Thursday, September 21, 2023

The Uvalde massacre and America’s unique gun violence problem, explained

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Tuesday’s mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, 10 days after a mass shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, has once again brought American exceptionalism on gun violence into stark relief.

No other high-income country has suffered such a high death toll from gun violence. Every day, more than 110 Americans die at the end of a gun, including suicides and homicides, an average of 40,620 per year. Since 2009, there has been an annual average of 19 mass shootings, when defined as shootings in which at least four people are killed. The US gun homicide rate is as much as 26 times that of other high-income countries; its gun suicide rate is nearly 12 times higher.

Gun control opponents, including virtually every Republican, have typically framed the gun violence epidemic in the US as a symptom of a broader mental health crisis. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott reiterated that rhetoric in a press conference on Wednesday, suggesting that improving access to mental health resources, not reevaluating his state’s lax gun laws, should be the primary response to the Uvalde shooting.

But every country has people suffering from mental health issues and extremists like the Buffalo shooter; those problems aren’t unique. What is unique is the US’s expansive view of civilian gun ownership, ingrained in politics, in culture, and in the law since the nation’s founding, and a national political process that has so far proved incapable of changing that norm.

“America is unique in that guns have always been present, there is wide civilian ownership, and the government hasn’t claimed more of a monopoly on them,” said David Yamane, a professor at Wake Forest University who studies American gun culture.

That’s left many wondering how many more people — including children — need to die before the US takes federal action.

The US has a lot of guns, and more guns means more gun deaths

It’s hard to estimate the number of privately owned guns in America since there is no countrywide database where people register whether they own guns, and there is a thriving black market for them in the absence of strong federal gun trafficking laws.

One estimate from the Small Arms Survey, a Swiss-based research project, found that there were approximately 390 million guns in circulation in the US in 2018, or about 120.5 firearms per 100 residents. That number has likely climbed in the years since, given that one in five households purchased a gun during the pandemic. But even without accounting for that increase, US gun ownership is still well above any other country: Yemen, which has the world’s second-highest level of gun ownership, has only 52.8 guns per 100 residents; in Iceland, it’s 31.7.

American guns are concentrated in a tiny minority of households: just 3 percent own about half the nation’s guns, according to a 2016 Harvard and Northeastern University study. They’re called “super owners” who have an average of 17 guns each. Gallup, using a different methodology, found that 42 percent of American households overall owned guns in 2017.

Researchers have found a clear link between gun ownership in the US and gun violence, and some argue that it’s causal. One 2013 Boston University study, for instance, found that for each percentage point increase in gun ownership at the household level, the state firearm homicide rate increased by 0.9 percent. And states with weaker gun laws have higher rates of gun-related homicides and suicides, according to a January study by the gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety.

The link between gun deaths and gun ownership is much stronger than the link between violence and mental health issues. If it were possible to cure all schizophrenia, bipolar, and depressive disorders, violent crime in the US would fall by only 4 percent, according to a study from Duke University professor Jeffrey Swanson, who examines policies to reduce gun violence.

There’s still a pervasive idea, pushed by gun manufacturers and gun rights organizations like the National Rifle Association, that further arming America is the answer to preventing gun violence — the “good guy with a gun” theory. But a study from Hamline University and Metropolitan State University found that the rate of deaths in 133 mass school shootings between 1990 and 2019 was 2.83 times greater in cases where there was an armed guard present.

“The idea that the solution to mass shootings is that we need more guns in the hands of more people in more places so that we’ll be able to protect ourselves — there’s no evidence that that’s true,” Swanson said.

Catholic faithful depart after a Mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Uvalde, Texas, on May 25, one day after a gunman in body armor ran into Robb Elementary School and killed 19 children and two teachers.
Allison Dinner/AFP via Getty Images

The prevalence of the self-defense narrative is part of what sets apart the gun rights movement in the US from similar movements in places like Canada and Australia, according to Robert Spitzer, a professor at SUNY Cortland who studies the politics of gun control.

Self-defense has become by far the most prominent reason for gun ownership in the US today, eclipsing hunting, recreation, or owning guns because they’re antiques, heirlooms, or work-related. That’s also reflected in ballooning handgun sales, since the primary purpose of those guns isn’t recreational, but self-defense.

American gun culture “brings together the hunting-sporting tradition with the militia-frontier tradition, but in modern times the hunting element has been eclipsed by a heavily politicized notion that gun carrying is an expression of freedom, individuality, hostility to government, and personal self-protection,” Spitzer said.

That culture of gun ownership in the US has made it all the more difficult to explore serious policy solutions to gun violence after mass shootings. In high-income countries lacking that culture, mass shootings have historically galvanized public support behind gun control measures that would seem extreme by US standards.

