Psst! America? You’re old enough now. It’s time for us sit down and talk about some things.
No, not about the birds and the bees. Not this time anyway. Although it does include other animals. Elephants, to be precise.
No, we need to chat about mass shootings in this country. It’s long overdue. And that means you have to include those gun-shaped elephants in the room.
See, there’s been another mass shooting. This time in Las Vegas. Concertgoers enjoying a country music festival. 58 people dead. Over 500 injured. By one gunman. In about ten minutes.
This has gone on long enough. We need to talk about this.
I know. I know. It’s hard. You feel confused. You feel hurt. Defensive. Scared. Anxious. Overwhelmed.
It’s okay. It’s understandable. But I think you’ll find the hard part is just getting to the start. After that, things get easier, because the rest of us will be with you.
But you have to start.
See, you have a problem. And it’s not getting better. The longer you wait to start talking about it, the worse things will get.
You need this talk to sort out what is going on. That’s how things get solved. First you look around at what’s going on. Then you analyze what you observe. Then you try to come up with solutions. Solutions don’t get found without the first two steps. You need to look hard at all of what’s going on. Then you can start figuring out of there is anything to be done.
That means you have to be honest in this conversation.
And you have to talk about all of what is happening. You can’t have this conversation without talking about guns too. You just can’t.
You can’t avoid guns or other parts of this because they make you uncomfortable. The sight of blood may make me squeamish. But I can’t figure out what needs to be done to fix the cut on my hand unless I look at the whole thing, blood included.
You have to look at all the pieces, big and small. And not flinch away from what you may find. It’s okay. We all are in this together. We all want the same thing. We just want things to be better for everyone.
MASS SHOOTINGS ON THE RISE
What do I mean you have a problem with mass shootings?
You’re right. No one has a set definition of what a mass shooting even is. Which leads to different sets of numbers. Someone comes on the television and starts talking about one set of numbers. An online news site will talk about a different set of numbers. But the even so, most of those different numbers tell the same story of escalating violence.
Let’s take a look as one of those sets of numbers.
Mother Jones gathered information on mass shootings going back to 1982. That’s one of the bigger, continuous data sets out there. Plus, they put all the data in a chart so you look at the details for yourself.
Now Mother Jones defined mass shootings as indiscriminate rampages in public places resulting in four or more victims killed. That is in keeping with FBI yardsticks for mass murderers. Mother Jones’ criteria eliminated shootings relating to gang shoot ‘em ups, armed robbery, or domestic violence in the home.
Now sometimes that fourth victim was the shooter. Those shootings are still counted. But the spreadsheet does not include the shooter when totaling the victims. I only bring it up because I was confused at first. Thus, I thought a warning was in order.
Here is the link to the chart:
Here is a link to the explanation of the criteria used to gather the data:
Line graphs based on every year tend to zigzag enough to make my head ache. So, let’s take an average of the number of shootings every four years. Because you’re America, let’s base that on a really familiar time frame. The Presidential election cycle. The numbers come out to:
|Average Number of Mass Shootings Per Year|
Now a pretty bar graph to go with the numbers:
See that ascending slope, there? Notice how much taller it is now than it was at the beginning? See how dramatically it has risen since 2004? Notice how 2017 is not even over yet, and it still the highest bar there?
That indicates a growing problem.
Of course, you and I know that numbers can be far more complicated than that. But getting behind those numbers is another problem you have. We’ll get back to that one in a bit.
The important part is that those numbers are not an anomaly. For example, the FBI’s study on active shootings found a similar rise in incidents over a similar time period.
Yes, America, you have a growing problem.
MASS SHOOTING OR NOT, NO NUMBER IS TOO SMALL
What’s that? You still don’t think you need to have a conversation about mass shootings? You’ve heard we are talking about only an incredibly small number of people when compared to the overall U.S. population?
Well, why does that matter? No really, why? We have had chats about other problems with the same or smaller numbers of people.
Every year we encourage people to get flu shots. Wash their hands. Protect those with compromised immune systems. Just to save a few folks from death by the flu.
The annual number of deaths worldwide due to airplane incidents is usually in the hundreds or the lower half of the thousands. Not tens of thousands, by the way. Just thousands. That’s out of an estimated 7.5 billion people in the world. That is an incredibly small number, statistically speaking. (If you need some numbers, you can check Wikipedia’s article on “Aviation Accidents and Incidents”. If you scroll down about halfway there is handy table.)
Yet, it does not matter if an airplane incident results in deaths, injuries, inconveniences, or just close calls. We talk about every one of them. We take a hard look at how things can be better, even though the chances of having a problem resulting in death are already pretty tiny.
We constantly test, reexamine, and test again, ways to make vaccines better, more effective, less likely to trigger adverse reactions, etc. Despite the minute chance that vaccines will cause any problems at all. That’s just problems, by the way. Not deaths.
