Reporter's Notebook

The Certainty of More Shootings
Show Description +

James Fallows leads an ongoing discussion with readers on the inevitability (or otherwise) of mass shootings in the U.S. To join in, drop us a note:

Show 4 Newer Notes

If You Didn't See Obama’s Gun Violence Statement Live, You Should Watch It Here

Below you see the YouTube version of the official White House feed from earlier today. I’ve set it to begin around time 36:40, when relatives of gun victims come on stage. A father of one of the first-graders killed at Sandy Hook makes an introductory statement starting at time 38:00. Obama himself begins speaking at around time 42:30 and introduces former Rep. Gabby Giffords, herself gravely injured in the Tucson shooting five years ago, early in his talk.

The part of the presentation that is being replayed on all news shows starts around time 1:12:00. The ending, telling the story of the unplanned Medal of Honor-scale heroism of a 15-year-old named Zaevion Dobson, starts three minutes later, at 1:15:00.

I think the presentation as a whole — talking about law, balances of rights, the art of the possible, the long process of political change — will be one of the moments that is remembered and studied from Obama’s time in office. (Like his “Amazing Grace” speech after the Charleston shootings, which I wrote about here.) This presentation is not as rhetorically polished as that one—Charleston’s was a performance, this is a statement—but it is impressive on many levels.

More on the substance later on. For now, this is worth taking time to watch. (Update: the White House site has clips and text from the statement here.)

A candlelight vigil on December 3 in San Bernardino, California (Mario Anzuoni / Reuters)

A reader is uneasy over the growing drumbeat for more gun control:

First off, I am a concealed carry permit holder, own two handguns, a shotgun, and a rifle, all purchased within the last year. I have felt some urgency to purchase weapons and ammunition recently, as I have been worried that public sentiment will shift as more and more shootings occur and gun control will become more stringent. I have two semi-related points to make:

1) As other readers have pointed out, there are vastly different demographics when dealing with gun rights, from rural to urban and from recreational shooters to self-protection gun owners. That is precisely why an all-encompassing federal law is the wrong approach. Gun laws should remain under the purview of each state because those that make the laws—the state legislators—are more distinctly aware of the issues involved and are more directly beholden to voters.

2) There is a general principle that occurs when laws are enacted, with very few exceptions: When a restrictive law is passed, it is much easier to restrict rights even further in the future. I am against any federal gun control legislation because more restrictions now means it will be easier to pass even more restrictive legislation in the future. Rights are eroded inch-by-inch, bit by bit, until they are gone completely.

You can push back on those points here if you like. A very different view comes from a reader responding to Emma’s “prayer shaming” piece in the wake of the San Bernardino shooting:

I’m one of those who criticized the knee-jerk tweets of “thoughts and prayers” and, as a clergy person, I believe I am fully justified in my criticism.

A few readers narrow the discussion along those lines:

Your reader mentioned two groups: those who see guns as a source of danger and those who see guns as a source of protection. Allow me to suggest a third: those who see guns as a source of fun. I think people who see guns as a source of protection are more likely to live in urban areas, where crime is more common, or at least better reported on. Rural people would be more likely to see guns as fun.

The idea of guns as sport does not mean a lack of regulation. Far from it. Indeed, I think sportsmen (and women) would be just fine with that.

Any recreational gun owners want to respond to that? ( Here’s some interesting breakdown of the rural-urban divide when it comes to gun violence:

The risk of firearm-related death showed no difference across the rural-urban spectrum for the population as a whole, but varied when divided up by age — firearm deaths were significantly higher for children and people ages 45 and older, while for people ages 20 to 44, the risk of firearm deaths were much higher in urban areas. I’d wager some of that comes down to differences in gun ownership: more households have firearms in rural areas than in urban ones, and sadly, too many gun owners keep their firearms where their children can reach them. The result can be tragic. At the same time, the bulk of victims killed by homicide are young men, according to FBI statistics. And they are more likely to be shot and killed in the cities.

But overall, according to the 2012 study that Time article was spurred by, rural areas are more dangerous, primarily due to the increased death and injury from car accidents. Another reader brings us back to guns:

I live in one of the most liberal counties in the U.S. but in one of its most rural areas. I also take part in activities where most participants are from deeply rural areas. We don’t talk much about politics at those activities, but I am well aware that some of my friends have concealed weapon permits and don’t drive anywhere without a gun in their console. I also had a pretty close friend who was deep into gun culture and was totally convinced that Obama was coming for his guns any day now. 

But it’s not as simple as a rural/urban divide.

A regular reader, Doug Pancoast, joins the depressingly ongoing thread led by Fallows:

I think America’s gun problem (and I do believe that America has a gun problem) really boils down to three major divides.

The first is the urban-rural divide. For the Americans who still live in rural areas, their experience with guns is very different from people who grew up in cities. There are far more shootings in cities than in tiny towns, and so the perceived level of danger is very different. Furthermore, cities have police who can respond to problems much more quickly than a sheriff might be able to respond to a shooter out in the country. People in rural areas don’t feel like they can depend on police to protect them, and therefore they feel like they need the protection of a gun. However, people in rural America want to to force people living in populated cities to live with the same loose gun restrictions, even though the dangers associated with guns are much greater for people living in cities.

The second divide has to do with the way individuals, regardless of where they might live, view guns.