Canada banned military-style assault weapons two weeks after a 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia. In 2019, less than a month after the Christchurch massacre, New Zealand lawmakers passed a gun buyback scheme, as well as restrictions on AR-15s and other semiautomatic weapons, and they later established a firearms registry. The 1996 Port Arthur massacre in Australia spurred the government to buy back 650,000 firearms within a year, and murders and suicides plummeted as a result.

By contrast, it’s been nearly a decade since the 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and still nothing has been done on a federal level to address gun violence.

People gather at Sacred Heart Catholic Church to pray for the victims of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 25.
Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

“Other countries look at this problem and say, ‘People walking around in the community with handguns is just way too dangerous, so we’re going to broadly limit legal access to that and make exceptions on the margins for people who might have a good reason to have a gun,’” Swanson said. “Here we do just the opposite: We say that, because of the way that the Supreme Court interpreted the Second Amendment, everybody has the right to a gun for personal protection, and then we tried to make exceptions for really dangerous people, but we can’t figure out who they are.”

The political state of gun control

Despite the surge in mass shootings across the US, the politics of gun control has been the same for years.

As vice president, Joe Biden led a push for universal background checks, a new assault weapons ban, and a prohibition on high-capacity gun clips that went nowhere. Now, his presidential administration faces even tougher odds for narrower policies.

While the majority of Americans support more gun control restrictions, including universal background checks, a vocal Republican minority unequivocally opposes such laws — and is willing to put pressure on GOP lawmakers to do the same. Alongside the NRA, and a well-funded gun lobby, this contingent of voters sees gun control as a deciding issue, and one that could warrant a primary challenge for a lawmaker who votes for it.

The last major bipartisan bill that Congress considered was a compromise between Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA), introduced after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, that would have established universal background checks. It ultimately failed to pass the Senate filibuster in a 54-46 vote, with just four Republicans signing on and four Democrats opposed.

Before the Manchin-Toomey compromise, the most significant gun control measure in recent history was an assault weapons ban that Congress passed in 1994, which sunsetted in 2004. Since then, lawmakers have struggled to get the votes to approve any other bills.

The gun lobby has the advantage of enthusiasm. “​​Despite being outnumbered, Americans who oppose gun control are more likely to contact public officials about it and to base their votes on it,” Barnard College’s Matthew LaCombe explained in 2020. “As a result, many politicians believe that supporting gun regulation is more likely to lose them votes than to gain them votes.”

American flags are seen at half-staff surrounding the Washington Monument, in front of the US Capitol, on May 25. President Joe Biden ordered flags at the White House, federal buildings, and military posts to be flown at half-staff for the victims of the deadly shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The result is a dearth of Republican support for any form of gun control legislation, leaving bills to stall in the Senate where 60 votes are needed to pass most measures because of the filibuster. Since Democrats currently have a 50-person majority in the upper chamber, that means they’d need at least 10 Republicans to sign onto any bill in order for it to pass.

Despite some bipartisan interest in narrow reforms in the wake of the Uvalde mass shooting, getting that degree of GOP support is still unlikely. Democrats like Sens. Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ) also continue to oppose eliminating the filibuster, which would allow Democrats to pass legislation with the simple majority they possess.

“In the conversations I’ve had with colleagues, they are disturbed, upset, troubled, but not willing to change where they are,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) told reporters on Wednesday.

All that leaves Congress in the same place it’s been for the last decade.

For now, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) is leading an attempt to find a bipartisan compromise on legislation. In a tweet the day after the Uvalde mass shooting, Murphy said that he’d spend the next 10 days trying to hammer out an agreement that could get 10 Republican votes. If that effort fails as it has in the past, the Senate will then vote on two House-passed gun control bills in order to get Republicans on the record on the issue.

“Hopefully we succeed and the Senate can vote on a bipartisan bill that saves lives,” Murphy said in his post. “But if we can’t find common ground, then we are going to take a vote on gun violence. The Senate will not ignore this crisis.”

It’s not yet clear what shape a bipartisan agreement would take. After the Uvalde mass shooting, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) said she’d be open to discussing red flag laws, a policy that enables law enforcement to curb an individual’s access to a firearm if they are viewed as posing a danger to themselves or others. Toomey, meanwhile, said he believed universal background checks might be the most likely policy to pick up Republican support.

In the case that there is no bipartisan deal, the Senate intends to vote on the Bipartisan Background Checks Act and the Enhanced Background Checks Act — two bills that seek to require more vetting of anyone who wants to obtain a gun.

