Trigger warning: This article contains discussions of gun violence, including mass shootings, homicide/domestic abuse, and suicide.
In the first 3 months and 16 days of 2021 there have been 147 mass shootings in the United States according to the Gun Violence Archive. This number is quickly increasing. As I am writing this article, I have received a notification from a local news network in Austin, Texas that there is an active shooter in Northwest Austin who has killed at least 3 people thus far. Particularly since the shooting in Atlanta, Georgia where 8 people, including 6 Asian women, were killed, it seems that every week there is another mass shooting story cycling through media outlets. In times when there is always a whirlwind of headlines and articles discussing the most recent mass shooting, it is easy to equate America’s gun violence problem solely with mass shootings. While mass shootings certainly capture the most attention from the media and politicians and undeniably bring a particular kind of destruction and pain to the communities affected, we must remember that mass shootings are only one part of a much larger problem: Gun violence. In this article, I aim to paint the bigger picture of gun violence in America and examine the actions experts suggest are necessary to begin addressing this monumental and deeply embedded epidemic.
Let us start with the most media-covered dimension of gun violence: Mass shootings. What exactly constitutes a mass shooting depends on which organization you are asking. Like war, when you go from a skirmish to a war, or here a “minor” incident to a mass shooting, is a question of numbers and means. The Gun Violence Archive cited at the beginning of this article defines mass shootings as shootings in which at least four people, excluding the aggressor, are shot (either injured or killed). This includes incidents which occur in homes or as a result of gang violence. However, other organizations set higher thresholds for what constitutes a mass shooting. According to Mother Jones, a mass shooting is a shooting in a public space in which four or more victims are killed using a firearm. Unsurprisingly, this definition yields a much more conservative estimate for the number of mass shootings that occur. This definition is also followed by several facets of the federal government including the Congressional Research Service.
Regardless of the threshold set for definitional purposes, shootings in public spaces, whether they be grocery stores, schools, spas, or Fedex facilities, which seem to occur unexpectedly and harm multiple people, tend to attract much attention. It is these types of tragedies which fuel a flurry of media coverage and social media posts demanding action, statements from politicians, nation-wide protests, and fear. Frankly, this is understandable: These types of shootings shatter the mundane of daily life in the worst way possible. They make the individual feel completely helpless and exposed, even when carrying out the most ordinary tasks.
However, of the roughly 39,000 individuals who died as a result of gun violence in 2019, mass shootings were a relatively small portion of this, though of course any life lost as a result of any form of gun violence is one life too many. I now turn to examining other dimensions of America’s gun violence problem.
Though it does not attract nearly as many headlines, homicides account for a large portion of gun related deaths. In 2019, according to the Center for Disease Control , approximately 14,400 of the estimated 39,000 individuals who died as a result of gun violence were killed in a homicide. This makes up roughly 73% of all homicides in the United States in 2019. These acts are overwhelmingly committed by males, and tend to have a disproportionately large impact amongst communities of colour. Part of the reason homicides involve guns is because of how easily accessible they are depending on where you live. Most gun laws in the United States exist at the state rather than federal level, and gun laws vary widely across states, being relatively strict in places such as Vermont and New York, but lax in Texas. Two particularly relevant factors which make guns easily accessible include the gun show loophole and the stringency of background checks. As I mentioned in my last article, the gun show loophole refers to the fact that guns not sold in proper stores, including those sold at gun shows, by individuals online, or other similar circumstances, do not require a background check. Hence they are relatively accessible to those who wish to access one. Furthermore, even where background checks are conducted, they are by no means exhaustive. The use of guns in homicides is also largely influenced by the community environment and influences one is exposed to.
An important dimension of gun violence homicides is domestic violence. Though data on domestic violence generally, and related to guns in particular, is difficult to collect, it is known that guns are an important feature in many instances of gun violence. According to Everytown, an organization which advocates for gun safety, an estimated fifty three women are killed by guns each month by intimate partners. Again, BIPOC women and certain segments of the LGBTQ+ community are particularly vulnerable. Even when women are not killed, roughly 4.5 million women reported that they have been threatened by an intimate partner with a gun at least once. Here again, the gun show loophole comes into play, but there are also gun law gaps particularly related to intimate relationships. Most prominent is the boyfriend loophole, which enables one to purchase a gun even if they have been convicted of abuse or are under a restraining order because they have abused a romantic partner. The Charleston loophole is also particularly relevant, which allows one to purchase a gun without a background check if said check is not completed in three days, even if they have been convicted or accused of abuse. In sum, homicides make up a significant part of the gun violence problem, and often intersect with other issues such as domestic violence, and disproportionately impact minority communities and women.
