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On an average day in the United States, more than 100 people are killed by guns. Whenever the fact of this ambient crisis rises back to the surface of national consciousness, as it has this past week, it tends to inspire a certain mystified resignation. Politicians and commentators, acting in good faith and bad, probe the problem with the same stock of questions: Was mental illness to blame? White male supremacy or Islamic extremism? Video games? (If guns don’t kill people, perhaps PlayStations do.)
Eventually, after a day or two of asking, the questions stop. The word “senseless” inevitably gets dusted off, and then stored away until the next time, for a next time there will always be.
But making sense of America’s gun violence problem turns out to be a fairly straightforward proposition.
393 million: That’s how many guns the United States has, according to a 2018 Small Arms Survey, more than one gun per American and about 46 percent of all civilian-owned firearms in the world. And it’s the only variable that can explain America’s high rate of mass shootings: As my colleagues Max Fisher and Josh Keller pointed out back in 2017, an ever-growing body of research consistently reaches this same conclusion.
The same can be said for gun deaths in general, of which mass shootings account for only a tiny fraction. As German Lopez has explained in Vox, “When researchers control for other confounding variables, they have found time and time again that America’s high levels of gun ownership are a major reason the U.S. is so much worse in terms of gun violence than its developed peers.”
We know what causes America’s gun violence problem. Why can’t we seem to do anything about it? Here are some of the most popular and persuasive explanations.
The psychology of guns
In the minds of many gun control proponents, American life has become — or perhaps always was — a zero-sum game in which one party’s freedom to exist in peace has lost out to another’s prerogative to kill. In this view, mass death is simply the cost gun owners are willing to inflict on the country for the right to bear arms.
But many Americans do not see gun violence in such black-and-white terms, because they do not see gun violence as having to do with guns at all. According to a study published in The Social Science Quarterly in 2017, after a mass shooting occurs, people who don’t own guns tend to identify the general availability of guns as the culprit. Gun owners, on the other hand, are more likely to blame other factors, such as popular culture or parenting.
The different stories Americans tell themselves about the roots of gun violence preclude shared understanding: As long as they disagree about the cause of the problem, they will disagree about how to fix it. “Given the significant proportion of citizens who own guns,” the authors conclude, “the prospect for policy changes that address gun‐related causes of mass shootings is unlikely.”
If the United States were to hold a national referendum tomorrow, a number of gun control measures would probably pass: universal background checks and bans on high-capacity magazines and even on assault-style weapons — all of these proposals have the support of at least 50 percent of the electorate. So why don’t we have stricter gun control? According to The Washington Post’s Robert Gebelhoff, Americans simply don’t care about it enough.
“Rarely do Americans who support gun control make it their top priority — and this is especially true of people without strong party affiliation,” he writes. “By contrast, Americans who oppose gun control are intensely focused; so much so that for some of them, it’s a core part of their political identity. In a primary-driven electoral system such as ours, the latter group wins out every time.”
The tyranny of the minority
There are other reasons policy doesn’t follow public opinion, and some of them are inherent in the very structure of American government. The Senate, for example, by giving equal representation to every state, militates against majority rule. As Harry L. Wilson writes in The Conversation, “California and New York, the first and fourth largest states and ones that favor stricter gun laws, comprise about 18 percent of the population of the United States but only 4 percent of the senators.”
Already a counter-majoritarian institution, the Senate was made even more so by the rise of the modern filibuster in the 20th century, which allows a minority to block majority-supported legislation. That means most substantive legislation must get 60 votes in the Senate to pass — often an exceedingly difficult threshold to reach.
The National Rifle Association
After the shooting in Gilroy, Calif., in July 2019, in which four people were killed, the City of San Francisco declared the N.R.A. a terrorist organization, claiming that “nobody has done more to fan the flames of gun violence than the N.R.A.”
It was a statement that exemplified a common strain of thought among gun control proponents, one that casts the N.R.A. as the sine qua non of our national deadlock on the issue. As my colleague Nicholas Kristof has explained, the N.R.A. used to be a more moderate organization: It favored tighter gun laws in the 1920s and 1930s, and as recently as the 1960s supported — albeit more grudgingly — some limits on guns.
“But in 1977 there was a coup within the N.R.A. that put hard-liners in charge,” he writes. “In contrast to Canada, the United States now has a gun culture focused on handguns, assault weapons and paranoia, and that’s in large part because of the N.R.A.”
But others say the influence of the N.R.A., which declared bankruptcy this year, is overstated, or at least misunderstood. “The N.R.A. is powerful for precisely the reason most potent progressive organizations are powerful,” David French has written in National Review. “Like those progressive counterparts, the N.R.A. is an effective part of a larger community, and it is effective precisely because it persuasively expresses the will of its members and allies.” In his view, the N.R.A. does not manipulate people into supporting gun rights; rather, it reflects and channels the desires of people who already do
The Second Amendment
Gun control proponents often argue that the Second Amendment was meant to protect the right of state militias, not individuals, to bear arms. This interpretation is disputed by gun rights proponents, but not exclusively: The historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, who favors the Second Amendment’s repeal, has argued that it was expressly designed to enshrine not only the right but also the obligation of individual colonial settlers to violently appropriate Native land and to control Black populations, both free and enslaved.
In any case, by the end of the 20th century, a campaign had emerged, backed by the N.R.A. but also by leading liberal law professors, to formally interpret the Second Amendment as an individual right. In 1991, the former Supreme Court chief justice Warren Burger, a conservative, called the shift “one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.” His resistance was fruitless: In 2008, the Supreme Court overturned the old consensus and affirmed the new one in District of Columbia v. Heller.
This interpretive turn has led to calls for the Second Amendment’s repeal, including from the retired justice John Paul Stevens. Justice Stevens was one of the four dissenters in the Heller case, whose ruling he believed could be overturned only with a new constitutional amendment that voided the second. Doing so, he wrote in The Times in 2018, “would be simple and would do more to weaken the N.R.A.’s ability to stymie legislative debate and block constructive gun control legislation than any other available option.”
But repealing the Second Amendment, besides being almost politically impossible, would do nothing to address the actual problem of gun violence, Laurence Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard, has argued in The Washington Post. There is nothing about the Second Amendment, even in its current interpretation, that prevents Congress from enacting laws to more strictly regulate the possession and trade of guns.
And “whatever the status of the individual right to bear arms in the nation’s Constitution,” Patrick Blanchfield wrote for N+1 magazine in 2016, “an overwhelming number of state constitutions guarantee it in no uncertain terms. If the Second Amendment were to disappear tomorrow, the on-the-ground legal reality in 44 states would remain the same.”
Gun ‘control’ is not enough
Democrats, despite their leftward shift on other issues, have been proposing the same “common sense” gun control policies for the past 25 years. But none of them — not universal background checks, not red flag laws, not even a ban on assault-style weapons — would confront the core issue: America simply has too many guns.
That is the view of Mr. Lopez, who contends that stamping out gun violence would require a Green New Deal-size plan that offers solutions at the scale of the problem. “If the key difference between America and other countries is how many more guns the U.S. has, then something has to be done to quickly reduce the number of firearms here,” he writes. “It could mean banning more types of guns — perhaps all semiautomatic weapons or all handguns — and coupling that with an Australian-style mandatory buyback program, which the research supports.”
Of course, Mr. Lopez recognizes that, given the failure of far more modest measures, no law that aims to take guns out of Americans’ hands is going to pass anytime soon. At the same time, he says, “this broader conversation has to start somewhere.”