Dan Hodges, a British journalist, captured the core tragedy in a Twitter post on the subject of Sandy Hook, the 2012 shooting at a Connecticut elementary school that took the lives of twenty young children: “Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.”
Is it over? What could frame this issue in a way that might help reduce the incidence of mass shootings in the United States? The issue, like most issues in the US today, is highly politicised. There is no more conspicuous example of how intractable this problem is than the fate of House Bill 43 in the Louisiana State Legislature. The bill, sponsored by Representative Dodie Horton, a conservative Republican and NRA member, would have banned from public schools all toy guns, air guns, water guns and anything else that looked “substantially similar” to a real firearm.
The problem was that the close resemblance of many toy guns to the real version created significant risks that those carrying them may be perceived by law enforcement (who struggled even when holding the weapons to discern whether they were real or toy) to be carrying a life-threatening weapon and shot by mistake. The bill failed and was opposed by the NRA as overreach.
Dodie Horton was shocked at the level of opposition and, in her conversations with NRA representatives, reported in one of This American Life’s excellent podcasts (#637, ‘Words You Can’t Say’, Feb. 2, 2018), learned that the problem for the NRA was that the bill would contribute to a cultural narrative of guns being a problem and would thus give ammunition to initiatives on the ‘liberal left’ to criminalise guns and thereby undermine the Second Amendment.
Researching the Issue
In 1996, the Dickey Amendment was inserted into the Omnibus Spending Bill constraining the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from allocating funds made available for the prevention of injury to advocate or promote gun control. In the same spending bill, the amount of $2.6m that had, in the previous year been allocated to firearms research, was earmarked by Congress for research on traumatic brain injury. The amendment has been reauthorised every year since. It is, therefore, difficult to obtain quality research that would be effective in the US political process to inform legislative change.
The recent NY Times article discussing correlations that make sense of mass shootings in the US provides a good look at the excuses typically advanced for not attempting legislative changes. The kind of excuse most commonly cited is best summed up in Paul Ryan’s radio interview with Tom Katz on Indiana radio station WIBC following the recent shooting in Florida:
“I don’t think that means you then roll that conversation into taking away citizens’ rights – taking away a law-abiding citizen’s rights. Obviously this conversation typically goes there. Right now, I think we need to take a breath and collect the facts.”
The NY Times article concludes by saying the problem is one of culture: the US has decided that relatively unregulated gun ownership is worth the cost to society. It also makes the point that the only correlation that makes any sense of the high level of mass shootings in the US compared to other countries is the absolute numbers of guns – 297m. The US undoubtedly has a gun culture and that culture, while rooted in the Bill of Rights and Second Amendment, is now (see Caroline Harwell’s thoughtful analysis of the correlation between gun ownership and political party affiliations) closely identified with political party; accordingly, notwithstanding the support for stronger gun control among a majority of Americans, the issue has become, like abortion, a partisan issue of tribal loyalty.
The War on Drugs
The so-called war on drugs, started during the Reagan presidency, has not been going well. Opioid-related deaths recently surpassed the roughly 33,000 annual gun-related deaths. The opioid crisis was declared by President Trump in October 2017 as a public health emergency (though not the national emergency that would have released substantial funding to address the emergency). It is ironic that, while the issue of mass shootings is frequently described by gun-rights advocates as a problem with people rather than a problem with guns, the opioid crisis is very clearly understood as a drug problem – that presumably is why opioids are regulated as highly controlled substances. They are illegal unless prescribed. Guns, by contrast, are legal unless proscribed.
Drug deaths, of course, are largely self-inflicted harm. Death from opioids is mostly a slow, grinding process of attrition. The level of focus on drugs from the Department of Justice and the White House is markedly different from that on guns. Why?
It’s All Political
Running directly contrary to the widespread support for gun control, is the belief, exploited by the NRA and conservative politicians, that every American has a right to own a gun and that gun control at any level is an attempt by the government to abrogate this right. People rarely consent to losing their rights. What is needed is a fresh narrative. Tribal politics is full of deceptive slogans designed to skew perceptions and win the argument before the argument takes place. Pro-life vs. pro-choice is the clearest example. Surely it is possible to choose both. Perhaps the debate on guns should be framed by an equally resonant slogan: pro-life or pro-guns?
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