A pair of tragic mass shootings – one at a series of massage parlors outside Atlanta, Georgia and another in Boulder, Colorado – has many Americans understandably looking to our government officials for solutions to this violence.
President Biden is responding to this outcry by advocating for a suite of gun control measures that the Democratic Party has championed for years. Among these measures are more expansive background checks for gun purchasers, a ban on so-called “assault weapons” and curbs on high-capacity magazines.
Unfortunately, these policies do not address the vast majority of gun deaths that occur every year in America.
In 2018, there were 39,740 firearms deaths in this country. 61 percent of those deaths were from gun suicides, not homicides. That’s typical for your average year. To a large extent, our gun problem is more of a suicide problem than a homicide problem – even though these deaths rarely get the same attention as homicides, let alone mass shootings.
That problem is unlikely to be addressed by any of the measures proposed by Biden or the Democrats. You do not need a high-capacity magazine or a rifle to take your own life.
Although the phenomenon of suicide is not perfectly understood, we do know that it is rooted in mental health crises. More extensive background checks are unlikely to catch all of the red flags that lead to an eventual suicide – someone can purchase a weapon one year and a decade down the line become suicidal.
Our best bet for reducing these suicides is to utilize mental health care interventions. We can build a culture where people are encouraged to seek psychotherapy and work to make treatment affordable for everyone. It’s a fool’s errand to try to predict who will and who won’t purchase a firearm and become a future victim of suicide, but it’s much more realistic to offer the appropriate resources for curbing the effects of mental health crises.
What of the rest of America’s gun deaths? Wouldn’t the proposed reforms cut down on these homicides?
The RAND Corporation did an analysis of a series of studies on various gun policies and found that the “evidence for the effect of background checks on violent crime and total homicide rates is inconclusive. Evidence that dealer background checks may reduce firearm homicides is moderate, and evidence for the effect of private-seller background checks on firearm homicides is inconclusive.” In the grand scheme of things, background checks could prevent homicides in some cases, but there isn’t a lot of evidence that expanding them beyond the system that already exists will significantly curb unjustified shootings.
The evidence for banning “assault weapons” – a category cobbled together by government officials at various levels – and high-capacity magazines is weaker. RAND’s review of the research on the impact of these policies on mass shootings and violent crime came away with the conclusion that the evidence is “inconclusive.”
In all of the policies RAND analyzed, the one it found strong evidence in favor of was child-access prevention laws, which are designed to keep guns out of the hands of children. It found that these laws are effective in reducing suicides as well as unintentional deaths and injuries.
So why is it that debate about assault weapons have so captured the imagination of so much of the public? One reason would be that mass killers have used weapons that fall into this category in a number of high-profile incidents. Unfortunately, there is research that suggests that media coverage of mass shootings can actually encourage more of them – as coverage goes up, so does shootings, suggesting that a sort of copycat effect may be in place.
Yet despite these tragedies, it is important to note that very few people are killed by such weapons every year.
In 2017, handguns were responsible for the majority of gun murders. Rifles were involved in just about 4 percent of slayings that year. Even if it was possible to strictly prohibit the number of these so-called “weapons of war” – the phrase gun control advocates often use for them – it would barely put a dent in the number of gun deaths.
One approach to gun homicides might be to stop breaking them out into an entirely different category of crime – what is often referred to as “gun violence.” That phrase focuses on the tools used in these killings rather than the underlying social dynamics that are involved in violent crime.
If we understand gun homicides as one component of the larger issue of violent crime, we can design comprehensive policy responses. One of the great tragedies of America’s inner cities is persistently high rates of homicide. As documented in books like Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, we have consistently failed to successfully investigate and prosecute a large number of murders in many of our metropolitan areas. This failure fuels a cycle of violence – when people believe that police and the courts won’t bring them justice, they often take the matter of justice into their own hands.
Over the past year, we’ve seen one of the largest spikes in murders in American history. While our eyes are drawn to perverse mass killings that tend to make headlines, the series of smaller killings in cities like Philadelphia add up to potentially record levels of killing.
While there is no silver bullet to address this violence, we should stop pretending that assault weapon bans or limits on high-capacity magazines will do much; expanding background checks may be a bit more effective, but it will likely do little to curb the killing.
We should address America’s gun violence problem as a violence problem – carefully deploying mental health and policing resources to make sure people at risk of suicide get the help they need and people who lose their loved ones to criminals can rely on the government to make sure their killers are prosecuted.
Zaid Jilani is a freelance journalist who has previously worked for UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, The Intercept and the Center for American Progress.