The heartfelt calls of Democrats and liberals for commonsense gun safety legislation in the wake of the latest mass shootings are beginning to sound uncannily similar to the perpetual Republican calls for tax cuts: Whatever ails you, this will fix it.
The most obvious difference between the two is that the Republicans’ tax cut cure-all helps them to win elections and enact their vision into law, for better or worse. The Democrats’ vision of federal gun control legislation has no chance of becoming law unless they can win back Congress. At present they have no practical plan for doing that.
Still, isn’t it important to stand up for what’s right and try to do something to stem the growing epidemic of gun violence?
Actually, no — for three main reasons. First, federal statistics show that the epidemic of gun violence isn’t actually growing. In fact, it’s declining dramatically, for reasons unrelated to the availability of guns. Second, it’s not clear that any feasible gun legislation would help bring the numbers down much further if at all. Third, it’s likely that making gun legislation a banner issue, as Democrats have done in recent weeks, will make the odds of winning back Congress even steeper than they are now.
Let’s take these one at a time.
We’ll start with the statistics on gun violence. As the Washington Post recently noted, homicides by firearm have dropped by nearly half proportional to the population over the past two decades, from 7 deaths per 100,000 population in 1993 to 3.6 deaths per 100,000 in 2013. The Post drew that from a Pew Research Center analysis of death certificate data gathered by the Centers for Disease Control. Altogether the CDC reported 11,208 firearm homicides in 2013, out of a total of 16,121 total homicides by all methods that year. This in a 2013 population of 316 million. In 1993 there were 18,253 gun homicides in a population of 260 million.
It’s worth pointing out that the FBI reports considerably lower homicide figures: 8,454 by firearm out of 12,253 total. The FBI acknowledges that its figures are based on imperfect reporting by local law enforcement agencies. Over time, though, the FBI shows the same rate of decline in homicides that the CDC found. Incidentally, both agencies find that firearms account for 69% of all homicides.
The decline in gun homicides is part of an overall drop in violent crime, which is down by 49% from its peak in 1991, according to the FBI. The reasons for the decline, according to the Post, include more cops on the beat; better deployment of police personnel because of computerization; an overall improvement in the economy, and a decline in alcohol consumption. The other big reason: a reduction in lead in the environment, thanks to the Clean Air Act of 1970, which banned leaded gasoline, cut lead in household paint and resulted in a generation of children growing up with healthier brains.
All told, America averages about 33,000 gun deaths per year. Homicides account for just over one-third of the total, and suicides are close to two-thirds. About half of all suicides, or just over 21,000 per year, are by firearm.
It’s true that the U.S. homicide rate is about three times the average in Western Europe, for a variety of reasons, one of which is the availability of firearms. Others include the existence in America of a permanent, disenfranchised underclass; a weaker safety net, and a highly mobile, transient population, which translates into fewer roots and weaker social networks.
The bottom line, though, is that we’re not suffering from a growing epidemic of gun violence. Just the opposite: It’s declining.
On the other hand, it’s been widely reported in recent weeks that mass shootings are on the rise, averaging more than one per day. The most commonly cited figure is 355 mass shootings in the first 336 days of this year. That’s compiled by a Reddit crowd-sourcing site, the sardonically named GunsAreCool, which defines a mass shooting as any incident in which four or more people are killed or wounded.
The government uses a very different definition. The FBI defined “mass murder” during the 1980s as any incident in which four or more people are killed. The White House lowered it to three or more people in 2012, following the Sandy Hook Elementary School murders.
But that’s still misleading. The definition includes incidents of family violence, robberies, gang wars, drug disputes and similar crimes accompanied by murders. Incidents like those are shocking, but they’re part of the larger crime pattern — which is, as noted, declining.
By contrast, the mass shootings that rivet our attention are the ones in which someone enters a public space and begins shooting randomly, either for political or religious motives or out of some psychological impulse. The left-wing monthly magazine Mother Jones developed its own database using this narrower definition. As reported on the New York Times Op-Ed page by Mother Jones staffer Mark Follman, the monthly counted four such mass shootings in 2015 and 73 total since 1982.
Our second question was: What’s the likelihood that a feasible gun safety measure could actually reduce the homicide rate even further?
For context, let’s note that the number of civilian-owned firearms in the United States is commonly estimated at between 300 million and 350 million. Of these, an estimated 3 million to 4 million are what’s known as semi-automatic or assault-style rifles, capable of rapid repeat fire.
