Shortly after 11 p.m. on Thursday, a gunman reportedly opened fire at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis, Indiana, killing at least eight FedEx employees and causing others to be hospitalized before also killing himself.
The gun violence epidemic in this country puts a remarkable strain on the notion of American exceptionalism.
You will probably recall that last week in Rock Hill, South Carolina, six people died, plus the alleged gunman, a former football player; and when six people were shot, one fatally, inside a cabinet company facility in Bryan, Texas; and three weeks ago at a supermarket in Colorado, where 10 people were slaughtered; and earlier in March, when eight people, including six Asian women, were killed in the Atlanta area.
“An international embarrassment” is how President Joe Biden recently described the number of firearm-related deaths in the United States. He’s right. The gun violence epidemic in this country puts a remarkable strain on the notion of American exceptionalism. Somehow our political class can’t figure out how to do what nearly every other country on Earth has done: prevent its citizens from using firearms to commit violence.
I’m going to make the case that reducing gun violence is possible, despite partisan sectarianism, despite American gun culture, despite the estimated circulation of nearly 400,000,000 guns. But to do so will require giving up on long-shot efforts to entirely rewire America’s gun culture.
We need to adjust the lens through which we see the issue. That begins with mass shootings.
The United States seems to have many more mass shootings than other countries, but the truth here is complicated. The U.S. technically isn’t the world leader in per capita mass shooting deaths. Instead, the issue is their greater frequency in a culture with easy access to firearms, averaging about one shooting involving four or more victims each day. Violence in America is likewise not more common than it is elsewhere in the world; it is merely more lethal. The denominator is, quite simply, our easy access to guns.
If you’ve been convicted of doing something violent, or something that is often the precursor to violence, then you should not be able to buy a gun.
When we focus on the horrors of mass shootings, though, the debate about regulation often becomes too difficult to bear. For one, the deep dives into the history and the psychology of each attacker make it easier for conservatives opposed to any gun regulation to attribute the violence to some unknowable internal motive or to a lack of mental health resources more generally. Unfortunately, there is also a correlation between mass shootings and efforts to loosen restrictions on gun purchases in states with Republican legislatures, the false but easy premise being that the quasi-mythic "good person with a gun" could have stopped the bad person with a gun.
Mass shootings are particularly heinous and draw the most attention, even though they account for a tiny fraction of the gun deaths in this country each year. In keeping our attention on these events, we easily forget the unknown victims of gun crime, which are most of them. CBS Chicago reported that 28 people were shot in the city last weekend, and CBS New York noted that shootings there were up more than 250 percent for the week ending April 4.
Political science on the matter has been sclerotic because of a recently repealed federal research ban. Moreover, looking for interventions that would actually work runs into a numerical quirk: There is so much gun violence, and so many factors that contribute to each shooting, that a small downward track in shootings would be both meaningful to a community and completely unnoticed by researchers.
The solution that would most obviously stop needless suffering — confiscating every existing modern weapon from the 72 million Americans who own them — is also the most politically untenable to the point of being practically incomprehensible. No amount of outrage will be enough to change that fact. Gun buy-back programs might help at the margins, but it’s hard to see the number of guns in circulation in total going down, as new ones are manufactured every day.
There is way out of this deadlock: Evidence backs up the common-sense notion that the more efforts a community expends to prevent people with a known history of violence or harassment from obtaining guns, the fewer gun deaths it will experience. And more uniform laws across the country might have a multiplier effect, changing the norm around gun violence itself.
The first law to expand will be the hardest, because it will require Congress to act. Since 1968, a felony conviction bars you from obtaining a gun, unless you petition to have your rights restored. This law should to be broadened to include all violent misdemeanors, crimes of harassment and all forms of domestic violence — all of which is actual behavior that tends to indicate a predisposition toward future violence. That data, which is collected by states, also needs to be instantly available to the FBI, which maintains the database that federally licensed firearms dealers use for background checks. As things stand, it isn’t, nor are there procedures in place to confiscate firearms from people who later have restraining orders taken out against them or are convicted of domestic violence.
Also, many violent crimes are charged as misdemeanors at the state level. The overarching standard should be clear: The nature of the crime itself, and not how it was charged, should determine whether society will trust you with a weapon. If you’ve been convicted of doing something violent, or something that is often the precursor to violence, then you should not be able to buy a gun.
The National Rifle Association’s rejoinder to proposals like these has always been a nonsequitur, claiming the prohibition is too broad and would sweep in many people who would never commit violence with a gun. But anyone swept up in this dragnet could petition their state or local police authorities for an exception. The police would be on the hook, here, but arguably, it’s in their interest to over-deny petitions, rather than to overindulge in lax standards.
Unfortunately, there is little evidence that other approaches currently under consideration would be effective. States and cities with the tightest laws still have unbearable levels of violent gun crime. In California, an average of eight people were killed each day in 2019 — and tightening laws seems to increase the anxiety of lawful gun owners, who buy more guns whenever laws affecting them are tightened.
Reducing the gun deaths in this country depends on reducing the number of guns in particular people’s hands. Steps to keep deadly weapons out of the hands of people convicted of violent crimes — be they felony or misdemeanor — has to be the overriding priority. States might have to build new procedures into their background checks, but on the whole these proposals are tweaks to current law — tweaks that could save thousands of lives.