“Families that know unspeakable grief summoned the courage to petition their elected leaders not just to honor the memory of their children but to protect the lives of all of our children. A few minutes ago a minority in the United States Senate decided it wasn’t worth it… All in all this was a pretty shameful day for Washington… The point is, those who care deeply about preventing more and more gun violence, will have to be as passionate and as organized and vocal as those who blocked these common-sense steps to help keep our kids safe.” – President Barack Obama
When the Senate defeated the White House amendments , many marked it a crippling blow to the American people. Some proclaimed that they were sick of politicians, the NRA, and had lost faith in their representatives, government, and country. In light of the recent mass shootings, how could we, the people, not do anything to stop such crimes? How could the Conservatives stop legislation that would save lives? The country was lost and headed in the wrong direction.
Except, the amendments being stricken down was the most important thing to happen for gun control advocates’ mission.
On any controversial issue, asking the right questions is incredibly difficult, and giving clear answers to those, even harder. Figuring out which questions and answers pertain to which specific part of a conversation is the hardest part.
Why did the nation want to pass gun control amendments?
The most common answer after some thought is that gun control legislation – broadening background checks in this case – should be passed to save lives. On a cursory level, that answer is one that rings true. It seemed like more and more we heard about gun related murders and mass shootings, and as shown in the table below there actually were more mass shootings every year, culminating in a horrible 2012. Every week we were on our heels waiting until the next massive shooting occurred, and too often our worrying came true. Gun violence was becoming an issue, and there was unrest amongst the entire US becomes something just had to be done.
But saving lives isn’t the real reason, not really. The real reason is that we are afraid. And this has to do with what problem we are actually solving for. We think we are dealing with an increased gun violence problem in America, when we are actually dealing with an increased emotional response problem.
Last year there were 7 mass shootings in the US which captured the nations attention. The media reported on each incident around the clock and as a nation we couldn’t turn away. Not wanting to lose the nation’s attention, the media picked up on other gun related murders that would have otherwise never made the news, and day after day more stories were surfaced about these murders. To most people, these two seemed correlated, that there were more mass shootings as a result of more gun related murders overall.
Except however, there were fewer gun related murders in 2012 than any year since 2008, and gun murder rates are down 40% from the late 80s. So while there were more deaths from mass shootings last year than in 2011, overall gun murders were still down. And when comparing the mass shooting casualties to total gun related deaths, the numbers show how small a portion mass shootings are. In 2012, there were about 32,000 deaths from guns, of which only 72 were from mass shootings, as shown in table 2 below. That’s only .225% of all gun related deaths for the year.
And even that gigantic number is still smaller than the number of deaths from car accidents every year, and pales in comparison to the number of deaths each year attributed to smoking (CDC) as shown in table 3 below.
In all of 2012, 72 people died from mass shootings. On an average day in 2012, 87 people died from a gun shot. On an average day, not year, in 2012, over 1200 people died from the effects of cigarettes. If the answer to “why pass gun control legislation?” is to save lives, then why is the public attention on gun violence and not on cigarettes? The public uproar over gun violence is a case of confirmation bias from media reporting – we hear more about gun related violence and think there is more of it. This isn’t to say that you can’t care about gun control, or that you are wrong for it. It’s about understanding the underlying motives for action.
We want to pass gun control legislation because the mass shootings made us feel afraid. We think of our brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, fathers, and mothers. We see the victim’s family member’s pain on television, in HD, 24/7 on every television channel, phone, and tablet. We hear the stories of innocent little children gone before their 10th birthday, of husbands losing their wives, and of brothers never seeing their sisters again. And we empathize with them. It could have been any one of us. So we pull in our loved ones, hold them close, and tell them we love them. And then we come together and demand change to these horrible crimes. But it’s not actually because of the crimes themselves. It’s because nothing has the right to make us feel so vulnerable.
And that is perfectly okay. Now we know what question we are asking, what problem we want to solve, and why.
Let’s look into some data about mass shootings to understand more about this problem. Table4 below is a record of every mass shooting since 1982, comparing whether the gun was purchased legally against if the shooter had a history of mental illness. Removing all cases where either point was uncertain leaves us with 55 different mass shootings since 1982. A whopping 34/55, or about 61%, of these mass shootings occurred where the shooter had a history of mental illness AND bought the gun legally.
To gun control advocates, this statistic validates the need for these amendments, because too many people with mental illnesses can legally buy guns. But as noted before, what are we trying to solve? President Obama’s rhetoric promised legislation “to help keep our kids safe”. What’s implicit in that statement is that whatever legislation the President pushed would actually prevent mass shootings as well as make us safer overall. The primary bill pushed – the one referred to in the President’s quotation above – would extend current background check standards to online gun sales and gun shows.