Given the number of guns already out there, any conceivable gun legislation — including all bills currently being proposed — would only tinker around the edges. Even a ban on all further gun sales wouldn’t eliminate guns — it would just make them more expensive. A serious effort to reduce the number of guns currently in circulation substantially would likely lead to mass violence.
The Brady Bill, passed by the Democratic-led Congress in 1993 and signed by President Bill Clinton, requires that any person buying a gun from a federally licensed gun shop must first pass a federal background check, administered by the FBI. Just under 21 million applications were submitted in 2014. Of those, 90,895 or about 0.4% were denied. In other words, federally licensed gun sales probably total close to 21 million per year.
Estimates are that federal licensing and background checks cover about 60% of all gun sales. The other 40% take place in private or at gun shows and are exempt from background checks. Ending that exemption — closing the so-called gun-show loophole — is one of the primary current objectives of gun-safety advocates.
But even if Congress had closed the gun-show loophole to require background checks for private weapons sales, it wouldn’t have prevented Syed Farook from acquiring the weapons he and his wife used in San Bernardino. There was nothing known to authorities about his background that would have prevented him buying guns.
Neither would it have stopped Adam Lanza’s 2012 mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. He got his guns by breaking into his mother’s legally acquired arsenal. No proposed laws would have prevented that, either.
The bottom line is that the small-bore gun-safety measures mooted by advocates probably wouldn’t have much, if any, impact on the phenomenon of mass shootings that so troubles us. The measures might help to reduce America’s overall homicide rate to some degree, if they were somehow to pass Congress.
But our homicide problem is very different from our mass-shooting problem. That’s particularly the case with terrorist murders. Bringing up a fix for one problem at a time when a different problem has our attention, simply because we’re thinking about something that involves guns, is not a useful political tactic. It reduces the credibility of gun-safety advocates. It makes them look out of touch with the problem that’s occupying us.
Besides, no gun-safety measures are going to pass Congress under its current Republican leadership. The critical question, therefore, is whether liberals should be mounting a major national campaign to demand something that’s not going to happen, whether to discharge a moral responsibility or to lay the groundwork for a longer-term effort.
Unlike our earlier questions, this one brings us into uncharted territory. There’s not much debate among gun-safety advocates that what’s believed to be right should be said out loud. You don’t hear much talk about the downside of speaking out.
If there were a chance that advocating the legislation might lead to its enactment, that simple calculation might be enough. But there’s no chance under the current political configuration. Does speaking out in favor of gun reform make its enactment more likely?
Probably the opposite. Advocates like to cite polls that show broad public support, upwards of 80%, for greater background checks and keeping guns away from the mentally ill.
But those are just two data points in a very complex debate. An analysis of polling data by the Washington Post, right after the San Bernardino massacre, found that broad segments of the public are suspicious of stricter gun laws because they see them as opening a door to government intrusion.
For example, while 52% of adults agreed in a 2012 Post-Kaiser Foundation survey that “stricter gun laws” would “reduce the number of accidental gun deaths” and 54% agreed stricter laws would “reduce number of deaths caused by mass shootings,” 57% said stricter laws would “give too much power to government over average citizens” and 58% said they would “make it more difficult for people to protect homes and families.”
The fact that 80% of the public favors stricter background checks doesn’t seem to have persuaded any significant numbers to vote against the Republicans who oppose them. Nor does campaigning for stricter gun laws win elections for Democrats. Jobs and the economy do that. Improving the manners of the unwashed masses does not.
Indeed, the few times that stricter gun laws have passed a Democratic Congress and been signed into law by a Democratic president, they’ve been followed quickly by defeat at the ballot box. It happened when Lyndon Johnson signed the Gun Control Act of 1968, and Democrats promptly lost the White House. It happened again after Bill Clinton signed the Brady Bill in 1993 and the assault weapons ban in 1994. Democrats promptly lost both houses of Congress in a historic drubbing. They’re still licking their wounds.
You could look for other examples, but you won’t find them, because those are the only gun reform bills to come out of Washington since World War II.
To be sure, there were many reasons for those defeats. Correlation doesn’t prove causation. But it should get you thinking. If better gun laws were really going to make a difference — and if there were a chance that pushing for them would make them happen — then smart politics would be to go for it. But that’s not the case.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).