I’ve been reluctant to write about the terrible events at Sandy Hook Elementary School because the wounds are still too fresh for any kind of dispassionate analysis. As a social scientist, however, I’m disappointed by the fear-mongering and selective presentations of the research evidence I’ve read in reports and op-eds about Friday’s awful killing.
Such events could help move us toward constructive actions that will result in a safer and more just world — or they could push us toward counter-productive and costly actions that simply respond to the particulars of the last horrific event. I will make the case that a narrow focus on stopping mass shootings is less likely to produce beneficial changes than a broader-based effort to reduce homicide and other violence. We can and should take steps to prevent mass shootings, of course, but these rare and terrible crimes are like rare and terrible diseases — and a strategy to address them is best considered within the context of more common and deadlier threats to population health. Five points:
1. The focus on mass shootings obscures over 99 percent of homicide victims and offenders in the United States. The numbers should not matter to parents who must bury their children, but they are important if policy makers are truly committed to reducing violent deaths. There are typically about 25 mass shootings and 100 victims each year in the United States (and, despite headlines to the contrary, mass shootings have not increased over the past twenty years). These are high numbers by international standards, but they pale relative to the total number of killings – about 14,612 victims and 14,548 offenders in 2011. In recent years, the mass shooters have represented less than two-tenths of 1 percent of the total offenders, while the victims have represented less than one percent of the total homicide victims in any given year. We are understandably moved by the innocence of the Sandy Hook children, but we should also be moved by scores of other victims who are no less innocent. There were 646 murder victims aged 12 or younger in the United States in 2011 alone — far more than all the adults and children that died as a result of mass shootings.
2. The focus on mass shootings leads to unproductive arguments about whether imposing sensible gun controls would have deterred the undeterrable. As gun advocates are quick to point out, many of the perpetrators in mass shootings had no “disqualifying” history of crime or mental disorder that would have prevented them from obtaining weapons. And, the most highly motivated offenders are often able to secure weapons illegally. Even if such actions do little to stop mass shootings, however, implementing common-sense controls such as “turning off the faucet” on high capacity assault weapons, tightening up background checks, and closely monitoring sales at gun shows are prudent public policy. But the vast majority of firearms used in murders are simple handguns. I would expect the no-brainer controls mentioned above to have a modest but meaningful effect, but we will need to go farther to have anything more than an incremental effect on mass shootings and gun violence more generally.