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Why Are We Passive About Mass Shootings?

It's natural to be overwhelmed with shock and grief after each mass shooting in this country. And it's been all-too easy to feel helpless to do anything to tackle the problem, to believe that our country is too divided around the issue of gun control vs Second Amendment rights. Yet, as I take a look at the research, I am convinced that I have to give up my passivity because we can do something that will make a difference. We can learn from how other countries have taken control, we can study the data on our shooters, and we can build the public will here to institute policies that will make mass shootings a rare event here.

Mass shootings are much more of a problem in the US than anywhere else. The International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice researched mass shootings in 36 developed countries between 1998 and 2019 and found that shootings in the US accounted for 73% of all 139 incidents. According to Crisis Response, “No other country had more than eight mass shootings during that 20 year period, and only five had more than two incidents during this period.”

The UK, Australia, Japan and Canada each had at least one catastrophic mass shooting, and they responded by instituting policies that were effective at preventing repeat events. Japan and the UK almost totally banned gun ownership–a strategy not likely to work here. But they also instituted many policies and programs that could be real options here. These include temporary gun buy-back programs, mandatory safety training, more widespread background checks, assault weapons bans, 28-day waiting periods for gun purchases, and red flag or extreme risk laws.

Two facts about mass shooters in the US point to actions we could take that would have an impact. It turns out that 93% of the mass shootings in the United States between 1982 and March 2023 involved weapons which were obtained legally. And, the majority (over 80%) of mass shooters “leaked” their intent –they told someone of their violent intent or specific interest in mass shooting. There are policy options that would make it harder for people who are considering becoming mass shooters to buy guns.

I’m not saying this will be easy–currently any talk of reducing gun violence triggers the response “our rights are under attack like never before,” according to the NRA. Yet the Assault Weapons Ban that both the House of Representatives and the Senate are considering is supported by a majority of voters, and fifteen Republican senators voted in favor of it last year. While an assault weapons ban wouldn’t eliminate all mass shootings, it would ban semi-automatic rifles which were used in four of the five worst mass shootings in this country. At present this legislation is still stalled in the Senate.

The other strategy that is within reach and could be taking guns out of the hands of potential mass shooters is Red Flag or Extreme Risk laws. These laws task law enforcement with confiscating weapons from people who have indicated that they might be at risk of harming themselves or others. To date, nineteen states (including Rhode Island) and the District of Columbia do have these laws, but in many states they are having very limited impact due to lack of public education. Last year Congress did pass the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act to provide resources to support public education and police training that could make Red Flag and Extreme Risk laws more effective.

On the other, less hopeful side, many counties and some states have declared themselves “Second Amendment Sanctuaries” –declaring that they will not enforce federal gun regulations. The US Department of Justice is just starting to address this argument between local and state governments and the federal government.

I didn’t say it was going to be easy to do something about our mass shooting problem–but it doesn’t look impossible. Though the divide between gun control and gun rights advocates seems particularly deep at present–I have to remind myself that nobody is advocating for mass shootings. For now, I plan to keep an eye on steps to ban assault weapons, and the struggles around Red Flag and Extreme Risk laws–while also working to understand the NRA and other gun-rights defenders. Perhaps we can start with “nobody wants another mass shooting.”


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