Mass shootings really are a bad way to frame the gun violence debate

In the wake of mass shooting tragedies, we are told not to talk about gun violence. We are told that it is disrespectful to the victims and their families, and that we should wait until our emotions have died down so we can have a “logical” debate. As if opinions about gun violence are at all logical. By the time the “right time” to talk about guns has come, we’ve already had another mass shooting, and we’re back to square one. The worse the problem gets, the more impossible it is to talk about.

The bigger of a problem gun violence becomes, and the longer we go without taking action, the more extreme the situation has to get in order to open the policy window. We only talk about gun violence after mass shootings because it’s the only time gun violence rises to the national consciousness. Inaction is our default setting, becoming such an ingrained assumption — in the political class, in the media and in the general public — that it takes an especially ghastly shock to the system in order to remind us that we do, in fact, have a massive problem that needs fixing.

But here’s the thing: mass shootings really are a bad way to frame the gun violence debate. The immediate aftermath of a shooting like the one we saw last Wednesday in San Bernardino isn’t the right time to discuss gun policy because it encourages the wrong kind of policy response.

Shotgun via Shutterstock

Shotgun via Shutterstock

This is because, as Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan wrote last week, you will not die in a mass shooting. Statistically speaking, it simply isn’t going to happen. However, it is somewhat more likely that you will be shot by someone you know and, if you own a gun, the greatest danger you pose is to yourself. As a matter of scale, mass shootings are to at-home shootings and gun suicides as plane crashes are to car crashes. The former drive headlines; the latter are everyday occurrences that kill tens of thousands of people every year.

In reality, we should be talking about gun violence all the time. In 2015, guns will, for the first time, kill more people than cars. This is a public health crisis. We need to treat it accordingly.

Failing to do, and only talking about gun violence in the wake of mass shootings, will mean that we only come up with policies designed to lower the death toll in mass shootings. That means bans on military-grade weapons that are, in practice, difficult to legislate and implement. More recently, it’s meant the embrace by Democrats — including President Obama — of a deeply flawed terror watch list as a mechanism for gun control. That list is a civil liberties nightmare over which liberals have voiced due process concerns for quite some time. If anything, we should be talking about reforming the criteria for inclusion on the list and the (lack of) recourse those on the list have, not what we’re going to use it for.

At the end of the day, reducing the number of people killed in mass shootings every year is obviously an admirable goal, but it’s really hard to come up with policies that will successfully accomplish that and that alone without highly problematic side effects.

However, if we frame the problem as gun violence more generally, we can come up with solutions that address the issue in broader terms, focusing not on which specific types of guns to ban, but rather how to effectively regulate who can, at any given time, buy a gun. Universal background checks are already on the docket and have widespread bipartisan support, and other comprehensive approaches — such as the package of regulations included in Canada’s gun licensing process — would go a long way toward curbing gun deaths without denying gun rights to people who know how to use their killing machines responsibly.

There’s a reason why Canada’s rate of gun deaths per 100,000 people is one sixth of the United States’, and why its rate of gun use in homicides is half of ours. While Canada does ban specific types of guns, its gun policy focuses more on making sure that the people who do buy guns aren’t a threat to themselves or others.

Perhaps paradoxically, broader regulations like gun licensing are likely to have more political support — albeit perhaps not enough to make it through the Republican-controlled Congress — than specific bans. This is because they, by design, don’t affect self-described “responsible” and “law-abiding” gun owners in any serious way. The process by which they buy their AR-15 is slightly more complicated, but they still get their AR-15. Conversely, people who have a history of or are at risk for violence won’t be able to buy a pistol and, say, turn it on their former co-workers.

Since everyday gun violence, by nature of it being ordinary, never enters the public consciousness — and since even the most modest gun regulations have zero chance of making their way through Congress — we are left with a policy debate with a lot of good points and few good ideas. Democrats are able to highlight NRA-induced intransigence, and Republicans are able to point out that the Democratic policy proposals designed to highlight said intransigence aren’t actually good ideas.

Which is especially frustrating when good ideas are out there, waiting for our political will to catch up.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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