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In the wake of mass shootings, our thoughts and prayers aren’t enough

REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Our thoughts and prayers are not enough. We can do better.

The hashtag was trending immediately on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook after the shooting: “Pray for Oregon.” Clasped hand emoticons. Tweets of support. Memes. Online petitions abounding.

Ruth DeFoster

This is tired by now; it’s maddeningly routine. And here’s the thing: Our thoughts and prayers are not enough. We can do better. We need to look hard at this atrocity — really look at it.

I get it. It’s easier to avert our eyes. We have grown weary of death and carnage. But we can’t afford to do that anymore.

The October mass shooting in Oregon was, by the most conservative estimates, the 72nd American mass shooting in the last 30 years. According to the broader FBI “mass shooting” definition, it’s at least the 133rd mass shooting since 2009.

The data are clear

This is the only nation where these shootings happen with regularity. And the data are clear. Of the conservative estimate of 72 mass shootings in the past 30 years, the majority were committed using semiautomatic handguns, followed distantly by rifles, revolvers and shotguns. Of all the weapons used in these shootings, about one-third would have been outlawed by the failed proposed assault weapons ban of 2013. The vast majority of mass shooters also obtained their weapons legally — nearly 80 percent. Although assault weapons were used in a relative minority of cases (28 percent), shootings that involved assault weapons were considerably deadlier than those that did not.

By now, the arguments of anti-gun-control apologists are as routine as the shootings. Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. Cars kill people too! If we criminalize weapons, only criminals will have weapons.

All of these arguments fall short when presented with common sense and the scientific data. A gun is not an inert household appliance like a toaster. Yes, cars kill people too. But cars are designed for a purpose — to transport humans from one place to another. A gun is a machine designed to tear through flesh. When it is used correctly, it maims and kills. So yes, people kill people. But people with guns kill people a hell of a lot more effectively than people without them.

We could learn from the U.K and Australia

We can also learn about the effectiveness of gun control policy by looking to the examples of the U.K. and Australia. In 1996, shootings in Scotland and Tasmania prompted sweeping sets of gun reforms in those countries, including buyback programs, increased background checks, and new bans on previously legal weapons. In comparison to the dozens of American mass shootings in the years since 1996, there has been only one mass shooting in the U.K. during that period (in 2010), and zero in Australia. Research following the gun buyback program in Australia found an 80 percent drop in firearm suicide rates, and a 59 percent drop in gun-related homicides in Australia in the years between 1995 and 2006 [PDF]. And in the U.K., almost every year since has seen successive drops in the rates of gun crimes.

While it is against the law to sell weapons to the mentally ill, only 27 states report any information [PDF] about mental health to a federal database used for background checks. And while gun sales by federally licensed dealers require background checks, a huge chunk — about 40 percent — of gun sales are “private sales,” which involve zero federal oversight. This is the so-called “gun show loophole,” and it’s a loophole so big you could drive a tank through it.

This uniquely American reality affects almost every venue of our lives. Pick a topic you’re passionate about — gun legislation probably affects that issue. Do you care about crime? America has exponentially higher rates of almost every kind of gun violence (about 20 times the average for all other developed countries), from suicides to mass shootings, than any other developed nation [PDF] — and indeed, many American cities alone, such as Detroit, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., have gun-homicide rates comparable to some of the most violent nations in the world. Are you passionate about ending police brutality? Maybe you’ve considered looking to the U.K.’s system of a (mostly) disarmed and highly trained police force for inspiration. That system could simply never work in the United States until our massive arsenal of weapons — an estimated 300 million, the highest rate of per capita gun ownership in the world — is diminished. British police aren’t dealing with a citizenry that’s armed to the teeth. American police are.

It’s time to act

So here’s our moment of truth. We’ve heard the speeches. We’ve listened to President Obama, in moments of anguish and anger, ask, as he did after the horrific Newtown shooting: “Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage? That the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?”

It’s time to act.

Shut your laptop and call your congressperson. Better yet, show up in person. Demand change. Demand reform. The time for fatalism about the influence of the gun lobby is over. In the 1990s, several Australian politicians sacrificed their careers and their chances at re-election to pass sane reforms on gun legislation. Are our policymakers that brave? Are we?

Ruth DeFoster is an adjunct professor of communication studies at St. Catherine University, where she teaches courses on race, gender and culture. Her Ph.D. is from the University of Minnesota in mass communication. DeFoster writes, teaches and studies mass shootings, crime, terrorism and identity.

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