Because if it is, we’re on the lesser of our gun problems. I’ll explain why in a moment, but here’s a bit more of what Obama had to say:
“It’s going to be important for all of us, including our legislatures, to see what we can do to make sure that when individuals decide that they want to do somebody harm, we’re making it a little harder for them to do it, because right now it’s just too easy. And we’re going to have to, I think, search ourselves as a society to make sure that we can take basic steps that would make it harder — not impossible, but harder — for individuals to get access to weapons.”
His mention of “legislatures” is an implicit acknowledgement that any movement that happens on gun laws will happen at the state and local level, because congressional Republicans are emphatically against any legislation that would even inconvenience, let alone restrict, anyone’s ability to buy as many guns of as many types as they want. But what are those “basic steps” we can take, and would they actually work? And which kinds of gun violence would they stop?
It’s not surprising that we focus on mass shootings, because they’re sudden and dramatic — the very fact that they’re unusual compared to ordinary shootings is why they’re newsworthy. That’s despite the fact that we have them so often that the victim count has to get pretty high before the national news pays attention. But as this blog has noted before, they’re actually the smaller part of our gun violence problem.
Using the now-common definition of a mass shooting as one in which four or more people are injured or killed, there were 351 mass shootings in the United States this year before San Bernardino, or more than one per day. In those shootings, a total of 447 people died and 1,292 people were injured.
Now let’s use a year for which we have complete data on gun violence, 2013. That year, there were 363 mass shootings resulting in 502 deaths. But overall, 33,636 Americans died from gun violence that year. The number of gun homicides was 11,208. That means that victims of mass shootings made up 1.5 percent of all gun victims and 4.5 percent of gun homicide victims.
Democrats advocating for gun restrictions take the opportunity when there’s a mass shooting dominating the news to say: “This is why we need these restrictions.” Which is understandable as far as it goes, but it still keeps attention on the smaller part of the problem.
Republicans and conservatives, on the other hand, see mass shootings as regrettable but say that any government action to restrict access to guns either won’t stop such shootings, or would represent an unacceptable trade-off in terms of surrendering liberty. Some will instead say, “we need to reform the mental health system. ” But nine out of ten GOP congressmen probably couldn’t tell you a single thing they’d do to reform it, let alone how whatever they support would actually reduce the yearly death toll. There are a couple of related bills in Congress that Republicans support to make some reforms to the mental health system, but they could actually wind up making it easier for some people with a history of mental illness to get firearms.
And of course Republicans don’t address this simple fact: the overwhelming majority of gun homicides in America are not committed by people who have been declared mentally ill. They happen when abusive men kill their spouses or partners, when an argument between neighbors gets out of hand, when an angry ex-employee shoots his boss, when cycles of revenge spiral onward.
But if we only try to talk about guns when there are mass shootings, it allows Republicans to say, “It’s not about the guns — this guy was just crazy!” (Never mind that there are people with mental illness everywhere in the world; only here is it so easy for them to arm themselves to the teeth.)
If Republicans (and I’d put special focus on the presidential candidates, since they’re the ones who can get the most attention) are going to argue that the answer to gun violence is mental health reforms, they ought to be forced to get specific. Exactly which forms do they support? How exactly will each of those forms reduce gun violence? Will any of their ideas do anything to help the 95 percent of gun homicide victims who don’t die in mass shootings?
We’re now getting reports that Syed Farook, one of the shooters in San Bernardino, may have been in touch with an international terrorism suspect, and so this shooting may have been politically motivated (even though he chose to target his co-workers). Had that not been the case, Republicans would have said that all that matters is that Farook was crazy — how could anyone who killed 14 people not be? Now they’ll say that all that matters is that he was a terrorist. But if that turns out to be true, it would bring the number of Americans killed at home in jihadist attacks since 9/11 to 45. That’s about the number of Americans murdered with guns in an average day and half.