federal government unwilling to embrace the challenge of stopping this torrent of atrocities.

It was [x] number of years ago that [then-]President Obama said at the memorial for victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting: “Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?” Given the lack of action in the [current year minus 2012] years since, the answer to the [former] president’s question is a resounding “Yes.” In the face of multiple policy prescriptions from both sides of an increasingly partisan divide, Congress and local governments have not only accomplished little to prevent these shootings; they’ve barely tried.

The discussion over preventing mass shootings typically narrows down to two factors: the availability of guns and our nation’s mental healthcare system. The former is traditionally the most controversial, given guns’ dual status in American life as Constitutionally protected providers of protection and recreation (according to gun rights advocates) and as the chief reason mass shootings happen more in this country than any other (according to gun control advocates).

Gun lobbyists like those at the National Rifle Association love touting the fact that, even as gun sales have soared, overall firearm deaths have decreased. A 2013 Pew study corroborates this finding: Gun crime of any kind decreased 49 percent in the 20 years since 1993, even as gun sales have boomed in recent years. Mass shootings, however, have become far more frequent. According to a 2014 report from the Harvard School of Public Health, “In 2011 the United States entered a new period in which mass shootings are occurring more frequently.”

It’s worth noting the researchers adjusted the definition of a mass shooting to “attacks that took place in public, in which the shooter and the victims generally were unrelated and unknown to each other, and in which the shooter murdered four or more people.” The federal government currently requires just three fatalities in order to statistically count an incident as a mass shooting, and even it has seen a dramatic increase in the last few years.

While gun rights advocates argue stricter gun laws will only make incidents like this week’s all the more likely (a stance memorialized by NRA President Wayne LaPierre as “the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”), international examples suggest that is not true. First, the U.S. has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world and, likewise, the highest rate of gun crime. Second, mass shootings have been prevented before.

In 1996, a gunman opened fire upon tourists at a popular destination in Tasmania, Australia, killing 35 people and injuring 23 more. The Port Arthur massacre was the worst mass shooting in Australia’s history—and the last. As Will Oremus details in Slate, the Australian government responded by passing a slew of gun restrictions; the nation “prohibited private sales, required that all weapons be individually registered to their owners, and required that gun buyers present a ‘genuine reason’ for needing each weapon at the time of the purchase,” as well as instituting a buyback program that took 600,000 firearms out of the hands of private citizens.

Not only did mass shootings evaporate from Australian life, gun crime overall decreased dramatically in the years following the legislation. Conservative Prime Minister Jonathan Howard, however, doubted the politics of American public life could so embrace such a successful policy. In an op-ed published after the 2011 Aurora, Colorado, movie theater massacre, Howard wrote: “Americans truly believe that it is safer to own a gun, based on the chilling logic that because there are so many guns in circulation, one’s own weapon is needed for self-protection. To put it another way, the situation is so far gone there can be no turning back.”

It’s a sad and frustrating state of affairs that has led many candidates and commentators to suggest the real answer might be to subvert the gun argument altogether and challenge our nation’s overloaded mental health care system instead.

This is an imperfect solution for a number of reasons. First, many mass shooters were already receiving mental health care at the time of their rampage. As numerous psychologists and psychiatrists have noted, it’s a dangerous game to demand something as fluid and individualized as mental health care to prevent violence that might not stem from any treatable diagnosis. Forensic psychiatrist James Knoll told the Wall Street Journal, “the literature does not reflect a strong link with serious mental illness” and mass shootings. Therefore, says Yale professor Dr. Matthew Goldenberg, “the metric used to measure the effectiveness of such mental health care should not be the prevention of these rare, tragic episodes of mass violence.”

Writing in the American Journal of Public Health, doctors Jonathan Metzel and Kenneth Macleish find mental illness too thin a lens through which to analyze mass shootings, saying the links between the two “are less causal and more complex than current US public opinion and legislative action allow.”

Metzel and Macleish urge policymakers to recognize “that gun crimes, mental illnesses, social networks, and gun access issues are complexly interrelated, and not reducible to simple cause and effect.” The researchers conclude with a cultural criticism: “The ways our society frames these connections reveal as much about our particular cultural politics, biases, and blind spots as it does about the acts of lone, and obviously troubled, individuals.”

Those biases are the same fissure that keeps our government from trying anything that might stop these shootings. The cliché about the definition of insanity might ring truest for such a cultural dilemma, because we are a nation that repeatedly does nothing to prevent something. In the face of examples, statistics, professional opinions, proposed policies, and the dulled sense of horror that seems to greet us once every six weeks, our inaction serves as an acceptance of these circumstances.

The facts don’t change. Each new shooting may come with its particular details—a new location, a new body count—but the schema is the same. This sickening game of Mad Libs is more than a headline, and each new event should not dull us to the routine of mourning but, instead, be a call to action for our political leaders and policymakers. It probably won’t be. The deaths in [X] didn’t spur the opening of this debate, nor did the events in [Y] and [Z]. Why should we ever expect anything to change if nothing has yet?

Gillian Branstetter is a social commentator with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and politics. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. She attended Pennsylvania State University. Follow her on Twitter @GillBranstetter.

Photo via Mike Linksvayer/Flickr (PD) | Remix by Jason Reed

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Last updated Feb 29, 2020, 6:33 pm