But more important than any of that – The lives of every single person killed in a mass shooting matter. Every single one of them. They may seem small in statistical form. But to each and every one of those people, their life was hugely important. There is no small number here. Not to the victims. Not to their families and friends.
If we can make things better. If we can prevent at least some of those not so small lives from being snuffed out by simply talking, shouldn’t we take that chance? Of course, we should.
So, let’s be honest. The first step to starting this conversation is admitting you have a problem.
America, you have a problem with mass shootings.
There. We have laid it all out in the open. Take a deep breath. Take a moment. Accept it.
Now, let’s start moving forward.
INCLUDING THE ELEPHANTS
Moving forward means talking about mass shootings. This conversation cannot be one sided. People talk in conversations. But they also listen. Otherwise it’s just a stump speech.
That means folks can’t just shut their ears to things that do not fit their preconceived notions. They have to be open to things that may make them uncomfortable. That may be hard to hear.
And the conversation cannot be one dimensional. It can’t be about only one factor. A lot of factors make up mass shootings. All of them have to be examined.
America, I know this is tough, but you know where this is going, don’t you?
“Guns don’t kill people, people do.”
“You need to be looking at why folks are doing this, not at the guns.”
“If that guy had used a truck to kill people, we wouldn’t ban trucks.”
“It’s not the guns. And laws won’t help. If someone is determined to kill, he will find a way.” (With variations about 9/11 and box cutters, and the Oklahoma City bombing and fertilizer.)
You know what? Not a single one of those points is a reason not to have a conversation about mass shootings. And not a single one of those points is a reason not to talk about guns in that conversation. Not one.
Any conversation about mass shootings must discuss the shooters. It must discuss the “whys”. But it can do that and also discuss the guns. You can do both.
We can talk about guns without jumping to banning guns. Just like if a truck were used, we would discuss trucks without necessarily banning them.
As for talk of gun restrictions, restrictions have not amounted to a foot-in-the-door leading to a total ban for almost anything else in this country. And all of those other things did not have the Second Amendment backing their play to boot.
Horrible acts happen, and we always try to find if there are ways to prevent them or do better in the future. When a natural disaster hits, we do it. When a criminal strikes, we do it.
Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Wildfires. Floods. When these things happen, we don’t throw our hands up and say, “Nothing we can do about that. These things just happen.” We examine and see if there are ways to be better prepared. Ways to lessen the damage. And to prevent harm. As a result, even though these things keep happening, we keep reducing the number of fatalities, the number of injuries, and so on. We lessen the impact. It is a constant process. But the conversations have resulted in better safety to Americans. Far from pointless.
Similarly, we did not throw our hands in the air after the Oklahoma City bombing, or the 9/11 attacks and say, “Well, they were just criminals determined to do terrible things. They were always going to find a way. Nothing we can do.” We looked at what happened, and tried to see if anything could be done. Laws were even changed.
And part of the conversation where we looked at what happened included talking about the means. About how it happened. What physically made it possible. Was there any way to address that going forward? Again, this will always be a constant process. But we have better chances improving things when we have the conversations, than when we don’t.
For mass shootings, like with any kind of mass killing, the means of killing has to be part of the conversation. Shooters used those gun-shaped elephants in the room as the means of creating their mayhem. How matters. Just like who, where, when, why, and what matter. No conversation about mass shootings will ever be useful unless we also include guns as part of it.
But we also have to make sure other things are part of the conversation. The people and their motives matter. The venues they picked matter. All of that has to be discussed.
America, make sure your conversation covers all the angles, and looks in all the corners. And doesn’t overlook any elephants in the room, gun-shaped or otherwise.
THE WORD “GUN” IS NOT THE BOGEYMAN
It’s true, America. “Gun” and “firearm” are not monsters hiding in the closet. Don’t let them scare you away from talking about mass shootings. And don’t use them to scare others away from the conversation either.
America, you need to have a conversation about mass shootings because you have a problem. Problem solving requires analysis based on observation.
Which leads us to another problem. You’ve been so afraid of the gun-shaped elephants in the room, America, that you stopped asking what they were up to.
America, you used to be braver. You used to be willing to look behind the elephants and into the darkened corners. You can be brave again.
The CDC used to fund research into firearm injuries and deaths. In about 1996, Congress threatened the CDC’s funding if the CDC did not lay off funding firearm related research. The Republican Congress’ move appears to have come about due to NRA lobbying pressure. It worked. The CDC stopped funding the research.
Similarly, a division of the Department of Justice conducted several gun related studies in the 1990s, but has done very few in the decades since.
As a result of the federal walk-back, public funding for studies about gun violence dried up too. To this day, when passing the hat for violence prevention studies, researchers try not to use words like “gun” or “firearm” for fear of backlash.
They are not dirty words. They are not the Bogeyman. We can say them and the earth does not open up and swallow us. Gun. Firearm. I just said the magic words. We are both still here.
We commit violence in a lot of ways, America. Including using guns. The means of committing violence has to be part of the study. The means has to be part of the discussion.
