In 2023, the United States of America continues to grow as a graveyard for the victims of mass shootings and other gun deaths.
The USA gave birth to the American Dream of endless opportunity. For too many today, the USA has become an American Nightmare of opportunity ended.
Mass Shooting and Gun Death Statistics
Mass shootings capture the headlines and significant media coverage. Other deaths caused by, and with a gun, much less so. As the following discussion shows, Americans should be concerned about both.
There is no official definition for what constitutes a mass shooting. The New York Times in May noted that the Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit research group, defines a mass shooting as one in which “at least four or more people were killed or injured,” and the Congressional Research Service defines a mass shooting as one which results in the “deaths of four or more victims.”
For the first five months of this year (January through May), The Gun Violence Archive cites 268 mass shootings. Given the Archives definition, that means at a minimum, 1,056 persons were killed or injured in those incidents.
Wikipedia provides definitions for mass shootings from various sources, including the Gun Violence Archive and the Congressional Research Service, and a list of mass shooting incidents that appear on at least two of those sources. That list cites 262 mass shootings, with 347 killed and 1023 wounded. (The Wikipedia mass shootings list includes organized crime and gang violence incidents which are excluded by some definitions.)
No matter the definition, the number of mass shootings and the victims of those should be unacceptable. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
There has been a substantial rise in mass shootings since 2020. With the exception of the public outcry and expressions of grief for those who have suffered, little has been done substantively to curb this “terminal epidemic” being perpetuated with guns.
This is sad. Even sadder is the fact that mass shootings represent only the tip of the iceberg for the deaths caused by guns in the United States. As John Gramlich of the Pew Research Center reports in his April 26 brief, “…mass shooting incidents account for a small fraction of all gun murders that occur nationwide each year.”
Drawing upon data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for 2021 — the most recent year for which complete data is available — key points which Gramlich makes include the following. In 2021:
- There was a record total of 48,830 gun deaths, reflecting a 23% increase since 2019
- 54% (26,238) of all gun-related deaths were suicides, and 43% (20,958) were murders. The remaining 1,634 gun deaths were for other reasons. (Suicides have always accounted for a majority of gun deaths.)
- 81% — 20,958 out of 26,031 U.S. murders — involved a firearm. (This was the highest percentage since at least 1968, the earliest year for which the CDC has online records.)
- On a per capita basis, there were 14.6 deaths per 100,000 people. (This was the highest rate since the 1990s.)
The mass shooting numbers, in combination with those from guns as a whole, are devastating. In spite of this, they have not been compelling enough to move a meaningful national agenda for gun reform forward.
Reasons for the Lack of Gun Safety Progress
What are the reasons for the lack of progress in increasing gun safety? Just as there is no uniform definition for mass shootings, there is no single or simple explanation.
Many factors have put gun control into a state of suspended animation. They include but are not limited to the:
- mental health explanation
- misinterpretation of the Second Amendment
- political power of the NRA
- irrelevance of public opinion
- dramatic increase in the number of guns
- dominance of states’ rights
- perception of our rights as American citizens
The most common defense for not increasing gun regulations is that the problem is not guns, but people with mental health problems using them inappropriately. There is no question that some mentally unhealthy individuals cause gun deaths — including their own.
A question after that becomes what would happen if they did not have access to guns, and especially assault-style weapons. Another question is driven by the fact that, according to Mental Health America, as of 2022 19.86% of the American adults were experiencing mental illness and 4.91% were — and likely still are — experiencing a severe mental illness. The 19.86% means that there are nearly 50 million citizens who might turn to guns to use them on others or themselves.
Given this enormous number, why isn’t there an overwhelming movement for stronger gun laws? A major obstacle is the gun advocates who stand adamant in resistance to any legislation that would deprive them of their Second Amendment rights.
This is a resistance borne of either ignorance or arrogance. The Second Amendment, in its totality, reads as follows, “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be abridged.”
…the historical perspective shows clearly and convincingly that the Second Amendment was established for one reason and one reason only, and this was to protect an individual’s right to a weapon in order to serve as part of a state’s militia. There was and is absolutely no guarantee of a right to a gun outside of this context.
For more than one-half a century, the NRA (National Rifle Association) and related gun rights groups has been central to appropriating and broadening the social and legal narrative about the purpose of the Second Amendment. Over the past few years, though, due to lawsuits and media coverage, the influence of the NRA seemed to be declining somewhat.
The participation at the NRA’s national annual meeting/convention held in Indianapolis in April of this year demonstrated, however, that it still has considerable power to gather “NRA members and Second Amendment supporters” to listen to a “powerhouse line-up of political speakers” and to view the exhibits of guns and gear. More than 77,000 attended this year’s event in the Indiana Convention Center.
The powerhouse line-up the attendees got to see in person or on video there included announced and potential 2024 Republican presidential candidates such as former president Donald Trump, former vice president Mike Pence, and Florida governor Ron DeSantis.
