Beyond Thoughts and Prayers – What Can We Do to Stop Gun Violence?

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Things may finally be changing in the United States as we search for strategies that will stem the terrifying tide of mass shootings in the country. 

The percentage of Republican-identified adults in the U.S. supporting stricter gun laws has increased by 15 percent in the space of a single year. From 35 percent in 2021, that number has now reached 50 percent. In addition, 43 percent of self-declared Republicans believe inadequate gun regulations are to blame for mass shootings. Only 27 percent of Republicans cited “loose gun laws” as the reason in 2021. 

The USA Today/Ipsos poll was published on June 7, 2022, two weeks after a teenage gunman took the lives of 19 students and two teachers in a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. One survey respondent said that, although he remains “pro-gun,” in the wake of Uvalde and other recent mass shootings he is now more open to the idea of some regulation. Specifically, background checks and waiting periods for gun sales.  

Despite the gain in Republican support for sensible gun control measures, a yawning gap remains between the two parties on the issue. The percentage of political independents who blame lax regulations for mass shootings increased to 64 percent in 2022, over 55 percent the previous year. Among Democrats, 86 percent put the major blame on loose regulation.  

Spare Us Your “Thoughts and Prayers” 

We’ve heard the refrain of “thoughts and prayers”—from politicians, members of the gun lobby, and others hoping to avoid a difficult, nuanced discussion—too many times after mass shootings. It’s been repeated so often that it’s evolved from a soothing platitude to an insult to the memories of those who have been killed as a result of gun violence, and to those left behind. Comedians commenting on our fractured society have even created film clips and memes satirically calling out the inanity of those three simple words.  

We’ve heard the anguished cries of parents of the children shot to death at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. Some of us have read doctors’ reports of the horrific damage done by the shooter’s AR-style rifle. Gun violence, in the opinion of numerous physicians, has reached the level of a public health crisis. 

So, are we finally—after Sandy Hook, Parkland, Buffalo, and all the other mass shootings that have traumatized us as a nation—ready to do more than offer thoughts and prayers? Here are the options: 

Suggestions from Experts 

Experts, including the Center for American Progress, have offered a set of measures we can take to reduce the number of people killed by gun violence. These include mandating backgrounds checks before gun sales in any venue; banning the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines; raising the legal age for gun purchases to 21; and instituting “red flag” and “extreme risk” orders in which a court can temporarily remove guns from people credibly judged as being in imminent danger of harming themselves or others.  

We can support evidence-based programs with proven track records of reducing gun violence in communities and among our youth. We also need to establish a gun culture based on the objective collection and analysis of public and community health data. We should both hold the gun industry accountable and draw on the collective knowledge of responsible gun owners to create effective solutions that don’t infringe on constitutional rights.  

We can require that gun permits be issued only to individuals who are properly trained and mandate that gun owners adhere to safe gun storage practices. Measures like these are part of building a culture of responsibility and respect for the lives and wellbeing of others. 

By the Numbers: Regulating Guns Means Fewer Deaths 

Statistics show that after implementation of a 1994 federal law banning AR-15s and other specified types of semi-automatic weapons, the number of deaths due to mass shooting events fell significantly. Even when taking the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School—the deadliest such event during the time the ban was in force—into account, the decade from 1994 to the sunsetting of the law in 2004 show dramatically lower average rates in both the total number of mass shootings and the total death toll.  

After the ban expired in 2004, there was almost immediately a sharp uptick in deaths from mass shootings. A numbers analysis for the years 2004 to 2017 showed an average of 25 deaths annually attributed to mass shootings. During the 10 years the assault weapons ban was in force, that annual average figure stood at only 5.3. Even in the years immediately preceding the ban, it only reached 7.2. 

This means that in the 10 years between 1994 and 2004, an individual American lived with a 70 percent lower risk of dying in a mass shooting than they would today.  

Will This Time Be Different? 

In June 2022, weeks after Uvalde, the United States Senate announced that it had reached agreement on a framework for new legislation to address gun violence. A group of 10 Republican senators, many of whom are vocal public supporters of gun rights and of the National Rifle Association (NRA), were in the bipartisan group of 20 involved. 

Proposed legislation as part of the framework includes stronger background checks for gun-buyers under 21; greater protection for victims of domestic violence who fear armed abusers; incentives for state-created red flag rules; and more money directed toward school safety and mental health.  

In addition, associated proposals would establish penalties for “straw” firearms purchases, in which one person buys a gun on behalf of an unnamed third party who might otherwise be ineligible. (It’s worth noting that the two teenage Columbine gunmen obtained their weapons through a straw purchase made by a friend.)  

Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who has become a vocal ally for survivors of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in his state, described the proposed legislation as “a breakthrough moment.” Let’s hope so.  

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