In the wake of the massacre at Charleston's African Methodist Episcopal Church last month, gun rights advocates have been quick to seize the opportunity to evangelize on the merits of gun ownership, insisting that tragedy could have been avoided if only the victims had been carrying firearms during their Bible study that night.
"The one thing that would have at least ameliorated the horrible situation in Charleston would have been that if somebody in that prayer meeting had a conceal carry," Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee remarked in an interview just days after the attack. Charles Cotton, a board member for the National Rifle Association, went further, writing in an online discussion forum that South Carolina state senator Clementa Pickney, one of the nine victims who died in the attack on Emanuel A.M.E. Church, was directly responsible for the shooting because he had voted against concealed-carry legislation.
"Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead," Cotton wrote. "Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue."
Comments like these have become familiar pablum in the wake of mass shootings, echoing the "more guns, less crime" theory that gun-rights activists have been pushing for decades. Following the 2012 rampage in Aurora, Colorado, for example, gun advocates like John Lott blamed the movie theater's "no-gun policy" for the massacre, insisting that the attack and others like it are further proof that there are too few guns in the US, rather than too many.
Evidence, however, suggests that mass shooters are not strategically targeting gun-free zones—and that rather than making us safer, gun ownership increases crime, while also making it much more lethal. In one recent study, public health experts from Boston Children's Hospital and the Harvard School of Public Health found that states with higher levels of gun ownership have significantly higher rates of violent crime than those lowest levels of gun ownership, even after controlling for numerous demographic and social characteristics.
Another recent study, which examines the relationship between concealed-carry laws and violent crime, found that the rate of aggravated assault actually increased in areas where "right-to-carry" laws had been implemented, and that those laws did not correlate to a reduction in crime. This is in keeping with a tremendous amount of research that shows gun ownership increases the risk of homicide, suicide, and fatal accidents while providing negligible protective benefits from the "bad-guys-with-guns" that the gun lobby is perpetually warning against.
Curiously, another recent study, by political scientist David Fortunato of the University of California, Merced, shows that "bad guys" may not even be sensitive to the possibility of meeting armed resistance—a conclusion that suggests gun-rights advocates may be vastly overstating the deterrence benefit of carrying guns.
This seems to have been the case with Aurora shooter James Holmes, who left behind a personal journal detailing his plan of attack that contains no mention of the movie theater's status as a "gun-free zone." If Holmes had any fears about the possibility of facing a "good guy with a gun," he failed to note it over the course of 36 handwritten pages. In fact, Holmes seemed more concerned with finding an optimal parking spot than with the possibility that he might face resistance.
What the journal shows instead is how America's lax gun laws directly played into the hands of a psychopath who saw firearms as the easiest tool for carrying out mass murder. It shows that Holmes decided against using a bomb because the materials were "too regulated & suspicious" and saw guns as an easier option, making a note to research "gun laws and mental illness." In the end, he was able to purchase two handguns, a shotgun, an AR-15, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition—because in America, there is nothing suspicious about a man with a history of mental illness buying a small arsenal.
Still, the myth that guns act as a defense and deterrent against violent criminals and mass murderers continues to dominate the gun policy debate in the US. While gun control supporters have mostly fallen silent since the Charleston shooting, the massacre—which occurred during Wednesday night Bible study at one of the South's most storied black churches—has energized gun supporters, igniting a nationwide push to arm pastors and churchgoers, and to loosen restrictions on carrying weapons in places of worship.
And as federal prosecutors decide whether to file hate-crime charges against the shooter— 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof, whose manifesto lays out his plans to start a "race war"—some gun-rights advocates have argued that new gun control laws would disproportionately hurt black Americans and other minorities, claiming that similar laws have disproportionately targeted these communities and contributed to the already-massive racial disparities in the US prison system.
But these arguments also tend to ignore the devastating consequences that weak gun laws have had for minority communities. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, black Americans are twice as likely as whites to be victims of gun homicide. According to a report from the Center for American Progress, in 2010, 65 percent of gun murder victims between the ages of 15 and 24 were black, despite making up just 13 percent of the population. Gun homicide is also the leading cause of death for black teens in the US, a group that also suffers gun injuries 10 times more frequently than their white counterparts .
The numbers may help explain why an overwhelming majority of black Americans—75 percent according to a 2013 Washington Post/ABC News poll—support stronger gun control laws. Yet even in areas where local governments have enacted gun control measures, lax regulations elsewhere have sustained a robust network of unregulated private transactions that allow gun dealers to look the other way while supplying gangs and other criminals with a vast assortment of weapons.
This network leaves a place like Chicago, which remains crippled by violence despite relatively strict gun laws, hard-pressed to keep weapons off the street—as this New York Times map illustrates, anybody in the city who wants a gun need only take a short drive outside Cook County to get to a jurisdiction with much weaker regulations.
A similar situation has arisen in Maryland, which despite having some of the country's most stringent gun laws, has been plagued by violent crime in urban areas. Amid finger-pointing over the rioting that ravaged Baltimore earlier this year, it's worth pointing out that the majority of crime guns are trafficked in from outside the state. So while the gun policies Maryland has implemented—including a policy requiring individuals to pass a background check and obtain a permit prior to buying a firearm—have been shown to reliably reduce gun violence, neighboring states like Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia have much looser requirements, making it easy for weapons to flow across the border.
This haphazard patchworks of state and local gun laws has enabled many private gun dealers to effectively exploit gang violence and crime to boost sales. Chuck's Gun Shop, for example, which operates just outside Chicago, is responsible for selling at least 1,300 crime guns since 2008, and one study found that 20 percent of all guns used in Chicago crimes recovered within a year of purchase came from the store, because existing gun laws allow the store to sell firearms to criminals who would undoubtedly fail a background check if it were required.
The same is true for Realco, a Maryland gun shop on the outskirts of Washington, DC: Between 1992 and 2009, law enforcement agents from Maryland and DC traced 2,500 crime guns back to Realco, four times more than were traced to second most prolific crime-gun dealer in Maryland.
The disastrous effects of these policies has overwhelmingly been borne by minority communities. In Chicago, for example, 76 percent of murder victims between 1991 and 2011 were black, 19 percent were Hispanic, and just 4 percent were white. The cause of these deaths was overwhelmingly gun violence.
Across the country, the evidence suggests that weak gun laws not only play into the hands of mass murderers looking for the easiest way to commit atrocity, but also exacerbate the tragic, everyday violence that disproportionately cripples minority communities. The solution is not to pretend, as has become fashionable among gun advocates, that gun violence is simply the unavoidable cost our of constitutional freedoms, but to instead support commonsense policies of the sort implemented in nearly every other industrialized nation.