Editor: On Sunday, Aug. 4, Americans awoke to the news of two new mass shootings in the nation: Dayton, OH, and El Paso, TX. By now, we should be inured to the news.
After all, it’s old news: Two more mass shootings to add to the 250 that have already been perpetrated by a lone gunman with an assault rifle this year. Last year, there were 307 shootings. Someone might think this year’s total is a mark of progress, but 2019 is only half over. Currently, the total for both years is 557 mass shootings.
Most troubling, even our schools aren’t safe from mass shooters. So far this school year, there have been 94—a new record. That works out to one shooting every eight school days so far this year. Last year, there were 24 school shootings, with 163 killed or injured.
The notable characteristic of these incidents is that they are not indiscriminate. They’re usually the result of a dispute among individuals or gangs. The perpetrator is usually a 16-17 year-old male student.
For obvious reasons, gun violence in our schools is of special concern, but it is a phenomenon that is a subset of a larger societal crisis: The widespread availability of guns in public hands.
According to a study by Rand Corporation, in 2017 there were an estimated 300 million privately-owned firearms, including 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles, consisting of 3.75 million AR-15 assault-style rifles. These are weapons designed for only one purpose: To kill (or maim) another human being. When used as designed, the AR-15 kills or severely maims people. It is remarkable that such weapons are items of commerce, available on the market for a price, virtually the same as any other good.
Americans are the most heavily armed citizens in the world. U.S. gun ownership is 88.8 guns/100 population, the highest among virtually all OECD nations. Not surprisingly, our firearm murder rate, at 29.7 per million population is the highest in the world. Second is Canada with 5.1 firearm homicides per one million population.
So what should we do? The prevalence of guns and gun homicide incidents suggests that a goal of public policy should be to reduce the prevalence of assault weapons and high capacity magazines as items in commerce.
In Australia in 1996, a gunman used a semi-automatic rifle in a café to kill 35 people and seriously wound 23. The response of public officials was to establish a government program of mandatory buy-backs of roughly 650,000 guns, and required permits for new purchases. The dramatic reduction in the Australian firearm homicide rate, which fell 42 percent was observed. (RAND noted that assuming a causal relationship may not be warranted, since the overall homicide background rate was declining. On the other hand, firearm suicides fell 57 percent.)
A Rand Corporation review of 130 studies of policy measures to restrict gun ownership and purchases in 10 nations, found that such restrictions lower the level of firearm homicides. Moreover, RAND’s careful analysis of six studies found “the prevalence of firearms to be significantly and positively associated with lower homicide rates.” Policy measures, such as assault weapon buy-backs, taxes, including the imposition of substantial sales or excise taxes on high-capacity magazines, (or an outright ban), ammunition imposing strict licensing and permitting requirements on owners (e.g., storage requirements), or banning their sale altogether in commerce.
The NRA will no doubt raise Second Amendment objections, under its narrowly absolutist interpretation. Yet the Supreme Court has expressed a different view in the Heller Case. Justice Scalia wrote in District of Columbia v Heller (2008): “ We … recognize an important limitation on the right to keep and carry arms. … It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”
Randy Ihara, South Riding