Before panicking, look at the facts.
Brian Miller / flickr
When listening to politicians, you always have to remember Rahm “The Godfather” Emanuel’s adage: never let a serious crisis go to waste.
What Emanuel meant by that, of course, is that politicians should take advantage of a crisis situation to advance their political agendas.
That is precisely what happened with the mass murder in San Bernardino last week. The EMT folks hadn’t even finished loading the wounded on ambulances before Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and other Democrat politicians began insisting that we need tougher gun laws to stop attacks like these.
The justification given was that tragedies like San Bernardino are now “daily” occurrences in America.
According to the Washington Post, the San Bernardino shooting was the second mass shooting on that day and the 355th in 2015.
It certainly feels like these horrible shootings are occurring more often. But is that really true?
As reported by Reason Magazine, it turns out that the “daily” statistic comes from the Mass Shooting Tracker, a “crowdsourced” project (like Wikipedia) linked to Reddit. It classifies a “mass shooting” as any event in which four people are hit by gunfire.
The problem with that definition, however, is that it includes not just acts of terrorism or of fanatic violence like Columbine but also ordinary crimes such as bank robberies, gang shootouts, police SWAT incidents, and so on.
In fact, what the media isn’t saying is that many of the fatalities in the Mass Shooting Tracker are actually gang-related – not acts of terrorism or irrational mayhem.
According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 12,272 deaths from gunfire in the US so far in 2015. But of these 12,272 deaths, 4,038 stemmed from an officer-involved shooting, 2,085 from a home invasion robbery, 1,755 from accidents, and 1,133 from self-defense.
The number of people killed in “mass shootings” to date in 2015 is 309 – but even these “mass shootings” include gang violence, robberies, and family murder-suicide incidents. As Mark Follman points out in the New York Times, “including them in the same breath suggests that a 1 am gang fight in a Sacramento restaurant, in which two were killed and two injured, is the same kind of event as a deranged man walking into a community college classroom and massacring nine and injuring nine others.”
When you eliminate incidents like gang shootouts, robberies and family murder-suicides, it turns out the number of “mass shootings” are actually far less than the media is claiming.
Mother Jones, that bastion of gun rights fanaticism, counts 73 incidents of mass shootings over the past three decades – roughly two a year.
That’s still a horrific number, to be sure, but not quite “daily” events. The Mother Jones list concentrates on shootings like San Bernardino and Columbine in which four or more people are killed, not on gang shootouts or, equally horrific, family murder-suicides.
In 2015, we’ve had four incidents of targeted mass killings to date (double the historic average): nine people killed in June at an historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina; four people dead in July at a military recruiting center in Chattanooga, Tennessee; nine people slaughtered at Umpqua Community College in central Oregon in October; and 14 people killed December 2 in San Bernardino.
That’s 36 people killed in insane acts of Columbine-like mayhem – a far cry from the 4,000 people killed by police and the 2,000 people killed in home invasion robberies.
So, what are the policy implications of all this? I’m actually in favor of the “common sense” gun control restrictions President Obama talks about – criminal background checks, waiting periods, bans on military assault weapons.
The problem is, we already have most of these common sense restrictions already in most states – and they do little to stop these acts of violent insanity.
In fact, many people argue that bans on concealed weapons permits actually increase the body count – because victims, such as former military personnel, are unable to defend themselves during these shootings. For example, none of the marines killed in Chattanooga in July was likely armed.
Three-quarters of the guns used in these mass killings were obtained legally, and many included background checks. Most were handguns, not military assault rifles. However, in one-third of the cases the killers used high-capacity magazines (clips) that have no legitimate self-defense or sporting function – and so restrictions on these military clips seem reasonable.
In most but not all of the cases, the killers showed signs of mental illness or had been treated by psychiatrists prior to the incidents. Yet the same people advocating stricter gun control laws would no doubt not want the mentally ill to be “profiled” by being listed in a government registry – and not allowed to purchase any weapons.
In the end, there is no simple or obvious solution to the problem of violent insanity. We live in a culture that glorifies gun violence in video games, films and TV shows. We can pass as many gun control laws as we want, but the killings will likely continue. Australia banned most firearms in 1996 and has seen a steep decline in firearms-related deaths over the past 20 years. Yet peaceful, enlightened Norway has very strict gun control laws – the police are not even armed – and that didn’t stop Anders Behring Breivik from killing 77 people in an attack on an island summer camp in July 2011.
Nor is Norway alone.
According to economist John Lott, more people were killed in mass public shootings in France in 2015 (508) than the US has suffered in the past eight years of the Obama presidency (424). "I say this every time we’ve got one of these mass shootings,” President Obama said on the day before the San Bernardino incident. “This just doesn’t happen in other countries.”
Sadly, it does... just not as frequently. Obama seemed to have forgotten the jihadi attacks in Paris a month earlier that killed 129 people and wounded 352. According to Politifact, the U.S. actually has a lower rate of mass shooting fatalities, with 0.15 deaths per 100,000 people, than Norway (1.3 per 100,000), Finland (0.34 per 100,000) and Switzerland (1.7 per 100,000) but far higher than Canada (0.01 per 100,000), Germany (0.05 per 100,000) and Australia (0.01 per 100,000).
Robert J. Hutchinson is a writer and columnist based in the United States. His most recent book is Searching for Jesus: New Discoveries in the Quest for Jesus of Nazareth (Thomas Nelson).