America’s Gun Plague

Hatred alone is not an American phenomenon—easy access to deadly weapons is.

A crime scene at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, where a gunman allegedly killed at least 10 people.
John Normile / Getty

About the author: David Frum is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

Was it one of ours? Or one of theirs?

That’s the question that flashes through American minds after a mass shooting. Was the alleged killer a jihadi, like the shooter at the Pulse night club in Orlando in 2016? A left-wing extremist, like the shooter who attacked a congressional baseball practice in 2017? A vegan animal-rights zealot? Or, as apparently was the case yesterday in Buffalo, New York, a white supremacist who believed in the “great replacement” theory?

In a politically polarized and heavily armed society, each new massacre rapidly becomes another occasion for mutual accusation.

After Buffalo, the accusations of lethal white supremacy feel especially apt and especially deserved. Some of the country’s loudest media voices have, night after night, expressed ideas very similar to those that allegedly animated the alleged killer, and those ideas are loathsome. Their words will be quoted back at them, joined to demands that they disavow white-supremacist ideology. Perhaps some of them will even do that. Will doing so make a difference?

The crucial variable in mass shootings is not ideas but weapons. We cannot control ideas or speech and should not attempt to do so even if we could. But we could reduce access to the weaponry that converts ideology into atrocity. At least, other advanced countries find themselves able to do so. Almost every country on Earth has citizens filled with vitriol, but no comparably advanced country has a gun-violence epidemic quite like America’s.

Yesterday’s alleged shooter appears to be a white supremacist. If the next killer is Muslim or vegan, many of those now most eager to assign blame to the Buffalo suspect’s co-partisans will be anxious to do the opposite—and of course, those now most anxious to restrict blame to the alleged killer alone will next time be eager to spread the blame as widely as possible.

Racist ideology is an evil in itself. But the American exception that bathes this country in blood and grief again and again and again is not that we are uniquely susceptible to racism or jihadism or veganism. The American exception is the unique ease of access to weapons.

Condemn the words if you will, but understand what those words do and what those words do not do. To save lives, focus on what is taking lives. Americans die by the gun in such terrible numbers because Americans live by the gun with such reckless disregard.