The horrific on-air shooting deaths of two journalists in Virginia on Wednesday has shifted the nation’s collective attention, once again, to the preventable scourge of gun violence that kills more than 33,000 Americans each year.
Reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward, of CBS affiliate WDBJ7 in Roanoke, Virginia, were shot and killed early Wednesday morning while they were broadcasting live on air. Vicki Gardner, a third shooting victim who was being interviewed by Parker for the segment, survived the attack and remains hospitalized in stable condition. Authorities confirmed on Wednesday afternoon that the shooting suspect – a man named Vester Lee Flanagan II, who went by Bryce Williams III – died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
As the country goes through the sickeningly familiar process of grieving the victims of yet another mass shooting, a new analysis offers up a sobering assessment of the state of gun violence in America.
With the shooting in Virginia on August 26 — the 238th day of the year — plus the shooting of four people during a home invasion in Minneapolis that same day, the number of mass shooting incidents this year has risen to 247. This means that the United States has averaged more than one mass shooting for every day of 2015.
The data were compiled by moderators of the tongue-in-cheek subreddit /r/GunsAreCool, which tracks mass shootings in America. For the purposes of data collection, they defined “mass shooting” as any incident in which four or more people were shot, including the gunman. This definition is more expansive than the FBI’s, which requires at least three people to be killed for an attack to reach the threshold of mass killing. While some have criticized this broad definition, the Washington Post points out that it is actually quite useful “because it captures many high-profile instances of violence — like the recent Lafayette theater shootings — that don’t meet the FBI’s criteria.”
Exposing the reality of mass shootings in America
The definition used in the analysis also provides a more realistic picture of the nature of mass shootings — a phenomenon that was described in a recent study as an “exceptionally American problem“.
This summer has seen a string of highly publicized mass shootings, starting with the late-June massacre of nine people at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Just weeks later, an armed attacker shot seven people at a military recruitment center in Chattanooga, Tennessee, killing five of them and then turning the gun on himself. The same week, a gunman targeted moviegoers inside a darkened theater in Lafayette, Louisiana, shooting 11 people and fatally wounding two victims before killing himself.
Although they dominate the headlines, public mass shootings like the ones in Charleston, Chattanooga, Lafayette, and now Roanoke, Virginia aren’t representative of the typical mass shooting in America. In fact, the majority of mass shootings in the U.S. take place behind closed doors — usually in the home — and the victims are predominantly women and children.” According to a 2015 analysis of five years of gun violence data, family members and intimate partners comprise more than half (57%) of all mass shooting victims; nearly two-thirds (64%) are women and children.
This highlights the fact that mass shootings — like most types of gun violence — are not random, unpredictable events. In fact, many of them follow a frighteningly familiar script. We know, based on extensive evidence, that the typical mass shooting is preceded by clear warning signs such as domestic violence-related 911 calls, broken protective orders, stalking, and threats. And this means that there are steps we can take to prevent many of these incidents.
Guns do, in fact, kill people
Using more expansive criteria to define mass shootings also exposes the frightening ease and frequency with which guns are used to kill or injure scores of people. While there will always be deranged, aggrieved people with the capacity for violence, the availability of guns makes it far, far easier for these people to hurt and kill others indiscriminately.
This seems like common sense — after all, firearms are designed to kill at a distance, to kill with speed, and to kill with maximum lethality. This is a weapon that has been optimized to extinguish life with the minimum amount of effort possible. But, for a variety of reasons, America has embraced a social norm that explicitly legitimizes gun violence deaths by providing an unending laundry list of excuses whenever a mass shooting happens: it was mental illness, video games, poor parenting, and so on. But it’s never the gun. Yet in scientific studies, civilian gun ownership is far and away the strongest predictor of the incidence of mass shootings (and other firearm violence).
As a country, the United States comprises just 5 percent of the global population, yet we’ve experienced a staggering 31 percent of public mass shootings across the world over the last four decades. And we’re supposed to believe that it’s just a coincidence that rates of private gun ownership are higher in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world – twice as high, for instance, as that of Yemen, a conflict-torn nation in the throes of a domestic insurgency. In 2012, Americans owned an estimated 270 million guns, almost 42 percent of the total number of civilian-owned guns on the entire planet.
While we can debate about the most effective types of gun control policies, there is no longer room for debate about the consequences of our current lack of substantive, internationally comparable gun control: the U.S. is not only an international outlier in its lack of gun control, it is also a massive outlier in terms of firearm violence. If the gun lobby’s claims about the efficacy of guns in reducing crime and warding off attackers were true, the U.S. would have the lowest gun violence homicide rate among industrialized nations. Instead, we have the highest rate (by a wide margin).
Human beings have a limitless capacity for irrational acts, bizarre confrontations, moments of utter craziness — and that includes those of us who are usually mature, sane and rational beings. But if we allow firearms everywhere, we simply increase the odds that one of those crazy moments will result in bloodshed.