A year ago, I did not know much about America's mass shooting epidemic. Over the past half-decade I, like many, had grown increasingly conscious of the problem. But I was still shocked by high-profile articles that circulated last December, in the wake of the San Bernardino massacre, suggesting that there was, on average, about one mass shooting every day in the US. I knew those numbers didn't mean there was a massive Sandy Hook-level rampage every day, but I still couldn't fathom where all this bloodshed was coming from. And because I couldn't grasp the contours of the problem, so often discussed only in aggregate, I felt helpless and scared. I suspect others feel the same way.
Then, at the beginning of 2016, I was tasked with tracking every mass shooting across the United States and Europe over the course of the year for VICE. While there is no universal definition, VICE considers any incident where four or more people are injured or killed by gunfire, excluding the shooter, to be a mass shooting. It was a busy year: As of publication I had tracked 370 mass shootings in the US, which left 392 dead and 1,502 injured. Meanwhile I tracked only 35 incidents in all of Europe over the same timeframe, which left 53 dead and 174 injured.
Now that the project is coming to a close, I'm more sad than afraid. I've come to see simultaneous chaos and banality in these incidents, the result of a culture that makes it far too easy for violence-prone individuals to access firearms. And I've become frustrated at the way we talk about gun violence in broad, abstract terms that serve to muddy the human impact these incidents have. At the same time I'm heartened by the realization that, despite the common narrative of America's impotence to reign in gun violence, we can and have enacted meaningful reforms, and we know of many more measures that, while they have yet to enter the mainstream dialogue, could have a big impact on mass shootings in the future.
It's impossible to give an ironclad rundown on the number of mass shootings in America over the course of a year or to describe their characteristics—a fact VICE has been upfront about from the beginning of this project. As Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy Research, points out it's possible to get comprehensive data on gun attacks with high fatalities thanks to solid data collection on gun homicides. But the way law enforcement bodies aggregate data on non-fatal gun crimes "does not distinguish between a case in which somebody simply threatened somebody with a gun versus putting ten bullets in them and they had a darn good trauma surgeon or were lucky enough to survive," which makes it difficult to consistently and comprehensively sort out incidents that saw gun injuries as opposed to just the presence of a gun when other injuries were caused.
Additionally, not all gun crimes are reported and not all agencies are great data sharers. So VICE and other trackers have to rely on news and (when readily available) police reports for our figures. Thanks to selective reporting and the nation's low clearance rates for certain types of crimes, we never learn the full motives and circumstances of many attacks.
From the cases we can pin down, though, it seem that many mass shootings are an extension of other types of violence. Some of the bloodiest stem from domestic violence incidents, while some of the most common occur in the tight confines of nightclubs or just outside their doors.Many more stem from drive-bys or other street or home shootings, frequently pegged as gang related but often just interpersonal conflicts carried out on an opportunistic basis (often on holidays and weekends when people are out and about—and perhaps angry and liquored up) and made disproportionally deadly by the spray-and-pray style and culture of much of our gun violence. Only a few incidents fall under the indiscriminate rampage category, with which we often associate mass shootings in the US.
VICE's crime editor Matt Taylor explains the mass shooting tracker
In other words: mass shootings are diverse. They arise from no single cause and cannot be curbed by any one policy or reform. Yet they are still a discrete phenomenon, the apotheosis of America's rampant gun violence, which leads our citizens to be up to 20 times more likely to die in a gun-related incident as those in other nations. And our gun violence numbers have stayed relatively steady for over a decade, even as overall violent crime in the US has decreased. While they're just a sliver of that bloodshed, mass shootings are the dreaded distillation of many of the patterns contributing to this status quo.
Yet the only mass shootings that regularly grab our attention and drive national conversations are the indiscriminate public rampages. And when we talk about them, we focus on the perpetrators.
"It gives audiences something to both fear and be on the lookout for," says Jaclyn Schildkraut, an expert on the depiction of these events in the press at the State University of New York, Oswego. "You're giving the people somebody to vilify. You're also giving them someone to be afraid of. That then… sparks their belief that they're more likely to be involved in an attack like this."
To repeat one of my constant refrains this year: this focus makes sense. Humans are drawn to the unusual—news isn't news unless there's something new about it, and common forms of gun violence don't hack it compared to boogeymen we can project all our fears onto. However this focus has a nasty habit, in many jurisdictions, of increasing gun sales and loosening gun laws, and may in fact contribute to the ongoing increase in rampage shootings by giving perpetrators the infamy so many seem to be seeking.
Schildkraut also points out that this obsession with boogeymen reduces the victims to numbers while focusing on abstract horror and sinister perpetrators. The more commonplace the type of gun violence, the more likely the victims will be abstracted, as well. While doing her Masters thesis on the depiction of gun homicides in the press in Baltimore, she found that far too often the names of the victims were never mentioned—reduced to nothing more than another black man dead in street violence.
"These individuals are so much more than a number," she says. "It is unfortunate that certain events and, by default, the victims of those tragedies are excluded from the public discourse… The loss of one life to one of these senseless tragedies is one too many, [and] each victim also should be treated equally," whether or not they were a predictable or common casualty. Put another way, not every mass shooting victim is an innocent saint, but that does not mean that one casualty is worthier of our attention than another.
If I had one wish for 2017, it's that every American who brushes these deaths off—lets it sink into the white noise of our culture—could be forced to look into the eyes of someone who has directly suffered in or lost someone else to this epidemic of violence. That's an impossible wish for many reasons, but something has to shift in the clinical way we currently talk about this problem. Mass shootings are personal, intimate events that destroy communities and lives beyond those of the injured and dead, and speaking about them in cold numbers does the victims and the issue as a whole a disservice.
