‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens,’ is a dark Onion headline that always makes the rounds on social media after every mass shooting in America. This is obviously satire, but it’s worth looking at exactly why America uniquely struggles with regular tragedies like Highland Park on a near-daily basis.
According to the Gun Violence Archive — which defines a mass shooting as any mass casualty event in which at least four people (not including the shooter) are injured or killed by firearms — there have been 109 mass shootings in America since the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. As of July 7, 2022, there have already been 322 mass shootings this calendar year despite only 188 days passing. That averages out to roughly 1.7 mass shootings every single day.
Certainly other countries with strict gun laws have been host to deadly mass shootings, like New Zealand and Norway, though mass shootings are usually an extremely rare occurrence outside of the United States. So why does this exclusively affect us? The answer is multifaceted and nuanced, but may ultimately boil down to both the United States’ Second Amendment culture and our propensity to downplay mental health issues, rather than tackle it with smart public policy.
But to be clear, what sets America apart isn’t mental health — every country in the world has people with mental health struggles — it’s the ease in which deadly firearms can be obtained in most states.
The mass shooters in Buffalo, Uvalde, and Highland Park all bought their firearms legally. This may have been prevented if certain policies were in place beforehand, like universal background checks, red flag laws, and an assault weapons ban. The Highland Park shooter, for instance, was able to buy five different firearms despite threatening his family in 2019.
Even though approximately 40% of Americans are gun owners, huge majorities of Americans still support most firearm regulations. Some of the more widely approved policies include restricting those with mental health orders from buying guns; universal background checks for all gun purchases at both stores and gun shows; instituting a national “red flag” law so family members can warn authorities if someone attempting to purchase a gun could be a danger to themselves or others; and banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
There’s only so much that can be done at the state level. In Colorado, for instance, the Giffords Center — a gun violence education database established after the near-assassination of former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords (D-Arizona) — explained that Colorado has far more gun regulations on the books compared to neighboring states like Wyoming, Utah, and Kansas.
Colorado still doesn’t have an assault weapons ban, concealed carry regulations, or open carry restrictions, but we do have universal background checks, extended background check periods, domestic violence-related firearms laws, and a ban on high-capacity magazines, among other regulations. But just like New York — where the Buffalo shooter bought the high-capacity magazine for his AR-15 rifle out of state — Colorado’s gun restrictions end at the state’s borders. And besides, the Supreme Court recently threw out New York’s restrictions on concealed carry licenses. What’s needed are stronger gun laws at the federal level.
Congress did recently pass a gun reform bill with bipartisan support that strengthens background checks for young gun buyers and incentivizes states to pass their own red flag laws, making it the most significant action Congress has taken on guns since the assault weapons ban in 1994. However, the bill doesn’t renew the federal ban on assault weapons or ban high-capacity magazines, nor does it enact mandatory minimum waiting periods.
The assault weapons ban is particularly significant: They were used in roughly a quarter of all mass shootings since 1982. The rate of mass shootings dropped in the ten years the ban was in place, and nearly tripled after the ban lapsed. And even despite the horrific mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999 — which remains one of the deadliest school shootings in history — both the rate of mass shootings and deaths resulting from mass shootings declined during the 10-year period in which the sale and manufacturing of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines were banned.
Reinstating the assault weapons ban won’t a panacea for mass shootings. Guns will still be much easier to obtain in the United States compared to other countries, and mental health concerns will still need to be addressed. But fewer gun deaths is still a net positive, and we should do all we can within our power to make public mass killings less frequent.
(Featured image: Wikimedia Commons)