It came on the radio as I started my car, minutes before discussing the issue of gun safety with the team of former U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, that a local school shooting had just taken place in Southern California. A 15-year-old boy was fighting for his life after being shot in the left temple, three others shot in the Los Angeles middle school. Sadly, it came as no surprise to hear of another school shooting, at least until I heard who the police arrested as chief suspect: a 12-year-old girl.
Two weeks later, the very next time I had on the car radio, another mass shooting was announced in South Florida, leaving 17 dead and nearly as many in the hospital. The shooter was a 19-year-old boy.
Although 2017 was one of the worst years for mass shootings in the last decade -- with 346 shootings total; 61,454 reported incidents; and 15,587 gun-related homicides -- 2018 is clearly not off to a great start with already 30 reported mass shootings in its first 45 days of the year.
As a result of having two of the deadliest shootouts in the first 35 days of 2017, including the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting, and later the Congressional charity baseball game shooting in midsummer that wounded House Majority Whip, Steve Scalise, and capping off the year with the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, in which Stephen Paddock opened fire on a crowd of more than 22,000 Las Vegas concert-goers that left 58 dead and 546 injured, many would agree gun control has gotten a little out of control.
2018 is clearly not off to a great start with already 30 reported mass shootings in its first 45 days of the year.
In addition, 2016 was only slightly less severe in its numbers, but we still witnessed the Orlando shooting that took 49 lives and only a few less homicides with 15,090 gun-related deaths. And this is not including self-inflicted gun violence. With suicides included, there were more than 38,000 total gun-related casualties in 2016. Overall, there has been an increasing number of incidents every year since 2014.
“One of the major errors of gun safety advocates is focusing too much on policy, background checks and gun laws, which is all well and good, but what moves voters and social change is values,” Peter Ambler, Executive Director to Giffords, told VICE Impact.
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You remember Gabrielle Giffords, the former Congresswoman who was shot in 2011 at her own gun safety rally. She was a victim of a mass shooting while hosting a public forum concerning gun laws in Tucson, Arizona, capital of the state she represented, which happens to be of the most lenient on gun laws, allowing people to openly carry a gun in public without a license. Though she survived, 18 others were shot, including Chief U.S. District Court Judge, John Roll.
Amidst the recent mass shootings, social media and major news sources have been in an uproar, all begging the same question: Why isn’t government doing anything to stop this from happening?
“Gun lobbyists tell you you’re safer with guns, but all the evidence shows us that that’s not true."
Last year, President Trump was quick to respond to mass shootings, claiming that guns or gun laws were not the culprit, but rather a “mental illness situation.” But according to Time, only 3 to 5 percent of gun violence is related to mental illness. Ambler agrees that brushing off guns and pointing the blame on mental illness is highly misinformed.
“Gun lobbyists tell you you’re safer with guns, but all the evidence shows us that that’s not true,” Ambler said. “Everytime you bring a gun into your home, you greatly increase your risks of getting hurt or hurting somebody.”
In 2012, shortly after Giffords was shot, Sandy Hook became one of the biggest school shootings in years, claiming the lives of 20 students and faculty members. Not long after, Giffords returned to public service and formed an organization, Giffords PAC, to disrupt these terrible acts of mass violence and help pass better gun policies, starting in 2013. Since its establishment, they’ve had a hand in some major legislative victories, including passing 210 gun laws in 45 states.
It’s with local activism and a growing voter interest that after one of the worst years for gun-related incidents in the last decade, gun safety might finally start to improve, which could mean fewer mass shootings and a lower death toll come this time next year.
“Since 2012, the gun safety movement has grown in terms of activism, voting behavior and local groups,” Ambler said. “That’s not without a lot of hard work via stricter gun laws, better background checks and a growing awareness of the issue.”
According to Giffords’ team, gun safety and prevention laws now sit right behind healthcare as the second biggest issue amongst voters.
“Are things happening fast enough? No, but this is a marathon, not a sprint, and there is a lot we need to achieve to bring down the rates and save lives,” Ambler told VICE Impact. “But positive communication is important for positive change.”
Some of those changes include legislative victories in Giffords PAC’s first five years of fighting like expanded background checks that help to close up loopholes in the system and keep people who should not be in possession of firearms from gaining access to them, addressing domestic violence by restricting abusive partners from access and protecting victims of domestic abuse, and reducing firearm access to individuals endangered of attempting suicide or hate crimes, which protects not only the endangered persons to some extent but also their families. The list goes on to include federal funding for background checks and resources for the FBI, as well.
In 2017, FBI gun retrievals from failed background checks were at an all-time high. That comes as a relief after the record-setting Black Friday of 2016 in which more than 200,000 people applied for gun-related background checks, up from 185,000 the previous year.
According to Giffords PAC, 94 percent of Americans, including gun owners, actually support background checks prior to gun purchases. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System, established in 1998, is a brief background check with a low rejection rate. Considering the magnitude of checks done in the last 20 years, more than 720 million, it’s no surprise that gunmen were not stopped in time.
This is not to say that applicants aren’t turned away, as more than a million background checks have been denied since 1998. In addition, gun sales in California dropped to their lowest point in five years in 2017 — down 35 percent from 2016.
"What kind of country do we want to pass onto our children?”
While the gun lobby is a big part of why little is changed in policy, even after some of the largest mass shootings in history, it’s just one more reason voters should educate themselves. Organizations like the the National Rifle Association, have long-held the reputation of backing candidates who support the right to bear arms and the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA), the 2005 law that protects gun sellers from being held liable for gun-related incidents, such as mass shootings.
Although the NRA supplies the cash to candidates, Ambler assures us their voting impact is more of a myth, saying that not many NRA members are single-issue voters who only care about gun policy, and that the organization actually has fewer members than they claim. However, people do seem enthusiastic on the gun issue, now more than ever, especially in Virginia, where many more people voted on gun safety than anticipated in 2017.
“We’re not against guns or gun owners, but people should know the real risks with firearms access,” he said. “We have to come at this from a values-centered perspective. What kind of country do we want to pass onto our children?”
As always, the best thing you can do when major shifts in policy are needed is to educate yourself about the state of the issues where you live and the position of your congressperson. Voting for people who support gun safety will help to push more gun laws that either prevent violent and potentially deadly people from gaining access to firearms or take away the ones they do have
If that’s not enough, you can always donate to Everytown, an organization that helps raise public awareness about gun violence and educates about being a responsible gun owner. They also give a voice to gun violence survivors, mobilize grassroots gun safety organizations and pressure lawmakers into make sound gun laws.