Commentary Magazine

The Truth About Mass Shootings and Gun Control

When tragedy strikes on a national scale, our initial reactions have a commonality to them: We recoil in shock and are overcome with sorrow. But then, as anger and frustration set in, we begin to divide, to blame the things we have always blamed for the evils around us. We insist that something must be done, steps must be taken, laws must be passed.

Adam Lanza, an honors student with no criminal record, murdered his mother, stole four of her guns, and—for reasons we may never know—decided to rob the world of the lives of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It was a murder of unarmed innocents on a scale with few precedents in American history, the second deadliest school shooting in history, and the worst massacre in an elementary school since the 1927 bombings at the Bath School in Michigan.

So liberals talk of gun sales and violent video games while conservatives talk of family breakdown and how we’ve removed God from schools—in the absence of evidence that any of these factors, or their lack, accounts for the destruction in Newtown, Connecticut.

It is natural to want to do something to prevent another Newtown. But the case made for that “something” is almost entirely based on emotion, not reason. The hard truth is that none of the proposals that politicians and commentators have made—about guns, mental health, broken homes, cultural failings, violence in mass media, and so on—could have prevented this awful crime or any other similar crime yet to take place. No law can make the murderously insane sane or remove the ability to destroy innocent life from the hands of every mentally ill American.

Those who are determined, irrational, and insane will never respond to rational signals or the threat of legal ramifications. Indeed, such signals and ramifications may only encourage them further, by making their act even more alluringly transgressive. All that is left for us as individuals is to bind the wounds of the nation, realize that the world is a broken place, and ask ourselves if we would have been as brave as the teachers who, in that moment, stood between the evil and the innocent, knowing what would come.

Still, the chorus affirms that something must be done. The loudest call comes from those on the left, who are seeking to turn Sandy Hook into a rallying cry to remake and revive the gun-control movement of the 1990s. But the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller—which affirmed that the Second Amendment guarantees the right of individuals to possess firearms—has already dramatically restricted what can be done when it comes to limiting the gun-owning rights of American citizens. And despite the media’s nearly unanimous calls for further restriction, polls indicate that the American people are still greatly skeptical about whether limiting gun use or rolling back the Second Amendment would in any way prevent such calamities, and they suspect that such restrictions will instead leave American citizens less capable of defending themselves.

As it happens, they are right.


In bending the tragedy of Sandy Hook and other mass murders to make their case, gun-control advocates are using an extreme case to make a broader argument for their own political benefit—a tactic President Obama used to good effect in the 2012 election. It is this approach that gave us the supposed threat to the very existence of birth control (thus triggering irrational fears among singles), the injustice of the tax rate paid by Warren Buffett’s secretary (thus appealing to class resentments), and the notion of Republicans as the would-be deporters of Latino grandmothers across the nation (thus pandering to a captive audience). Now, many of the same political actors are crassly using a mass murder to justify policies that would deprive law-abiding Americans of their rights without achieving anything that would prevent another such act of evil. Such policies might, in fact, upset a national balance that correlates with the unprecedented drop in crime and the rise in public safety over the past two decades.

The seeming outbreak of mass shootings—11 since 2006—is especially jarring because we live at a time of unprecedented domestic peace. Violent crime in the United States is at historic lows. And while mass murder attracts a great deal of attention from the media, the truth is this: As a historical matter, these incidents are not increasing in number; they have been remarkably consistent—and well below the highest historical rates—for the past three decades.

Grant Duwe, a Ph.D. researcher in Minnesota and the author of Mass Murder in the United States: A History, has shown that mass murders actually track closely with homicide rates—and that, in the past decade, both dropped to their lowest levels since the 1960s. Indeed, according to Duwe’s research, the rate of mass murder was highest in 1929, long before the advent of the weapons that gun-control advocates now wish to ban. At that time, Duwe finds, guns were used in only half the cases, and in the past century only four of the worst 11 mass killings involved firearms.

The mass-murder rate, after declining in the 1930s, increased steadily in the late 1960s along with the overall homicide rate. Yet the media framed mass murder as a new type of crime in the 1960s, just as they would later do with workplace massacres in the 1980s. But in reality, neither was new. Duwe relates the story of the failed real-estate developer Monroe Phillips, of Brunswick, Georgia, who went to an office building with an automatic shotgun and opened fire, wounding 32 and killing six, including the town mayor, over the course of a 30-minute standoff. The year: 1915.

James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston, is one of the most prominent critics of the media’s mythology of increased mass murder. His own research shows that the numbers of mass shootings and mass-shooting victims in America have been remarkably consistent: roughly 20 shootings a year, with an average of 100 deaths. The number of shootings fluctuates annually, in spikes, which Fox credits to copycatting or sheer coincidence, but the average has held for 30 years. As awful and horrible as mass murder is, in this period these villains have never killed even 1 percent of the total homicide victims in the country.

