We know what the problem is
26 May 2022
America is reeling from yet another devastating spate of mass shootings. In the last 10 days, shooters have targeted a Taiwanese church in California, a grocery store in a Black neighborhood in New York, and an elementary school in Texas. Although opponents of sensible gun control—the kind that prevails throughout most of the civilized world—continue to put the spotlight on the shooters’ motivations or unstable mental states, these are cynical diversions from the one obvious truth: The common thread in all of the country’s revolting mass shootings is the absurdly easy access to guns. The science is clear: Restrictions work, and it’s likely that even more limitations would save thousands of lives. So why not take the laws much further, as other countries have done? The alternative is painfully obvious—living with more and more senseless carnage, courtesy of the National Rifle Association and their well-funded political lackeys.
One argument used to justify continued gun ownership is that mass shootings are often the result of shooters with severe mental illness. No doubt that mental health is a factor. But the rates of mental illness in the United States are similar to those in other countries where mass shootings rarely occur. It’s access to guns that is the problem. Alan Leshner, an expert in mental health research and policy (also the former chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the publisher of Science), wrote about the fallacy of blaming gun violence on mental illness in the wake of another mass shooting tragedy in 2019. Among Leshner’s points are the fact that less than a third of the people who commit mass shootings have a diagnosable mental disorder.
Another argument is that however strict we make gun control laws, would-be shooters would find ways to get around them. This is also misleading. As the 2017 analysis of Cook and Donohue conclusively shows, extending criminal sentences for gun use in violent crime, prohibiting gun ownership by individuals convicted of domestic violence, and restricting the concealed carry of firearms lead to demonstrable reductions in gun violence. It’s not a stretch to assume that further restrictions would save even more lives.
It’s also argued that gun ownership is guaranteed in the Bill of Rights by the Second Amendment. But a lot of things have changed since 1789, and there are many times when the American people have concluded that rights granted at the nation’s founding could not be reconciled with modern conditions and knowledge. It was decided that owning other human beings was not consistent with the founding principles of America. It was decided that prohibiting women from voting was not consistent with a representative democracy. And now it needs to be decided that unfettered gun ownership by American citizens is not consistent with a flourishing country where people can worship, shop, and be educated without fear.
Scientists should not sit on the sidelines and watch others fight this out. More research into the public health impacts of gun ownership will provide further evidence of its deadly consequences. Science can show that gun restrictions make societies safer. Science can show that mental illness is not a determinative factor in mass shootings. And science can show that racism is measurable and leads to violence.
Women’s suffrage, the end of slavery, and civil rights were not won without struggle. Courageous activists put their lives and livelihoods on the line to achieve these advances. The victims of gun violence are not here to fight for their rights, which were taken away against their will. But the economic and social success of the country affects everyone. If children do not feel safe, they cannot learn. And a country that cannot learn cannot thrive. A nation of children threatened by gun violence does not have a future.
Make protest signs. Start marching. Push lawmakers to finally break the partisan gridlock that has made moments of silence a regular observance. The National Rifle Association and its minions must be defeated. It’s up to us because the victims of gun violence are tragically and devastatingly not here to protest themselves.