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 None Newer Notes

Last Wednesday, several days after the massacre in Orlando, a reader wrote:

I think Notes is the best place to vent my frustration. Dear Media:

Please stop publishing pictures of the Pulse shooter. Whether or not martyrdom was part of his mindset, constantly referring to him by name and publishing his picture creates infamy where there should be none. Relentlessly publishing photos of the shooter (even worse, selfies), he becomes more important than the victims. It iconifies him, and if he did indeed do this act in the name of Allah, it reinforces him as a martyr by giving him more of an identity than the victims. I think he deserves to be stripped of an identity.

On that count, the homepage of The New York Times did a commendable job:

Here’s a novel thought from a reader: “Perhaps we could name the perpetrators of mass shootings in a manner similar to the naming of hurricanes. Instead of names, real or made-up, we could use a series of number/letter combinations to refer to the gunmen.”

Another reader, Jamie, has also been frustrated with media coverage of the Pulse shooter:

Given the resurgence in public interest in the phenomenon of mass shootings following the tragic events in Orlando, there’s one factor that seems to be overlooked—specifically, how the modern media landscape inspires copycat killers. The Atlantic has previously ran several excellent articles on the subject, including “Are Mass Shootings Contagious?” and “The Media Needs to Stop Inspiring Copycat Murders. Here’s How.

I am personally of the opinion that this is the single most persuasive explanation for the increase in mass shootings.

Now that the immediate crisis in Orlando has passed and the long process of recovery continues, it’s worth revisiting our long and sadly ongoing discussion thread on mass shootings. In the most recent installments from January, an Australian reader noted the dramatic gun-control measures that the Australia government imposed following the the 1996 Port Arthur massacre—one of the deadliest in world history, killing 35, but now surpassed by the body count of 50 in Orlando. Australia subsequently banned automatic and semi-automatic rifles and pump-action shotguns, and a compulsory “National Firearms Buyback Scheme” got 600,000 such guns out of private hands.

Several readers scrutinized our reader’s Australia-U.S. comparison, and even the Australian reader himself listed several reasons why similar reforms would be next to impossible in the U.S. However, this next Australian reader, emailing this week, argues that Americans could still follow the lead of Australians without going to the extreme of bans and buyback schemes:

The reasons why mass shootings have been limited in Australia are not just related to the 1990s buyback of semi-auto weapons. There are a lot of more practical steps that keep guns off the street and out of the hands of criminals and psychopaths.

For instance, anyone who wants to keep guns in their home must have a police-approved gun safe, which must be fixed in place with approved mounting bolts so that it cannot be removed. Guns are required to be locked in the safe at all times when not actually in use and ammunition must be stored separately. And I’m not talking about an old school locker with the key on top; there are detailed specifications for gun safes to prevent them being broken into, and it is an offence to leave the keys lying around the house where they can be found by an intruder. Police routinely check shooters’ safes for compliance.

Several readers scrutinize the email from our Australian reader:

That Australian gun “buyback” was just sugar-coated confiscation. The guns were registered, and the government knew who the owners were and where they lived. The unstated threat was: “We’re making you a deal you can’t refuse. Either sell your guns to the government for whatever pittance we offer, or we’ll send some armed men to kick your door down and take those guns by force.”

And that’s a one-way process. Even if the law is repealed through the political process, those gun owners will never get their guns back and will probably never be compensated for their fair-market value. Anti-gunners like to scoff at the “slippery slope” argument, but it’s also clear that they envision the issue as an irreversible, one-way process.

Another reader:

Well. You’re gonna get a lot of email about this one! I hope mine adds something useful. To state my biases up front: I’m a gun owner.

An Aussie reader has a valuable perspective on gun control:

I’m a UK and Australian national and I’ve lived most of my life in those countries. Like many non-Americans, I am bemused by the debates over gun control in the U.S. and annoyed when gun rights activities attempt to paint countries with less of a passion for firearms as “less free.”

I am not “anti-gun” per se. I can see how some members of society require firearms for their work (e.g. farmers dealing with animals). Hunting is a slightly different story. The Australian response to the Port Arthur massacre in 1996 means that our country is now a case study in America as either an example of sensible gun legislation or a totalitarian state intent on robbing gun owners of their right to fire at stuff.

However, in the state of New South Wales, an electoral quirk means that the Shooters and Fishers Party (yes, Australia has a political party explicitly devoted to guns—and maybe fishing rods, I suppose, but mostly guns) sometimes holds the balance of power in the state senate—which they often attempt to leverage to turn the state’s national parks into free fire zones. Personally, I think if you want to hunt animals, you should do it with your bare hands rather than cowering behind a telescopic sight like some kind of wuss, but that’s just me. Culling of animal populations is necessary, but I’m uncomfortable entrusting it to amateurs.

The absence of any legal support for concealed carry in Australia means that I know that pretty much everyone I meet day to day is not packing heat nor likely to escalate to a lethal level on the rare occasions our interactions sour.

Following the Port Arthur massacre—one of the deadliest in world history, killing 35—Australia dramatically tightened its gun laws by outlawing automatic and semi-automatic rifles and pump-action shotguns. A compulsory “National Firearms Buyback Scheme” got 600,000 such guns out of private hands and financially compensated their owners with a total of $500 million derived from a tax increase. Uri recently noted the program’s impact:

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.