In the wake of more recent mass shootings, the CDC has asked to once again to go forward with gun violence studies. So that we have a better idea of what we are truly dealing with. So that we can know more of what is behind the numbers that Mother Jones and others have compiled. So far, those requests have been rejected.
That is part of the problem. Why you feel confused and overwhelmed. You don’t have enough information. You are getting conflicting reports, but no one has enough information behind those reports for you to feel confident in any of their conclusions.
No need to fear this, America. Go ahead. Look in those dark corners that haven’t seen light in decades. We’ll go with you. We can all look together. Whatever’s there is only going to help in the long run.
Start doing those studies again.
Maybe those studies will reveal that guns aren’t really a huge factor. Maybe those studies will shed light on “why”. Maybe these studies will give us a better idea of where the risks are, so we don’t bull rush into hasty legislation that really doesn’t do anything to help.
Don’t be afraid to look. Learn. Gather information. You need this conversation. The studies will give you better information for your chat. To help cut through all those assumptions and other baggage brought to the table. We’ll get back to that baggage shortly.
But first, one more assurance about bringing guns into the conversation.
DON’T SHUT DOWN THE CONVERSATION JUST BECAUSE GUNS ARE AN AGENDA ITEM
What was that? You’re still nervous about bringing guns into the conversation? Your freedoms? The Second Amendment?
America, settle down. Take another deep breath.
The Second Amendment is pretty robust. Round after round in the courts, and it still stands strong. It can stand up to a mere conversation. You don’t have to worry.
See the First Amendment was enacted to encourage our democratic society to have free and open discourse. A free exchange of ideas. That’s what we need to have about mass shootings. So, we need to talk. To act as the First Amendment intended.
America, let me put it to you another way.
If you are so on guard against your freedoms being taken away that you can’t even entertain the idea of an open dialogue, are those freedoms really worth anything?
I get the idea. Constant vigilance. Don’t let your freedoms be eroded. However, merely having open and honest discourse on a topic should not erode those freedoms. If free speech and a free exchange of ideas can’t be had for fear that other freedoms will be taken away, there is no point to any of it.
America, please don’t fret. Your system is not that fragile. We can have a civil, rational, open discussion, and freedoms will remain intact.
America, don’t be so afraid of guns being part of the conversation that you don’t start the conversation at all. Guns do have to be part of the conversation. But you can handle it. You got this.
LEAVE THE ASSUMPTIONS BEHIND
Again, conversations require listening. Not hammering solutions to fit assumptions. Check those at the door.
Don’t assume a conversation about mass shootings that includes talking about guns is the same thing as demanding a total gun ban.
On the other hand, don’t assume that gun restrictions are the magic wand answer to all gun violence problems. Or any of them.
Don’t assume that if gun restrictions are agreed upon, that ends the conversation. There are still mental health issues, societal issues, economic issues that all may be driving this. Don’t forget those. Don’t let guns distract you from the other equally big factors in play here.
Gun restrictions appear to have helped some countries. Or at least they seem to have fewer of these problems than we do. But they don’t have the same baseline that we do. There are unique factors in your make-up, America, that make gun restrictions difficult. I am not just talking about the Second Amendment. We have had various restrictions on guns before. Some have since lapsed.
It has not been clear whether, for example, the restrictions on “assault weapons” really helped or not. And any such restrictions carry with them logistical problems unique to you, America. Especially in light of the guns already legally owned and in circulation. A ban or restriction on those is going to be problematical. Buyback programs are too, both in cost and in encouraging participation.
So, don’t assume that just talking about guns will provide solutions to an escalation in mass shootings.
And don’t assume that this conversation is over without taking a good, long, hard look at who we are as a society, America.
These mass shootings are done for a variety of reasons. Each is very unique.
Don’t assume there is a one-size-fits-all fix to this problem.
The fact that the number of mass shootings appears to be going up suggests there are things going on in our society. There are pieces of the puzzle we have not put together yet. And we should try to, as part of this conversation.
The bar graph above is split into election years. But the cause is not necessarily political. This is not something to lay at the feet of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, or Donald Trump. That’s like blaming this all on the guns. Or having a conversation about mass shootings without guns.
We have to talk about our political environment, yes. And our cultural one. And our work related one. And our technological one. All of these things and more create our society. And something in that society is causing folks to act out violently more and more. That’s a problem.
So, America, we need to chat. About mass shootings. And the shooters. And the guns. And our society as a whole.
I warn you. This is going to be a long conversation. And it will be complex. And at the end, you may not like the answers. Maybe there really aren’t answers.
But we won’t know until we have that conversation.
And to do that, we have to start. By talking about mass shootings. The people who do the shooting. And the guns they use.
You can do it. You can start this conversation. I know it’s scary. But you can handle it. Because you don’t just have the Second Amendment behind you. You have the First Amendment. And the whole Constitution. And all the American people. You totally got this.
Let’s get started. Let’s talk.