Duwe blames media irresponsibility for creating a false impression of rising mass murder: “Because claims makers have relied almost exclusively on national news coverage as a source of data, they have made a number of questionable claims about the prevalence and nature of mass murder since the high-profile cases represent the most sensational and least representative mass killings. And the news media have completed the circle of distortion by disseminating the bulk of the claims that have been made, leading to policies that have targeted the rarest aspects about mass murder.” 

And Duwe is not alone in this critique. Criminology studies are filled with criticism of the media for playing up mass murder beyond what the facts justify and ignoring the true causes of death in the United States. Christopher Uggen, a professor at the University of Minnesota, compares mass murder to diseases that attract attention for their horror but kill few, writing that “rare and terrible crimes are like rare and terrible diseases—and a strategy to address them is best considered within the context of more common and deadlier threats to population health.”

Nonetheless, the argument persists that we live in a new era in which threats from mass killers are on the rise—rather than an era characterized by nationwide media frenzies fed by 24-hour cable television and the Internet that would have been impossible or unimaginable in the past.


And so the political wheels turn. Senator Dianne Feinstein has already teased her new legislation, likely to be a central point of debate this year: the outright banning of 120 named firearms. Such a bill would be ineffectual by definition, because putting the names of the weapons in the legislation itself creates an almost comic loophole—rename the weapon and it is no longer illegal. Feinstein’s bill would also limit the number of various frightening-sounding features a weapon can have before being subject to additional regulations—thus, you would be able to have a bayonet mount or a folding stock, but not both. This is absurd on its face.

As for weapons already purchased that would run afoul of these regulations, Feinstein’s bill would mandate something entirely new in American history: government seizure of private possessions on a massive scale and without compensation. The confiscation of a weapon when neither it nor its owner was involved in any crime would be rife with Fifth (and Fourth) Amendment problems that would certainly run afoul of courts, were such a proposal ever to become law. And the mere act of debating the argument is sure to spark a reaction from law-abiding gun owners that will dwarf anything we saw in the 1990s, when initially successful efforts at national gun control in the form of the 1994 assault-weapons ban elicited a reaction among rank-and-file voters that helped decimate the Democratic Party in the South.

Less constitutionally problematic is gun-control advocates’ aim for an extended ban on high-capacity magazines—which they define as any magazine that carries more than 10 rounds. (Such a ban is modeled on the 1994 legislation, which went out of existence after 10 years.) Colorado Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette told the Huffington Post in a recent interview that she sees this as a more reasonable step and has introduced legislation to that effect: “I am not so naive as to think we can pass some law that will stop a deranged person from taking a gun and shooting people. What I am interested in is making it as difficult as possible for that deranged person to shoot as many people as possible.” Capitol Hill Democrats are already attempting to brand these as “assault magazines.”

This is purposeless if the idea is to prevent further Newtowns. Adam Lanza had plenty of time to reload his guns, as did the shooters at Virginia Tech in 2007 and Columbine in 1999. High-capacity magazines, particularly for handguns, are designed not for mass killings but for home defense. In the hands of an inexperienced or infrequent shooter, a high-capacity magazine lends a certain peace of mind—the confidence to fire a warning shot, for example, with the knowledge that there are more bullets at the ready if necessary. 

The only proper objection to the existence of these magazines would come from those who honestly believe no one should have the right to defend his home with something more deadly than a stick or a bat or a blade—and that all lethal legal weaponry should remain in the hands of authorities who might not arrive on the scene in time to help.

Such concerns are of little moment to those who view these tragedies as a justification for the policies they’ve always favored, regardless of whether they work in practice. From his nightly CNN perch, the former British newspaperman and variety-show panelist Piers Morgan depicts violence as the outcome of a gun-obsessed America and denounces any defenders of the Second Amendment as idiots and fools. He should turn an eye toward his homeland for a sobering look at the untidy results of gun control. In the United Kingdom, a shooting spree in a primary school in Dunblane, Scotland, resulted in the Firearms Act of 1998, which effectively banned the private ownership of handguns. According to Joyce Lee Malcolm, a law professor at George Mason University and author of Guns and Violence: The English Experience, this law was followed by a dramatic increase in violent crime. By 2009, handgun crime had doubled. As citizens disarmed, lawbreakers ran rampant.

Meanwhile, America has had the opposite experience: massive increases in gun ownership, particularly handguns, accompanied by an unanticipated and unprecedented downturn in gun crimes. There were 200 million legally owned guns in America in 1994 and almost 1.3 million violent crimes involving firearms, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Today there are more than 300 million legally owned guns in America, and there were roughly 350,000 violent crimes involving firearms in 2011. In other words, the number of legal guns in private hands went up by a third, while the number of firearm-related crimes dropped by 74 percent.

