In the past few weeks, gun violence has shoved its way to the front of America’s public consciousness yet again. There are disagreements about just how many mass-shootings there have been in 2015, but the best answer must surely be too many.
In the face of such shocking events that have become depressingly routine, Americans have also witnessed a breakdown in our shared language, with a distinctly politicized nature. Media outlets, most prominently the New York Daily News, have heaped intense scorn upon Republican politicians publicly expressing their sympathy.
Their argument is straightforward on some level. They want solutions now, and cannot understand why nobody has passed a law to make it go away. They perceive the US to be more dangerous than Western European countries, so the simplest prescription would be to institute European-style gun control. Although massacres have still occurred in those countries, as the New York Times put it: “at least they are trying.” Republicans have offered prayers but generally do not want to regulate firearms, therefore their prayers are worse than meaningless – they are a distraction.
Unlike many conservatives, I will not claim that it is always wrong to “politicize” a tragedy, if we take that to simply mean finding a political solution to a real problem. If future tragedies be prevented with simple, relevant, and appropriate legislation, leaders should feel free to propose away. When Islamic terrorists attacked Paris for example, it rightfully spurred calls to rally against ISIS and reevaluate the vetting standards of Syrian refugees.
Posturing for political gain, however, is another story. One cannot blame someone for suspecting that the Planned Parenthood shooter was a radical opponent of abortion. But when people rush to proclaim against all evidence that the shooter represents a deep strain of “white Christian terrorism,” and use the event to silence political opponents, this is deeply sickening. Being outraged about the selling of fetal body parts does not make one complicit in the violence of a deranged loner.
There is no shortage of examples of similar opportunism on both sides. Sarah Palin was absurdly blamed for the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in 2011. Media figures have openly hoped that attempted and successful terrorist attacks were planned by white men. Republican politicians have blamed Black Lives Matter protesters when police are shot.
Even policy proposals can wade into the realm of posturing. In the wake of San Bernardino and Colorado Springs, President Obama and other leading Democrats have repeated broad calls for gun control. Like many times before, these responses have been predicated on a misunderstanding of the problem at hand.
A consistent refrain from President Obama has been that these mass shootings “[do] not happen in other advanced countries”, when in reality the US ranks in the middle of the pack among European countries for annual death rate from and frequency of mass shootings. Still, the insistence of a perverse American exceptionalism has driven consistent calls for irrelevant solutions.
The last major push for gun control came after the 2013 Sandy Hook shootings, and included provisions for “universal background checks” for most private gun sales, as well as an outright ban of purchasing new assault weapons (a political term not to be confused with military-style assault rifles). Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders have also recently called for prohibiting gun sales to people on the no-fly list.
At first glance, these measures sound reasonable, until it becomes clear how little they would do to actually prevent the mass shootings in question. The proposed background checks exempted sales to family and friends – a common practice that applied to the Sandy Hook shooter. The no-fly list is filled with thousands of people who have never been convicted of or connected with terrorism, and is lacking in transparency and due process.
An assault weapons ban would not affect the millions of such weapons already in circulation – and the previous assault weapons ban was not able to stop massacres like Columbine. Furthermore, mass shootings at Sandy Hook and San Bernardino occurred in states where such bans already existed (laws banning pipe bombs evidently did nothing to stop the latter terrorist attack either). Washington Post fact-checkers verified Senator Marco Rubio’s recent comments that no proposed gun law would have prevented the mass shootings of the past few years.
Indeed, the focus on high profile shootings with scary-looking assault weapons shows how Democratic politicians fundamentally misdiagnose the problem of gun violence in this country. Mass shootings with assault weapons account for a tiny proportion of total gun violence – less than 1% of gun homicide victims over the past 30 years have been killed in mass shootings.
In fact, since the early 1990s (starting before the previous assault weapons ban began and persisting after its expiration) gun violence has been consistently declining in the US even as gun sales have skyrocketed. Firearm murders largely come from handguns in urban areas. Eighty percent of gun homicides come from handguns, and 60% occur in the 50 largest US metro areas. While victims of mass shootings tend to be white, the most common murders disproportionately affect minorities.
The downside of this: strict firearm regulation in major cities does not seem to have helped these victims. The bright side: gun violence has continued declining for other reasons. Do these facts make voters less likely to support gun control?
Yes and no. Majorities tend to support specific gun control proposals on a conceptual level, although there is a smaller majority among Republicans. When talking about gun control in general, Gallup has determined that 55% of Americans want stricter laws (but 53% say that new background check laws would cause little or no reduction in mass shootings), and CNN/ORC has found that 52% oppose stricter gun laws. As support for handgun bans (such as the one overturned by the Supreme Court in the District of Columbia) has plummeted, the percentage saying that having a gun makes homes safer has risen sharply from 35% in 2000 to 63% in 2014.
This mixed bag of data suggests two narratives. One is that a majority of voters support more regulation (without opposing gun rights in general), but those who feel strongest about gun issues do not. Urban liberals are less likely to regularly use guns and do not understand to the American obsession with them, but those who live more rural and suburban areas are more steeped in gun culture and are a more likely to consider it an essential and fundamental liberty. And they mobilized by extensive and well-funded organizations like the National Rifle Association.
Another possible narrative is that measures regulating firearms are generally uncontroversial in the abstract, but the conduct of anti-gun figures elicits distrust from voters. After all, despite scapegoating of the organization after every mass shooting, the NRA has a higher approval rating than both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Look at things from the perspective of a lawful gun owner. In blue states they often have to jump through a number of hoops to get a license – with standards varying across each town and subject to the arbitrary whim of the local sheriff or police department. And nonsensical regulations abound: for example, Chicago requires shooting range practice for anybody who wants to own a handgun, but the city bans shooting ranges.
Law-abiding citizens are often told by anti-gun activists that their hobby is complicit in the barbaric killings perpetrated by criminals and loons. After Sandy Hook, one newspaper posted online an interactive map revealing the names and addresses of all handgun permit holders in New York’s Westchester and Rockland counties as a form of public shaming.
Progressives like Obama are quick to insist that they do not want to “take your guns,” as paranoid conservatives would have you believe, and will usually try to emphasize a small set of poll-tested reforms. However, the moments when they overreach betray a deeper lack of regard for the constitutionally-protected liberty of gun ownership.
After the October shooting in Oregon, Obama and his allies touted the Australian and British models of gun control – models which include mass gun confiscation and mandatory buyback programs. Even if confiscating every legally-owned gun in the US would cause a decline in gun violence (the results in Australia and UK are questionable), this would be logistically impossible and legally perilous absent a complete repeal of the Second Amendment. This might not seem problematic to some progressives who either believes it does not guarantee a right to own guns or that it is an outdated relic of the Revolutionary era. But politicians should not expect gun owners to trust their calls for “limited” gun control when they allude to such extreme measures.
A strong desire to act after mass shootings is understandable, and reasonable people can disagree on the value of gun culture. But mischaracterizing the nature of gun violence and the virtues of regulation have made good faith dialogue on guns that much tougher.
 The figures in this last link are truly astounding. White Americans only have a homicide death rate of 2.5 per 100,000 people (among high-Human Development Index countries, this falls between the total rates of 2.0 for Finland and 3.3 for Chile). Hispanic Americans suffer at a rate of 5.3 (between Estonia and Argentina) while Black Americans face a startlingly high rate of 19.4 (almost three times more than the last place country on the high-HDI list: Lithuania with 6.9).