Katie Glueck of the New York Times reports that in his remarks, Trump said, “This is not a gun problem. The only way to stop these wicked acts is to ensure that any sicko who would shoot up a school knows that within seconds, not minutes they will face certain death.” Speaking out against gun control extremists, Pence said, “Stop trampling on the God-given rights of the American people every time a tragedy happens.” Speaking about himself, DeSantis said, “I understand that it is precisely at those moments when a right is unpopular that it needs true champions.”
It was no accident that the speakers during the NRA convening were all Republicans. As E.J. Dionne observed in his Washington Post opinion column, written during the convention:
The GOP’s conversion to gun absolutism is the heart of the problem. But politics doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It often follows from cultural and moral innovations
For roughly four decades, American conservatism has identified firearms as a marker of a manly rejection of urban cosmopolitanism and gun ownership as a right more important than any other. As DeSantis said in his video, the right to bear arms is “the foundation on which all our other rights rest” and essential to Americans’ “ability to rule themselves.”
Dionne’s observation highlights why public opinion regarding gun control doesn’t matter. In recent years, there has been a consensus among the public in general that there is a need for stronger gun control measures. A Gallup poll conducted in January and released in February of this year disclosed that 63% of the respondents were dissatisfied with U.S. gun laws.
In her article on the poll results, Megan Brenan of Gallup states this is an increase of 7% over last year and the increase appears to be driven by the mass shootings of 2022. She points out that even in 2023, a “slim majority” (54%) of Republicans were satisfied with the gun laws, compared to only 14% of Democrats.
The level of dissatisfaction this year was the highest ever. The highest level before this was 62% in 2016.
This attitude of the public is more than offset by the influence of the NRA and what Dionne labels the traditional “gun absolutists.” It is also offset by the dramatic increase in gun sales since 2020 and the attitudes of new gun owners.
According to NORC at the University of Chicago, the FBI reports that in the period between 2010 to 2019, the average legal gun sales in the U.S. were around 13 million per year. In 2020 and 2021, those sales soared to approximately 20 million annually.
A NORC survey conducted in March 2022 disclosed that from the start of the pandemic in March 2020 until March 2022, gun sales increased by 18 percent. This pushed the percentage of American households with guns up to 46%.
1 out of 20 (5%) of the buyers in this same time period were first-time gun buyers. NORC reports that “New gun owners during the pandemic were much more likely to be younger and people of color compared to pre-pandemic gun owners in America.”
The NORC survey found that even though the new owners were different demographically than prior owners, they were similar in their opinions supporting more permissive gun control policies. These policies included: expanding concealed carry of guns; shortening waiting periods before getting guns; and allowing teachers and school officials to carry guns in schools.
Gun sales went down to about 16 million in 2022. That was still 3 million above the average sale in the prior decade.
Gun sales have gone up in most states but most especially in those states which have lax and/or virtually no gun laws. The Tenth Amendment “reserves to the states respectively or to the people” all powers not delegated to the United States in the Constitution. This means that unless there is specific national legislation in place when it comes to gun rights, state laws dominate.
The overriding importance of state laws with regard to gun rights is demonstrated by the emergence of permit-less carry laws over the past decade. On April 3, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill making Florida the 26th state to allow adults to carry concealed handguns without a permit or license.
Chip Brownlee, writing for The Trace, a non-profit dedicated to reporting on gun violence, points out that “In nearly every state for much of the 20th century, carrying a concealed gun required a license.” In 2003, Alaska and Vermont passed permitless carry laws. They were joined in 2010 by Arizona and in 2011 by Wyoming.
Brownlee provides a chart showing 22 more state joining the permitless parade between 2016 and 2023. In the total group of 26 permitless states, only 2 could be considered blue states — Vermont and New Hampshire; 5 might be considered swing states — Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Iowa and Ohio; and the remaining 19 would definitely be considered solid red states.
This breakout of states demonstrates that, as with so many things in our polarized nation today, where a citizen stands on gun rights depends on where he or she sits. That’s not only where a person lives but their political affiliation as well.
A Pew Research Center study published in December 2019 showed that there were huge partisan divides between Republicans and Democrats on policy issues. The biggest divide was on gun policy, with a gap of 57 percentage points, compared to an average gap of 39 percentage points between R’s & D’s on all policy issues.
The Future of Gun Safety Legislation
All of these factors in combination present tremendous obstacles to passing gun safety legislation. Can anything be done to run the gun control resistance obstacle course in the future in order to pass national gun safety legislation that would make America a safer place for all?
Immersed in this troubling data, without question, the instinctual reaction of most, including us, is “no”. Then, upon reflection, it is important and essential to remember the admonition of Studs Terkel, America’s greatest oral historian, who titled his final book Hope Dies Last.
Hope does not make something happen. But a lack of hope makes accomplishing anything virtually impossible. As we have written, “America is a nation founded on hope.” And, even in these dark times, there are reasons for cautious optimism on the issue of gun safety in America.
A primary reason is that just a little less than one year ago, on June 25, 2022, President Joe Biden signed into law the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (the Act) passed by Congress. NPR reports this was the first major gun safety legislation passed by Congress in nearly 30 years.