What of homicides? In point of fact, fewer guns were used to kill in 2011 than in 2010, and fewer in 2010 than in 2009, and so on. The skyrocketing homicide rate of the 1970s, which remained high for much of the 1980s, has been steadily declining over the past 20 years, from a peak of 9.3 homicides per 100,000 in 1992 to 4.8 homicides per 100,000 in 2010. The drop in the homicide rate has been national, shared across jurisdictions and geography, in large cities, small cities, suburbs, and rural areas.

How can this be? How could the number of guns used in crimes have decreased when gun ownership has increased so dramatically? The simplest answer is that private gun ownership either played a role in the crime drop or posed no sort of obstacle to it. This is so difficult a fact for gun controllers to handle that the editorial writers at the Economist—in the course of arguing for a national handgun ban that is surely unconstitutional or, failing that, the outright repeal of the Second Amendment—explained away the problematic data as a result of advanced medical treatments for gunshot wounds.

If true, they have made a momentous discovery indeed, considering that the number of victims of non-fatal gun crimes fell (as we’ve seen) 74 percent in 17 years. In other words, the Economist has assigned medical science a magical role in preventing people from having been shot in the first place.

This is by no means the only uncomfortable fact for those who want to deploy gun-restrictive policies with the Newtown shootings as the justification. For while the crime drop itself has taken place everywhere, the overwhelming majority of shootings is segregated by race and location: According to the Department of Justice, nearly 58 percent of gun crimes took place in large cities over the past 30 years, and disproportionately by black males between the ages of 14 and 24. Despite composing only 1 percent of the population, these young African-American males represent 16 percent of homicide victims and 27 percent of all homicide offenders. Lily white, upper-middle-class Newtown had only one reported homicide in the past decade, and the murderer didn’t use a gun.

What’s been largely absent from this discussion is any real understanding of the weapons that murderers, mass or not, are actually using. The Congressional Research Service recently found that “assault weapons”—an imprecise term invented for certain semi-automatics—applied to guns used or carried by criminals in at most 2 percent of all gun crimes. There are plenty of practical reasons for this—such weapons are harder to conceal, require more upkeep, and are less disposable than handguns—but it’s also because these semi-automatic rifles are not particularly powerful compared with other, more readily available weapons.

The AR-15 rifle (which Adam Lanza used) takes a standard .223-caliber bullet, which pales in force by comparison with the weapons of the American West. The lever-action rifles used by Lakota and Arapaho Indians to wipe out General Custer’s force at Little Big Horn fired bullets almost 10 times larger than the .223 and could be unloosed nearly as quickly. In some states, the .223 is actually banned as a caliber to use for hunting deer, because it is considered too small to effect a swift, humane death. It bounces around inside the animal, killing it slowly. Note that the lethality of a firearm isn’t determined by its caliber. Placing restrictions on such elements of a weapon in the belief that the villainous or the mentally ill will be kept from committing murder is itself delusional. And even if Dianne Feinstein’s ban were passed, every weapon used in 1966 by Charles Whitman in the University of Texas clock tower to kill 14 people and wound 32 would still be perfectly legal.

Moving on from gun control, others argue that the problem lies with a national mental-health system that simply refuses to take proper care of the dangerously ill, either for their own protection or for the protection of society at large. There may be steps that can be taken to keep guns out of the hands of the truly mentally ill. But speeding up the process of committing unstable individuals may come with its own risks. Lanza was reportedly socially awkward and mildly autistic, but he showed few other signs of his capability for evil or his murderous intentions. Any policy that would sweep awkward young men into the psychiatric ward is likely to be full of false positives, innocents who bear the penalty of a lifetime stigma for crimes they might never commit. 

In this, as in gun restriction, policymakers would be wise to understand the limits of what they can do in a world where evil and insanity will always exist. Benjamin Disraeli wrote, “When men are pure, laws are useless; when men are corrupt, laws are broken.” Whether that corruption comes from a rational or irrational source, the law itself has little power to protect us in the moment when darkness knocks.

The laws we have are written not with the aim of preventing crime so much as defining what is criminal, and they will do the least to restrain the actions of those who cannot even tell the difference between reality and imagination. What matters more in moments like that calm December morning is the law written on our hearts, the faith that gives us the strength to confront the face of evil unflinchingly, resolved that we will not cower or run but stand in that moment to protect the blameless, even to the end. In a world of darkness and insanity, we may not be able to do more—but we can do no less.

About the Author

Benjamin Domenech, who publishes the daily online news compendium the Transom, wrote about the Republican Party’s technological failure in the December 2012 issue.

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