Anywhere from 10-40% of all gun purchases occur online or at gun shows and those don’t currently require background checks. Regardless of the percent, would the bill have done anything to stop mass shootings? The 61% points to the notion that existing background checks are not sufficient at preventing people with mental illnesses from purchasing guns. Extending an ineffective law to all purchases would do little to stop any of these mass shootings because most gun purchases are already done legally. Even more concerning is that current legislation does nothing to stop people who were prevented from buying a gun once, but just stops buyers at the point of purchase and does nothing else, meaning that a buyer could simply try again elsewhere. That doesn’t even begin preventing people without a history of mental illness that commit such crimes.
Not only is the amendment ineffective, but how many total gun related deaths could it even potentially have prevented? As mentioned before, there were about 32,000 gun related deaths last year. Of the 32,000 deaths, 60% were suicide, a number which most Americans don’t realize. More people take their own life with guns than someone else’s, an incredibly sad fact which this amendment would do absolutely nothing to prevent. Factoring in accidental deaths and such, we are left with 11,000 murders from guns, already substantially below the 32,000 number. Eleven thousand is still a very large number, but there is one more powerful thing to consider: only 6% of murders are committed with legally bought guns. Which means that this specific amendment to extend background checks would do nothing for 94% of gun related murders, and 98% of all gun related deaths. Other kinds of legislation can affect these numbers, but the amendment the President pushed would have applied to a very small percent of deaths.
Yet if these amendments passed, we would have called it a victory. And that is why the amendments being stricken down was the most important thing to happen for gun control advocates. The news cycle would move on to something else (it’s almost flu season, isn’t it?) and we would happily tell ourselves that we made a difference and saved lives while patting ourselves on the back. We would feel safer knowing that this legislation was in place protecting our children and our families. And with a big smile on our faces, we would go outside thinking about our day, feeling good about ourselves while people keep getting murdered at the same rate. Because not only would this specific amendment apply to few murder cases, it is also ineffective at preventing them. And there is no greater injustice to the memories of the fallen than congratulating ourselves for making a difference when nothing has changed except for how we feel about it.
Some believe that even if these amendments are ineffective, it is at least a step in the right direction and something has to be done if it saves a life. However this is an argument which does not hold up when viewed under the lens of what it means to be an American citizen – specifically, what it means to accept the American social contract.
Under our social contract, American citizens give up certain choices or freedoms to ensure a working social order. Freedoms are given up to lower risk (in many cases, freedoms are given up to protect other people’s freedom and choices), and the ideal construct is finding a balance between the two – determining how much risk we can accept and what we are willing to give up to reach that acceptable limit. These two ideas forever move together but in opposite directions. We give up the freedom to drive cars at any speed we want because the risk is deemed unacceptable, so we agree to set speed limits. We give up the freedom to smoke wherever we want. We give up the freedom to drink all we want and drive.
In all of these cases, we give up freedoms because in those scenarios the risk is deemed too high. Yet we still allow people to drive cars, knowing that many (more than from guns) will die every year because of it. We allow cigarette use even though more people die from second hand smoke effects than will died from guns (49k vs 32k). And most of us certainly accept the use of alcohol even though it leads to thousands of deaths a year. In reality we have no problem with people dying, it’s just a question of how many people.
The American social contract is a collective agreement that optimizes freedoms for the whole, not preventing risk for the individual. The distinction to understand is that we want to give up as few and little freedoms as possible to lower risk to an acceptable amount because freedom is the most important factor.
Why do I mention all of this? Because the American people should only give up freedoms if in doing so the subject risk decreases appropriately. If the amendments passed, we would give up certain freedoms thinking it would actually make us significantly safer. Regardless if the freedom does not seem significant, it is the principle of the matter. Passing ineffective laws that take away more freedoms goes against the very foundation of the American social contract. As we’ve learned from 9/11, when reacting emotionally, we voluntarily give up more freedoms than necessary to fix the problem. And once a freedom is given up, it is nearly impossible to regain.
So we should be thankful that the Senate rejected the new amendments, because we have been given a precious 2nd chance to actually make a difference. A 2nd chance to think about what we are really doing, why we are doing it, and what result we want to see of it. If the amendments had passed, gun control advocates would have congratulated themselves while the same number of people would have died across the US. And by the time everyone realized that, it would be nearly impossible to make any useful change. Gun control opponents would not budge on any more gun control policies having seen the ineffectiveness of the amendments, public support would fade away into general apathy, and life would move on.
President Obama talks about honoring the memory of the fallen and protecting the future. There weren’t just 72 victims last year, but 32,000 of them. Though we identify with those 72, and want change because of them, the other voiceless 32,000 lie with them, unheard and unmentioned, but just as important. And to truly honor all of the victims of gun violence and not just make ourselves feel better, we can start over and ask the question that matters most.
Why do you want to pass gun control legislation?