The American Debate on Guns Continues to Ignore the Facts

(c) M&R Glasgow via Flickr.

(c) M&R Glasgow via Flickr.

The latest high-profile American mass shooting has reignited the debate on gun control – and the frustration among gun control advocates is palpable.

NPR newsman Tom Ashbrook didn’t mince words on his syndicated show, On Point. Ashbrook asked whether the “steady drumbeat of deaths” would finally drive people to address the “American hellhole on guns.”

Writing for the Boston Globe, Derrick Jackson wondered why we’ve gone to war in Afghanistan and Iraq to fight terrorism yet remain unwilling to tackle “the deadliest terror we actually face.” The theme was picked up by one of the commentators on NBC’s Meet the Press: “whatever your political views [on gun control], you should be terrified.”

Speaking at an emotional press conference, a combative President Obama had this to say:

Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine, the conversation in the aftermath of it … We have become numb to this.

Lost in all of the handwringing and obscured by the breathless reporting that has accompanied shootings like the one in Oregon is the fact that the murder and violent crime rates have dropped essentially every year since 1993. The suicide rate (and suicides comprise two thirds of all gun deaths) has remained more or less steady since 1981.

Part of the confusion has to do with the difference between rates and absolute counts. Some readers will be familiar with the fact that roughly 30 people are killed with a gun each day in the United States, and a further 50 people use a firearm to take their own lives. Those numbers are jarring and deserve public policy consideration, but they also lack context. Most people have an intuitive understanding of the numbers 30 and 50; no one has an intuitive understanding of the size of the US population – 318,900,000.

Simply put, to the extent that the current conversation around gun violence is premised on the notion that the problem of gun violence is getting worse, it is a conversation largely based in fiction.

There are two important caveats to the general downward trend. The first is the observed spike in gun violence this year in many cities throughout the country. People have been quick to interpret the meaning of this, but it’s simply too early to tell. It might be a statistical aberration, nothing more than a blip in a continued downward trend, or it might be the first signs of the crime rate bottoming out. We should look out for whether or not the increase persists throughout the year as well as whether it is reflected in the national rate or confined to specific urban areas. We should also wonder about the role played by policing; it should be lost on no one that these spikes in violent crime come on the heels of persistent and well-publicized tension between police departments and the communities they’re responsible for.

The second exception to the general downward trend in violent crime is the incidence of mass shootings: the six-year period between 2007 and 2013 saw a mass shooting rate more than double that between 2000 and 2006. It is these shootings that are responsible for the general sense that gun violence is a problem of increasing importance, even though the data doesn’t bear that out.

Despite the efforts of the statistically minded, the conversation in the United States around guns continues to obsess over the least relevant form of gun violence. In an average year, almost five times as many Americans are killed by bee stings than are killed in mass shootings, but you don’t hear many people decrying the ‘American hellhole on bees.’

Two questions are worth highlighting. The first is why mass shootings receive such a disproportionate amount of the coverage: the recent shooting at Umpqua Community College saw 9 people killed and 9 people wounded, while the previous weekend saw 4 people killed and 53 wounded in Chicago. But the President didn’t take the podium to decry American numbness around street violence in places like Chicago, Baltimore, and Milwaukee. Why?

The obvious answer is that the national media doesn’t care about day-to-day crime precisely because it is too common to be called ‘news’. But that’s not entirely correct. The local news covers local crime religiously. The real answer is that national news outlets don’t cover crime in places like Chicago with the same fervor that they cover crime in places like Sandy Hook because the national audience doesn’t care when bad things happen to dark-skinned people in, to borrow a phrase, places they don’t visit.

The compelling dimension of mass shootings isn’t their prevalence; it is their randomness. They allow news outlets to promote the idea that ‘this could happen to you’, that everyone, regardless of their political views, should be terrified. That’s the kind of story that sells papers and the media knows it.

So why does President Obama play along? His detractors will claim that the President is cynically using the news cycle to his political advantage. Perhaps. But observers should appreciate that the President has nothing to gain from highlighting what happens every day in Chicago’s South Side. The people there already agree with him, and swing voters in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania generally don’t care. In that light, it isn’t surprising that the President focuses his energy on drawing attention to the stories that might sway people who disagree with him. That is a political posture, but not necessarily a cynical one.

The second question worth asking is, why have mass-shootings increased so dramatically, even as the violent crime rate has continued to drop? That’s a question I can’t answer, but we would be reckless if we didn’t at least consider the role that the media has played in glamorizing and publicizing the people who commit such crimes.

Perpetrators of mass shootings frequently leave behind manifestos, under the correct assumption that they are about to become famous. The Umpqua shooter is reported to have left behind a document in which he lamented his lonely existence and glorified mass-shootings. In 2013, a man in Santa Monica wrote a rambling screed against women before going on a rampage. The country promptly responded to his actions by popularizing the document.

If you are the kind of person who is willing to commit great evil to become a household name, the country’s media has provided you with the following offer: you commit the crime, they’ll provide the coverage.

The conversation around guns in the United States is mired in misinformation and unrepresentative anecdotes. The result is a confused jumble of policy demands, largely disconnected from reality. For example, the Oregon shooting is being used to revive the push for universal background checks, even as the shooter passed a background check when he bought his weapons. Similarly, advocates champion limits on magazine sizes and semi-automatic rifles, but the shooter at the Washington Navy Yard killed 12 people with a pump-action shotgun.

Such proposals amount to ideas that won’t fix a problem that doesn’t exist. If gun control advocates want to enact policies that will help decrease America’s murder-rate, they’ll have to get past their frustration, put aside their hyperbole, and engage with gun owners in ways that build trust.

Otherwise, their efforts are going to backfire.

(A longer piece looking at the relationship between gun violence and gun laws can be found here. Also, be on the lookout for a look at violent crime in the United States within an international context.)

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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