The Bipartisan Background Checks Act would require background checks for all gun sales and close loopholes that currently exist for gun shows and online sales. The Enhanced Background Checks Act, meanwhile, would address what’s known as the Charleston loophole, which enables an individual to buy a firearm without a completed background check if three days have elapsed. That bill would extend the window to 10 days, and directly addresses how the shooter who killed nine Black Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 was able to purchase a gun.

Both measures advanced with a handful of Republican votes in the House, and are widely expected to fail in the Senate.

Neither bill would be sufficient to fully address the causes of mass shootings, and certain studies suggest that universal background checks may have limited effects on gun violence. These policies would still be important first steps toward addressing gun access, however. Background checks are intended to prevent people with past felony and domestic violence convictions from being able to buy a gun, for example. And roughly 1 in 5 gun sales is currently made without a background check.

“These are no magic wand panaceas, but a greater focus on the process by which people obtain guns in the first place would be worthy and helpful,” SUNY Cortland’s Spitzer said.

Whether Congress actually takes action on the issue this year will become more apparent in the next two weeks. “It’s not impossible, but the chances are extremely remote,” said Spitzer.

Gun control advocates hold a vigil outside of the NRA headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia, on May 25.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

The Supreme Court has made it impossible to cure America’s gun violence epidemic

In 2008, the Supreme Court effectively wrote NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre’s “good guy with a gun” theory into the Constitution. The Court’s 5-4 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) was the first Supreme Court decision in American history to hold that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm. But it also went much further than that.

Heller held that one of the primary purposes of the Second Amendment is to protect the right of individuals — good guys with a gun, in LaPierre’s framework — to use firearms to stop bad guys with guns. As Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in Heller, an “inherent right of self-defense has been central to the Second Amendment right.”

As a matter of textual interpretation, this holding makes no sense. The Second Amendment provides that “a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

We don’t need to guess why the Second Amendment protects a right to firearms because it is right there in the Constitution. The Second Amendment’s purpose is to preserve “a well-regulated Militia,” not to allow individuals to use their weapons for personal self-defense.

For many years, the Supreme Court took the first 13 words of the Second Amendment seriously. As the Court said in United States v. Miller (1939), the “obvious purpose” of the Second Amendment was to “render possible the effectiveness” of militias. And thus the amendment must be “interpreted and applied with that end in view.” Heller abandoned that approach.

Heller also reached another important policy conclusion. Handguns, according to Scalia, are “overwhelmingly chosen” by gun owners who wish to carry a firearm for self-defense. For this reason, he wrote, handguns enjoy a kind of super-legal status. Lawmakers are not allowed to ban what Scalia described as “the most preferred firearm in the nation to ‘keep’ and use for protection of one’s home and family.”

This declaration regarding handguns matters because this easily concealed weapon is responsible for far more deaths than any other weapon in the United States — and it isn’t close. In 2019, for example, a total of 13,927 people were murdered in the US, according to the FBI. Of these murder victims, at least 6,368 — just over 45 percent — were killed by handguns.

A woman holds a photo of Nevaeh Bravo, who was killed in the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School, during a vigil for the victims in Uvalde, Texas, on May 25.
Allison Dinner/AFP via Getty Images

It is likely, moreover, that the Supreme Court is going to make it even harder for federal and state lawmakers to combat gun violence very soon.

Early this summer, the Supreme Court is expected to hand down its decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, a lawsuit challenging a 108-year-old New York law requiring anyone who wishes to carry a gun outside of their home to demonstrate “proper cause” before they can obtain a license permitting them to do so.

When the Court heard oral arguments in this case last fall, a majority of the Court appeared eager to strike down the New York law. Justice Samuel Alito even suggested that guns should be allowed in the cramped, often-crowded cars of New York City’s subway system.

“All these people with illegal guns, they’re on the subway,” Alito claimed. “They’re walking around the streets, but the ordinary hard-working, law-abiding people … they can’t be armed?”

Bruen will likely kick off a host of decisions striking down laws intended to combat gun violence.

The Heller opinion contains a fair amount of language emphasizing that “the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.” Among other things, Scalia wrote that “nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill.”

He also suggested that “laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms” are lawful, as are bans on “dangerous and unusual weapons” such as machine guns.

But Justice John Paul Stevens revealed shortly before his death in 2019 that this language was added to the Heller opinion at the insistence of the relatively moderate conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy. Kennedy is no longer on the Court, and his replacement, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, reads the Second Amendment expansively. So does Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who replaced the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — Ginsburg dissented in Heller.

It’s not yet clear how much of the language Kennedy pushed for in Heller is now in danger. But the Supreme Court of 2022 is far more conservative than the Court that decided Heller in 2008, and its newest members are especially eager to expand gun rights.

The future of firearm regulation looks grim for anyone who believes that the government should help protect us from gun violence.


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