The majority of the remaining 39,000 deaths resulting from gun violence in 2019 were the result of suicide using a firearm. More specifically, an estimated 23,941 individuals in 2019, or roughly two thirds of all individuals killed by gun violence, died by suicide using a gun. The inclusion of gun related suicides in totals related to gun violence is not necessarily standard practice. However, it is arguable that any violence or pain inflicted by a gun, whether perpetrated by another individual or oneself, is an instance of gun violence. This gun-suicide link is most common amongst white men, older individuals, and those in rural areas. Indigenous peoples also tend to have higher rates of death by gun suicide. Veterans are also 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide using a gun than non-veterans. In the context of suicides, having access to a firearm is particularly deadly. This is because approximately 90% of those who use firearms in suicide attempts die, whereas this number is much lower for other methods of suicide. Moreover, having access to a firearms puts one at 3 times the level of risk for dying by suicide using a firearm. This is largely related to the fact that suicidal thoughts are often impulsive. In a country where there are more guns than people, this is an unbearably concerning situation. This gun-suicide link represents a particularly urgent, yet often overlooked aspect of both public health and gun violence, and the fact that simply having access to a gun substantially increases ones risk to dying by gun-aided suicide means that the ease of access to a gun is a particularly salient problem. Here again, the loopholes I have covered and the varying levels of laxness in state-level gun laws pose a particular problem. In other words, the largest component of gun violence, suicides, rarely make the news, demonstrating how much even having access to a gun can increase the risk of gun violence.
The discussion above by no means fully covers the complexity of the problem of gun violence in America. For that I would need several hundreds of pages and a PhD. However, this discussion has situated mass shootings in the context of the much more complex issue of gun violence in America, which includes homicides and suicides, and also intersects with public health and domestic violence, amongst other factors. This is all very complex and overwhelming. But hopefully this has raised the question in your mind: What can we do about this?
Well, as depressing as it seems, party politics ultimately dictates what is done about gun violence. Nonetheless, academics, lobbyists, politicians, and the like have come up with several concrete actions which can be taken should the opportunity arise. I briefly cover some of them here, but this is by no means exhaustive or particular.
1. Close the gaps.
Require and ensure comprehensive background checks both related to criminal records and mental health. Furthermore, the appropriate authorities should promptly follow up when someone with a criminal record or history of mental health problems (formally diagnosed or not) attempts to purchase a firearm. The gun show loophole, boyfriend loophole, Charleston loophole, and a plethora of others not covered here must be fully addressed if America is to tackle its gun violence problem.
2. Reduce weapons stockpiling
I mentioned that America has more guns than people. Even if for some reason you need a gun, why you would need more than one is less clear. If one is motivated enough, it is possible to acquire large stockpiles of firearms. Regulating gun ownership to prevent individuals from stockpiling guns is predicted to help significantly reduce levels of gun violence.
3. Incentivize the implementation of red flag laws
These laws allow family members or others close to an individual to petition a court to temporarily take away an individual’s firearms if those close to them are concerned that the individual may use those weapons to harm themselves or others. Once these laws are implemented, ensuring they are actually acted upon is the next crucial step.
4. Strictly limit and regulate sales of assault rifles and accessories
These types of guns have become essentially synonymous with mass shootings, particularly types of AR-15 rifles. For most, there is no reason to have such a high power gun. Accessories such as bump stocks and high-capacity magazines are also not necessary for the average person. Thus there is no reason to continue allowing such weapons to be so easily accessible particularly if they are in no way essential to daily life. It is worth noting that most politicians on the left have gone further to express support for a complete ban on assault rifles.
5. Invest in communities
Gun violence is often linked to wider challenges facing typically underrepresented and underserved communities. Thus, part of addressing gun violence means investing in communities in terms of education and adequate emergency response and de-escalation services.
6. Collect crucial data
Collect data on gun violence and ensure it is collected in a way that is inclusive and particular so as to identify how different individuals and communities are affected. Data collection is where all research begins. Yet for decades research on gun violence has been underfunded and faced other technical and legal barriers, which have severely slowed the data collection process. To take action to combat gun violence, we need to know the scope of the problem beyond the number or fatalities and injuries; and for that we need comprehensive data. Create a registry and up the standards: Currently, there is no national registry of gun owners in the United States, though some states such as Hawaii have provided such data to the federal government. This is related to the data problem, but much more basic in that a lack of a national registry means it is difficult to even know whose hands these weapons are in. Furthermore, the United States would do well to follow Australia in requiring a legitimate reason for gun procurement which does not include self-defence. Combined, creating this registry and upping the standards for why one can purchase a gun would make it possible to know who has these weapons and why- a good first step to addressing the bigger problem.
America has many problems. Yet gun violence is perhaps one of the most uniquely American problems the country is facing relative to other Western democracies. And that is not something Americans should be content bragging about. One of the most fundamental human rights in existence is the right to life. However, in a country once considered the world’s leading bastion of freedom, not even this most fundamental right is guaranteed. While it is easy to feel that mass shootings are the primary way in which guns threaten one’s right to life, the problem of gun violence is much more complex. Gun violence needs to be discussed as the multifaceted challenge it is and addressed in all of its dimensions. Without a proper understanding of the full complexity of the issue, and of course, the political will to take action, America is doomed to remain trapped in this same cycle of gun violence for decades to come.