Public Religion Research Institute

One reader wants to start a discussion on the question:

School shootings are absolutely horrific. They’re like plane crashes; very unlikely to affect you, but terrible and frightening if they do. We don’t want to alter our entire society to respond to a sensational but ultimately quite rare event. If you want to arm teachers, then you might as well mandate that every child in a car wear a full Formula One racing suit and helmet. A child is far more likely to die in a car crash than in a school shooting.

That said, I’d like to hear about other possible remedies and defenses.

A reader, Michael Jalovecky, takes the thread on yet another tangent—and a good one:

I found myself in agreement with one reader’s comment that “the Constitution guarantees a right [that pro-life and gun-control activists] don’t like, so they make it as difficult as possible to exercise that right.”  Well put. To that I would stretch the comparison to a larger liberal vs. conservative paradigm and highlight that both camps hypocritically apply interpretative theories of the Constitution that suit they’re preferred policy outcomes.

A few readers flip the analogy around:

To this conversation I would also offer the corollary: Pro-Life Activists are very much like Gun Control Activists. As Jim Elliott correctly notes, with both issues you have camps opposed on first principles. In both cases you have camps that are unable to accomplish outright bans, due to a combination of constitutional barriers and public opposition.

Most regulations on abortion are arbitrary, simply meant to make the process as onerous as possible. Requiring abortion clinics to have admitting privileges is not meant to enhance patient safety. Mandatory ultrasounds, including those of the highly invasive trans-vaginal sort, are not intended to provide the doctor or the patient with important medical information. Since bans are presently not feasible, anti-abortion activists will take any restrictions they can get.

Much is the same with most gun control proposals. Proposals to ban so-called “assault weapons” are perhaps the best example of this. It is essentially the “partial birth abortion” of the gun control world.

Jim Elliott responds to the criticisms from readers in these updates:

First, while all analogies are inherently flawed—there’s no one-to-one equivalence, ever—I think in this case, the analogy is somewhat effective, because it illustrates the practical problem of talking pragmatic policy trying to bridge the divide between camps opposed on first principles. I understand—though don’t agree with—many gun rights advocates’ concerns regarding gun control, because ultimately the “middle ground” solutions your reader says “most” people are in favor of—background checks, cooling off periods, safety training, and no assault rifles—are just tinkering around the edges.

Look at the “gun show loophole.” In 1997, the Justice Department found that 0.7 percent of guns used in crimes were obtained at gun shows. Many states—including California, which leads the nation in the number, but not rate, of gun crimes—already require background checks at gun shows.

Cooling off periods are, again, useful for some types of gun violence—i.e. suicide—but not gun crime. Even their utility in reducing suicides was found to only be statistically valid for intended suicides by people 55 or older. Again … tinkering.

Jessica Hill / AP

Jim Elliott, a reader whose writing on guns Ta-Nehisi featured a few years ago under a pseudonym, rejoins the debate under his real name:

Your reader's comparison of gun rights activists to pro-choice activists made immediate sense to me, as a gun rights liberal. Both gun control advocates and pro-life advocates primarily work upon first principles. They make a moral argument, not a pragmatic one.

As perhaps well they should. Pro-choice advocates, after all, weigh the potential for life against the liberty of a life already existing and choose the latter, whereas gun rights advocates weigh the potential for death against the liberty of a life already existing, and choose the latter.

When you’re essentially arguing against a moral axiom such as life, you’ve just picked the losing team. Just as a pro-choice advocate can’t really argue with the picture of an aborted fetus, neither can a gun rights advocate argue against the picture of a weeping parent. Nor should they; as Ben Carson and Jeb Bush just learned, it’s basically impossible to not be an ass if you even try.

Sure, us gun rights guys can quote figures all we want. I could point out that according to the National Institutes of Justice, the use of firearms in non-fatal violent crime is down, drastically:

Fallows promotes on Twitter an extensive, ongoing feature from The Guardian illustrating mass shootings across the U.S.:

The Guardian and Mass Shooting Tracker

The whole, depressingly long graphic is here. The current tally is “994 mass shootings in 1,004 days.” Those six red figures in the lower-right corner probably caught your eye, too. Details:

Scott and Nicole Westerhuis, along with their four children, third-grader Kailey, fifth-grader Jaeci, eighth-grader Connor, and sophomore Michael were believed to have died in a fire on Sept. 17 at their home at 36705 379th Street, 3 miles south of Platte.

On Monday, the South Dakota Attorney General’s Office released the family's preliminary autopsy reports, which indicate that cause and manner of death for Nicole, Kailey, Jaeci, Connor and Michael Westerhuis were homicide by shotgun wounds. The attorney general’s office released information late on Monday that says the cause of death for Scott Westerhuis is suspected suicide based on the current investigation findings.

They both oppose any incremental regulations to abortion and guns, respectively, believing those incremental steps are a means to banning. At least that’s what the following reader suggests, quoting an earlier reader:

But the interesting point is that I don’t think any of the owners of these collections would take umbrage at being called the appropriate type of nut.* They’d just smile, say they love their hobby, and think wistfully about the next addition to their collection. So why do gun owners react so differently? Is it because they’re defensive about the reactions of others to their “hobby”? Because the central organizing theme of their collection is lethality?

Being defensive about other’s reaction to an arsenal is a lot different than being defensive about a collection of shoes. If you embarrass your friend about his computer collection, or his shoe collection, he only has to deal with embarrassment. In fact, he has no reason to suspect you noticing the number of shoes or computers he has at all, since nobody has ever mentioned or floated a ban on him owning multiple numbers of shoes or computers or tools or cars.

In this case, though, you have voices calling for a ban on arsenals, and defining arsenals as a number of guns generally lower than ten.