Domestic Affairs

Triggered: Gun Control in the United States

According to Time in March of 2018, 69 percent of NRA members support comprehensive background checks — a number that increases to 89 percent among respondents who don’t own a firearm. Despite this, gun control has become one of the most divisive questions of modern politics. The scale of the measures implemented have changed as well; what was once a matter of public policy has become a binary debate between unregulated markets and an outright ban. And while some members of the right appear to be fueled by handwringing about fears of “big government” taking away their guns, the left has grown to be increasingly motivated by opposite impulses based in perceptions of reality equally warped by fear.

In 2015, the CDC reported a total of 34,997 deaths from gun-related causes. Of those, 62.9 percent were suicides. In 2015, the FBI reported 13,750 homicides, 9,778 of which were committed using firearms of some description. And of more than 9,000 deaths from homicides committed using firearms, only 2.6 percent were committed using rifles. This number had actually decreased steadily from 367 in 2010, a rate outpacing the steady decline in violence overall reported in FBI homicide statistics. Some portion of these 258 homicides were committed using weapons broadly categorized as “assault weapons.” For 2015, the CDC reported 2,712,630 deaths in the United States. Assuming these statistics remain relatively stable on a year to year basis, some quick math gives us a percentage of annual deaths in the United States from assault weapons. Generously categorizing all homicides committed with rifles as deaths by assault weapon, we come up with a final value of 0.00009511 percent.

Using the CDC’s 2015 statistics on causes of death, you are roughly 20 times more likely to die from foodborne illness than an assault weapon.

Why, then, is gun control such a heated topic of national debate? The answer likely has much to do with media coverage of school shootings. The statistic reported by the U.S. Education Department reached nearly 240 separate incidents for the 2015-2016 school year, but when NPR called to confirm these incidents they were only able to determine that 11 had actually occurred, with the rest being errors on the scantrons provided to schools. Yet the media coverage of school shootings is unceasing, and they loom large on the public consciousness. News outlets describe shootings as an “epidemic,” and politicians have followed suit. Social psychologists often describe issues that drive voters to the polls as having three traits: salient, soon, and certain. Mass shootings are easily understood, happening in the present, and, based on media coverage, seem almost an inevitable and regular part of American life. But more importantly than any of that, mass shootings are dramatic. The media covers them for the same reason the American people are willing to vote on them — the terror-stricken parents, horrified school officials, heroic law enforcement, and villainous mass shooter are a predictable narrative that is easily understood and intensely emotional. Unfortunately, emotionally compelling narratives have in this case very little to do with the safety and security of the nation at large, and the ever-present question of why the United States has this problem, the question of who to blame, has never been answered.

Democrats tend to blame school shootings on the lack of long-desired gun control legislation, and Republicans argue for arming teachers and placing armed guards in institutions already struggling to fulfill their primary goal of educating students. While solutions from the right often collapse under the weight of their own insanity, the left’s crusade for an assault weapons ban can be expected to be equally useless. The 1994 assault weapons ban was both ineffective at stopping the sale of semi- and fully-automatic firearms (i.e. bump stock loopholes, minor cosmetic adjustments, and self-milled receivers) and since the rate of crimes involving assault weapons was so low to begin with, determining the effectiveness of the ban was declared by several studies to be impossible. Based on data from the FBI and CDC, the vastly larger number of deaths related to handguns would make more sense as a target for public policy. Unfortunately for the American public, these policies are too complicated to serve as a Democratic talking point, and the influence of the NRA makes them unpalatable to Republicans.

To be clear, any school shooting is a tremendous tragedy for both those directly affected and the communities in which they occur. But the American people deserve better than convenient political talking-points and unreasonable ultimatums from interest groups. The American people deserve a government that acts in the best interests of the nation, a summation of the most positive aspects of the national will. And while an assault weapons ban is an easily understood solution to a terrifying problem, for the time being, it is simply not worth the political capital required to implement it.

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