The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mass shootings are distracting from the real danger of guns in America

(George Frey/Bloomberg News)

Every mass shooting reboots a similar debate about gun control. How could we have stopped the latest slaughter? Should we ban high-capacity magazines? Increase mental health screenings? Require universal background checks for gun purchases?

Following the San Bernardino, Calif., attack, the New York Times published its first front page editorial in nearly 100 years on Saturday. It called on politicians to ban “certain kinds of weapons, like the slightly modified combat rifles used in California, and certain kinds of ammunition.”

In a speech last night, President Obama also asked Congress for tighter regulations on assault weapons, as well as laws to prohibit people on no-fly lists from getting guns. “The fact is that our intelligence and law enforcement agencies — no matter how effective they are — cannot identify every would-be mass shooter, whether that individual is motivated by ISIL or some other hateful ideology,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “What we can do — and must do — is make it harder for them to kill.”

What nobody can say for sure, though, is how many mass killings would be prevented by stricter gun laws. And a bigger question is whether it makes sense to focus so much on how the nation’s gun policies would affect mass shootings — so rare and idiosyncratic that some researchers say you can't formulate statistically sound observations about them.

To put things in perspective: Guns kill about 33,000 people a year in the United States. Two-thirds of those deaths are suicides; about 11,000 are homicides.

By the most expansive definition, mass shootings have taken 462 lives this year so far. That is according to, which counts every incident in which four or more people were shot. But most of those events are not the kind of indiscriminate public murders that spur national conversations about guns.

Stanford researchers maintain a separate database of mass shootings that don’t seem to be related to gangs or drugs. By their count, 159 have died in such events as of Nov. 24. Factoring in the latest shootings, perhaps 180 people have lost their lives in this way.

No matter which statistic you use, mass shootings account for a tiny fraction — just a few percent — of gun-related homicides in the United States, much less gun-related deaths in general.

“In many ways, these events are a red herring,” says Jonathan Metzl, a professor of sociology and psychiatry at Vanderbilt who has published a paper in the American Journal of Public Health on why scholars focus too much on mass shootings.

The paper by Metzl and colleague Kenneth MacLeish argues that "many scholars who study violence prevention hold that mass shootings occur too infrequently to allow for statistical modeling, and as such serve as poor jumping-off points for effective public health interventions."

Metzl added: “The pro-gun side will say, ‘look a mass shooting happened in a place like California or Colorado, where there are gun control laws.’ They generalize from this unpredictable event, to draw conclusions about the failure of gun control writ large.”

“In a way, that’s comparing apples and oranges,” he says. “What you really want to figure out is if everyday violence goes down when you have successful gun-violence prevention efforts.”

The push to regulate assault rifles is another symptom of how mass shootings distort the gun-control debate. As Nick Baumann pointed out in the Huffington Post, not only are assault-rifle bans difficult to write — How do you get people to agree on a definition? How do you tighten the loopholes? — but assault weapons are not responsible for most shootings in America. Handguns are.

It remains unlikely for Americans to enact the kinds of gun restrictions that could significantly curtail shootings, such as the type of gun-surrender program employed successfully by Australia. But Metzl points out that by ignoring everyday shootings, we may be missing out on some of the low-hanging fruit.

“There are aspects of gun violence that are predictable,” he says. “Everyday violence is linked to alcohol use, it's linked to past histories of violence. It’s linked to social networks of violence.”

He elaborates in the paper:

Connections between loaded handguns and alcohol, the mental health effects of gun violence in low-income communities, or the relationships between gun violence and family, social, or socioeconomic networks are but a few of the topics in which mental health expertise might productively join community and legislative discourses to promote more effective medical and moral arguments for sensible gun policy than currently arise among the partisan rancor.
Put another way, perhaps psychiatric expertise might be put to better use by enhancing US discourse about the complex anxieties, social and economic formations, and blind assumptions that make people fear each other in the first place. Psychiatry could help society interrogate what guns mean to everyday people, and why people feel they need guns or reject guns out of hand. By addressing gun discord as symptomatic of deeper concerns, psychiatry could, ideally, promote more meaningful public conversations on the impact of guns on civic life. And it could join with public health researchers, community activists, law enforcement officers, or business leaders to identify and address the underlying structural and infrastructural issues that foster real or imagined notions of mortal fear.

That's useful context when we consider the reasons that gun violence overall may have declined in the U.S. over the past 20 years.

Because mass shootings dictate the national conversation about guns, these sorts of issues get overshadowed. For instance — even if expanded background checks might not have stopped the shootings in San Bernardino, in Roseburg, Ore., in Lafayette, and in Charleston, they might save lives in ways that don't make the news. Tighter gun laws could discourage suicides. Laws that restrict the gun rights of domestic abusers could prevent murders at home.

These kinds of laws might not necessarily stop the next terrorist attack or mass shooting. But they might save many more lives — lives that are currently, quietly, at risk.