Political rhetoric and gun violence in US

April 11, 2021

According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 131 killings in 120 mass shootings in the United States this year

“While we’re still waiting for more information regarding the shooter, his motive, the weapons he used, the guns, the magazines, the weapons, the modifications… I don’t need to wait another minute, let alone an hour, to take common sense steps that will save lives in the future and to urge my colleagues in the House and Senate to act.”

President Joe Biden was reacting to amass shooting at a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado, on March 23 that killed 10 people, one week after eight people were killed in Atlanta, Georgia, in another shooting.

There has been a surge in mass shootings in the United States in recent years. According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 131 killings in 120 mass shootings in the United States this year. These shootings were reported from several states, including California on the West Coast to Florida and Texas in the South, and Illinois in the Midwest.

There were 417 incidents in 2019; this increased to the all-time high of 578 incidents in 2020. The last year’s shooting, justifiably, can be attributed to the worldwide pandemic crisis, which led to unemployment, depression, and isolation of individuals.

However, when we look deeply, the situation does not look so straightforward. Incidents of fatal mass shootings have been increasing since 2014 (excluding 2017 and 2018), with 269 shootings in 2016.

The common perceptions that more restrictions on buying guns and ban on assault weapons, usually suitable for military purposes, can contain the problem effectively seem to be too simplistic to explain the issue entirely.

Some countries with no gun restrictions have far fewer shootings than the United States. In contrast, even the states with severe limits on background checks on buyers and bans on guns have witnessed mass shootings killing innocent people. This indicates the unexplained phenomenon in the American culture that prompts people to gun violence.

Gun-related killings are much higher in the United States than in other developed countries, including Canada, France, Spain, Australia and Germany. This rate, however, is lower than some of the Latin American nations, including Brazil, El Salvador, Venezuela, Guatemala, Columbia and Honduras.

The issue of ever-increasing mass shootings in the United States seems more complex, as it involves demographic, economic and administrative factors.

Before discussing the burning issues related to gun violence politics, we might comprehend the nature of gun violence in America.

The Gun Violence Archive keeps track of several types of shootings in its database. These include unintentional shootings, defensive use, home invasions and mass shootings, among others. Other than these, guns are also used in suicides, family disputes and, in some cases, it becomes relevant to mental or behavioural disorders.

Mass shootings involve incidents in schools or public places such as malls and commercial centres. However, school shootings get more media publicity because of the number of students as victims and the perception that students are killed in more significant numbers than other mass shootings.

In fact, the data suggests that more people are killed in mass shootings at public places and commercial centres as compared to schools.

With the increasing incidents of gun violence, the decades-old political debate has recently re-emerged, with Democrats demanding strict regulations on selling guns through background checks and banning assault rifles.

On the other hand, Republicans argue that mass killings in the country cannot be stopped through more regulations. With their popularized belief that shooters are responsible for killing people, not guns, they oppose laws on buying guns or banning lethal weapons.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called to end mass killings in schools and public places through strict regulations. On the contrary, Republicans like Ted Cruz of Texas say the ban on assault weapons and background checks is just a part of political theatre, and these measures are not going to reduce mass killings in the country.

As the tense debate over gun violence continues between the two political parties, the US House of Representatives has recently passed two bills related to gun laws, including a bill that will require background checks on gun sales and transfers.

The second bill will increase the waiting time for background checks from three to 20 days. This will adequately address the weak regulation popularly known as the Charleston Loophole, which enabled the mass shooter who killed nine people at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.

President Biden has also urged the Senate to approve these two bills passed by the House, which face opposition from Republicans and the powerful gun lobby.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) is a highly influential group that serves corporations’ interest in firearms industries. According to the Violence Policy Centre:

“… the NRA receives tens of millions of dollars from the companies that manufacture or sell arms, ammunition and related products. Gun industry CEOs sit on the NRA board and are deeply intertwined in its fundraising and organisational activities. Virtually all the NRA activities are carried out in pursuit of a single goal: helping the firearms industry sell more guns.”

Although the public opinion on gun control wants to see some real action, the powerful gun lobby rejects banning weapons and regulations that will reduce the industry’s profit.

The gun lobby mostly takes refuge in the constitutionally guaranteed public right to carry firearms for personal safety. The Second Amendment in the United States Constitution clearly says:”…the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This amendment was intended to protect ordinary citizens in the 18th-Century environment.

As we have seen, gun violence has been politicised by parties, gun manufacturing industries, and their lobbying groups.

The ongoing legislation and the rhetoric of gun violence in America ignore the role of the powerful arms industry, the gun lobby, unemployment rates, the economic slump, politicisation of the issue and of course, the pandemic crisis.

