| 03.20.2018

Circling the drain on gun violence

High profile shootings bring out the worst in American gun politics


Three of the five deadliest mass shootings in American history have taken place in the past two years. These high-profile events tear apart communities, but also poison the conversation surrounding gun violence.

We talk about gun violence almost exclusively in the context of mass shootings. This framing has stymied productive conversation and prevented effective solutions as people run to their respective political corners. Those unfamiliar with guns rush to ban whatever weapon or accessory looks scariest to them while gun enthusiasts turn to thoughts and prayers, with perhaps a half-hearted aside about mental illness.

But mass shootings, and even homicides more generally, turn out to be a minority of gun deaths. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence reports that 60 percent of firearm fatalities in the US are suicides.

Domestic violence plays a much larger role in the gun problem than it does in our conversations about guns. According to the FBI, nearly two women a day are killed by their romantic partners. In addition, a University of Pennsylvania study found that one million American women have been shot or shot at by their partners.

It is striking how little suicide deaths and domestic violence deaths factor into our thinking about guns. Almost everybody in Idaho seems to have a story about gun use, and much of the time, the outcome is devastating. Guns have become routine.

Our own community is affected by gun violence every few years. Last summer, a man shot himself on the south end of the Arboretum. In 2015, a man went on a shooting spree, killing his mother, a man at a life insurance office and the manager of the Arby’s just off of Highway 8. And in 2011, a graduate student named Katy Benoit was shot and killed by a psychology professor who would go on to take his own life.

The stories and statistics surrounding suicide and domestic gun violence are horrifying, but tired political talking points on the left and the right seem to dance around them.

The left often responds to mass shootings with vague calls for some unspecified action or bans on poorly-defined assault weapons that would do little to alleviate the vast majority of gun violence, or even most mass shootings. It is easier to do so than to engage thorny questions surrounding how and why people use guns.

The right’s response to mass shootings is to deflect any idea that gun violence might come from easy access to guns, and to try to pivot the conversation toward a less politically charged topic, like prayer. Because of this, many Idahoans are surprised to learn the firearm mortality rate in Idaho is almost twice that of California, and more than three times that of New York according to the CDC.

Mass shootings deserve our attention, and we need to take whatever steps are necessary to keep our concerts, churches and schools safe. But the gun debate cannot be a two-week long conversation that putters out as soon as the news cycle moves on. It cannot ignore suicide, domestic violence and other routine gun deaths that kill dozens of Americans every day. There are no straightforward solutions to gun violence, but as long as we continue to think of the topic in terms of mass shootings, we will continue to get this issue wrong.

Danny Bugingo can be reached at arg-opinion@uidaho.edu

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