The negotiations in the Senate on the content of the Act were led by Senators Chris Murphy (D-CT) and John Cornyn (R-TX). The vote on the Act was 65–33, with 15 Republicans joining with 50 Democrats to secure the 60 votes necessary for passage. After that, the Act passed the House by a vote of 234–193, with 14 Republicans voting for passage.
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act was much less robust than the Protect Our Kids Act, which was sent to the Senate from the House on June 8. The Protect the Kids Act included provisions to limit access to assault weapons. The Senate bill did not.
Its key elements, as noted in a press release issued by Senator Chris Murphy’s office, include: funding for mental health services and school security initiatives, expanding criminal background checks for some gun buyers, barring a larger group of domestic-violence offenders from being able to purchase firearms, and funding programs that would allow authorities to seize guns from troubled individuals.
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act is not a perfect piece of gun safety legislation. In fact, it is far from it.
It is, however, movement in the right direction after legislation at the federal level on the issue of gun control was stalled for decades. It appears that movement was facilitated and made possible in 2022 by the school mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas and the supermarket mass shooting in Buffalo, New York.
Tragically, the mass shootings continue, and are accelerating in 2023. And, as in 2022, it appears that a mass shooting at an outlet mall in Allen, Texas in May and the shooting in a Christian School in Nashville, Tennessee in March are having a potential impact on legislation at the state level.
On May 8, a bipartisan committee of the Texas state legislature unexpectedly voted to advance a bill to raise the age for purchasing assault-style AR-15 weapons from 18 to 21. David Goodman reports for The New York Times that the 13-member Committee was not scheduled to meet on May 8, but they did. By a vote of 8 to 5, with two Republicans siding with the Democrats, they moved the legislation forward for consideration.
One of those Republicans was State Representative Sam Harless. In his article, Goodman quotes Mr. Harless speaking in an interview after the vote:
“I have kids and I have a granddaughter, and I have grade schools in my area,” “I want to know when I go home at night I’ve done everything I can to keep the kids I represent safe.”
Asked about his Republican colleagues, he said his constituents differed from those in more rural areas. He said he could not predict whether the bill would ultimately pass.
“We’ll have to wait and see, but this is a big step forward,” he said. “We just need to make sure that we do everything we can to stop some of these senseless shootings that are going on.”
That “big step forward” did not produce any results. The state legislature adjourned from regular session on May 31, and the proposed bill out of the committee was never voted on by the full House.
After conferring with legislators from both sides of the aisle, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee (R) called the state legislature back for a special session on gun reform and public safety to begin on August 2. Time will tell whether Tennessee will have new gun control legislation as a result of that convening.
What can be told at this point is that in mid-May Governor Lee signed into law a new piece of legislation that gives additional protection to gun and ammunition manufacturers, dealers, and sellers against lawsuits. That law will go into effect on July 1.
The foregoing suggests that no matter how horrific mass shootings are within their boundaries, passing significant gun control legislation remains difficult in red or swing states. As evidence to support that hypothesis, consider the fact that as a result of the significant increase in mass shootings and gun violence in 2022, 11 states passed new gun control laws. All eleven were blue.
This means that moving the needle forward on assault-type weapons and on other major gun safety related issues must be done at the national level. 2022 proved that the obstructive behavior of Congressional ideologues, and those in the pockets of the NRA and gun manufacturers, can be overcome through the efforts of civic-minded Representatives and Senators who are willing to compromise and collaborate in order to make their constituents and this country safer.
It is unlikely that 2023 will be a year that Representatives and Senators in Congress will step up to the plate again to pass more legislation on gun safety. In an interview on the Morning Joe TV show on MSNBC on May 10, Senator Chris Murphy said the Democratic caucus would be meeting to discuss the issue on May 11, but expressed doubt as to whether there would be bipartisan action this year. Murphy did indicate that even if there was not, the Democrats would bring forward gun safety legislation for votes, to at least keep attention focused on this critical issue.
It is likely though that at a point in the not too distant future, the responsible members of Congress will come together to add some additional elements to the nation’s gun safety regulations. We say this because we believe a trigger event of a major mass shooting, or a series of shootings within a short time span, will bring those responsible legislators back to the negotiation table to carve out a bipartisan package.
Their role as responsible legislators is more important now than ever because of the Supreme Court’s irresponsible ruling in its Bruen decision, rendered in June of last year. That decision expanded the rights of citizens to carry arms in self-defense; restricted the use of enhancing public safety as the purpose of a gun law; and required looking back and backwards to show that a regulation is consistent with the country’s “historical tradition of firearm regulations.” The PBS Newshour reports the Supreme Court’s Bruen ruling has created a “turmoil in lower courts over gun laws.”
That is the context of our American nightmare. In closing, we leave you with the following thoughts regarding our nightmare.
In the United States, we celebrate days that are important for this nation and its citizens: Memorial Day, July 4th, Thanksgiving Day.
In the United States in 2023, virtually every day is Mass Shooting Day. This is not something to celebrate. It is an American nightmare which must be confronted.
The causes of that nightmare will never be eliminated. But they can and will be reduced by placing gun policies and practices in place that put the Constitutional rights of all American citizens first, rather than just those of Second Amendment gun absolutists.