"I don't know if there's any way to break" our cultural norms on types of violence, worthy and unworthy victims, and morbid fascinations with boogeymen, says Schildkraut. "It disgusts me to say that." But there it is. Culture is vital to our ability to address this issue, but hard to change.
Yet while changing cultural engagement with and assumptions about mass shootings is a slog few know how to tackle, the policy reforms to curb such violence are surprisingly clear and attainable.
There's this defeatist narrative that America is incapable of passing gun control policies, given the lapse of the federal prohibition on assault weapons sales in 2004 and failure of Congress to enact new measures in the wake of some of this decade's worst highly visible rampage attacks. Meanwhile the European Union, despite facing a lesser gun threat, responded to recent attacks with new regulations last month strengthening firearms license requirements, banning certain weapons, and making it easier to track registered guns to prevent their black market resale, all in spite of significant differences between member states on gun issues. What federal-level gun control measures America has seen in recent years have come through executive actions, which we've all come to realize in the face of Donald Trump are incredibly weak remedies. Meanwhile we've seen a rush of highly publicized local laws and policies enacted that make it easier for a wider swathe of Americans to purchase guns, carry them freely, and use them—and we know that there are a host of similar laws ready to rush through a pro-gun Trump state.
Yet for all the gridlock at the federal level and the success of gun liberalization, reasonable gun control has actually made great strides at the state level in recent years. As Laura Cutilletta, an attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, points out, "there's been a tremendous amount of success in defending against" laws making it easier to wield guns in public by gun control advocates in recent years, among other gun liberalization measures.
Meanwhile this year alone three of four major ballot initiatives were passed—a raft of measures in national gun control leader California, universal background checks in Nevada, and a special measure to temporarily remove guns from those demonstrating a clear risk to themselves or others in Washington. And several states expanded background checks and legislatively enacted other limitations on gun possession by dangerous individuals. All of these measures, Cuttiletta points out, have a proven record of reducing gun deaths and trafficking, and thus would have a significant impact on the number of mass shootings.
"Since Newtown, we have seen 160 gun [control] laws enacted in 42 states," says Cuttiletta. "The fact that activists had to bring [measures] directly to the public [in several states this year] I think shows how strongly the public supports these policies and that even if Congress is unable to take action and state legislators aren't always willing to take action, clearly the voters" want it.
As Johns Hopkins' Webster points out, these policies aren't always enforced; small cracks in controls locally or nationally and loopholes enable gun trafficking and the armament of violent and restricted individuals. I'm especially disappointed with the lack of serious follow-up on enforcement of legal measures to take guns away from domestic abusers with a history of violent tendencies and proven likelihood to act—one of the easiest forms of gun death to predict and prevent.
We know how to improve enforcement. Popular actions can demand or initiate enforcement, as with efforts by gun control groups to take dealers who flout firearm sales laws yet often fly under the radar to court, stopping up the supply of illegal guns. New policies can mandate enforcement, as with laws developed in a handful of states requiring that people prohibited from owning firearms surrender them. At the very least, they can decrease barriers to enforcement, as with California's pioneering dual database system, which Cutilletta notes enables them to track gun sales against changes in individuals' statuses, making it easier to see who has become a prohibited gun owner but still holds their firearms and follow up with them. But these measures lack the national visibility and prominence of things like creating shooter alert systems or restricting the size of gun magazines, which really aren't all that helpful.
Even as we try to improve gun control and its enforcement, we rarely engage with the fact that there are now and will for some time be a ton of guns floating around and into illegal hands—and that many legal gun owners are still prone to impulsive violence their firearms can abet. That reality requires a greater focus on decreasing the risks that those guns can or will be used in harmful ways. We know how to do this as well, whether though the funding of intervention policies with a proven record of blocking violence in several case studies and contexts, or strengthening soft targets like nightspots to better contain violence by design or security, or making it easier for qualified responders to arrive and act quickly to minimize casualties. Yet as with enforcement issues, these programs and policies often fly under the radar for most of us.
To wit, we have the popular willpower to pass gun legislation—the American people want this and arguments to the contrary can demonstrably be proven false at the ballot box. Not all of this willpower has historically been translated into the most comprehensive legislation, but good templates are constantly emerging, through pilot programs, nascent policy shifts, or other proposals, for plugging up the gaps that make guns easily accessible, and for disrupting the cultures and patterns of violence that undergird most of America's mass shooting epidemic. We need to make those lesser-discussed policies more visible—to stress their importance, bring them directly to the attention of the worst-hit polities and people, and get them enacted and funded.
That won't be easy in the coming years. A good deal of the national dialogue, willpower, and war chest for gun issues is about to get sucked up into the gaping black hole that is Donald Trump's all-screaming, all-nonsensical gun policy agenda. Webster suspects that federal funding for research will dry up quickly, and believes we'll probably see a cascade of highly questionable federal and state legislative proposals. In other words, we may be busy just holding up the dam for four years.
Still, many gun control advocates I've spoken to in the past year believe that gun control and its enforcement will slowly march forward through popular initiatives in the coming years. And as it does, it'll open up space to talk about violence interruption and all of the other policies we know can break the cycle of mass shootings plaguing America, but which need more popular attention.
For me, this all boils down to one undeniable conclusion: mass shootings are horrific. But if you face them rather than denying the problem or washing it away as something inevitable that happens to those people over there, they are not untouchable nightmares. We are not impotent against them. They are just the supreme manifestation of longstanding and systemic problems in American culture and policy. We have the strategies and the national willpower to start to rewrite those norms—to chip away at this epidemic. We can build on those resources by continuing to focus on the human details of these attacks and elevating awareness of the strategies that work to prevent those horrors—by changing the national conversation, especially through the media.
Mass shootings are not normal, but neither are they inevitable. We can stop them, and the first step is looking directly at them in long, uncomfortable ways.
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