Against this backdrop, researchers have been working to find the ground realities of mass shootings.

Gun-related killings are much higher in the United States than in other developed countries, including Canada, France, Spain, Australia and Germany. This rate, however, is lower than some of the Latin American nations, including Brazil, El Salvador, Venezuela, Guatemala, Columbia and Honduras.

To find out scientific facts of the issue, two scientists of the University of Missouri-Colombia, Zach Lang and Jennifer Selin, did a study. Their objective was to find out if gun control legislation can prevent mass shooting incidents or not. Interestingly, their research provides evidence in support of both positions.

In their study, California and Florida had the highest shooting rates during 1980-2020, while 16 states had no shootings during the observed period. They concluded:

“While stricter gun control laws may make mass shootings less common, our research suggests that the rhetoric of both parties may not tell the full story. Rather than federal gun control laws, policies that focus on violence prevention at the community or individual levels may be more effective at preventing mass shooting deaths.”

The scientific evidence supports the assumption that there is no surety that mass shootings will not happen in the states where gun control laws are in effect: “in fact, mass shootings tended to occur in states with stricter regulations. Of the states with highest per capita rates of mass shootings, many – like Connecticut, Maryland, and California – employ background checks and assault weapons bans.”

The overall findings suggest that the states where several types of gun control legislations are considered necessary, including background checks for buyers, assault weapons bans, high-capacity magazine bans, and restrictions on individuals considered a threat to the public, were able to prevent shooting incidents to some extent but not much.

Additionally, some states have a higher rate of gun ownership where no shooting incidents were observed. If this is the case, how can we control mass shootings, and what does it mean for the political debate on gun violence?

Based on scientific research, community-based approaches can be more effective than implementing strict rules and regulations to prevent mass shooting incidents.

A 2015 study, Mental Health, Mass Shootings, and Politics of American Firearms by Metzl and MacLeish concluded:

“The US gun rights advocates are fond of the phrase ‘guns don’t kill people, people do.’ The findings cited earlier in the article suggest that neither guns nor people exist in isolation from social or historical influences. A growing body of data reveals that US gun crime happens when guns and people come together in particular, destructive ways. That is to say, gun violence in all its forms has a social context, and that context is not something that ‘mental illness’ can describe nor that mental health practitioners can be expected to address in isolation.”

Apparently, the popular discourse in the United States has widely ignored this social context. Not downgrading the administrative and legislative approaches, the following recommendations might go a long way in finding solutions to the gun violence issue.

First, increasing police officers’ presence in communities can help control mass shootings, although it sounds like a typical administrative approach. But just increasing the police presence in communities may not be sufficient as appropriate training, availability of modern technologies and institutional links to relevant communities will positively reduce mass shootings.

Second, working with community organisations and personnel such as religious centres, health workers and schools can help reduce the risk of public shootings.

Links between the police and religious centres can be focused on raising the public’s consciousness and connecting law enforcement institutions to the helpful institutions in the community. Closely working with schools and their administrators can identify potential issues that can lead to gun violence.

Third, mental health issues in communities have something to do with shootings, although it does not play a broad role in gun violence. Health centres and workers can provide vital resources in helping the community members with mental and health issues, especially for the people who cannot afford physicians and medicines.

Fourth, gun violence increases during economic crises when unemployment leads to distress and social conflicts. In these circumstances, violence can be reduced by working with unemployed workers to explore new careers and learning new professional skills.

Unlike his predecessor, Donald Trump, Joe Biden seems to be tough on gun violence. He has announced a plan to end the “gun violence epidemic, “as he called it, during his presidential campaign.

The plan talks about restrictions on gun manufacturers, banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, regulating existing weapons under the National Firearms Act, requiring background checks and removing loopholes in regulations, besides other strategies.

Unfortunately, the president’s plan only deals with one aspect of preventing gun violence - through legal and administrative approaches. His strategy is heavily focused on strict gun laws and their implementation through law enforcement institutions.

It ignores the social context of the issue suggested by experts and researchers who emphasise working with communities, health centres, law enforcement agencies and socio-cultural institutions.

Joe Biden’s strategies to reduce gun violence in the United States also lack attention to low-income groups, unemployed workers and people with mental health issues.

Overall efforts to contain mass shootings can be addressed with legislative measures to gun control and a community approach to preventing these incidents. Focusing on both types of strategies can prove more effective in preventing gun violence in America.

The writer has recently coedited a book, From Terrorism to Television: Dynamics of Media, State, and Society in Pakistan (Routledge, 2020). He has taught and held administrative positions at several American universities as Assistant Dean, Director, and communications faculty.

Political rhetoric and gun violence in US