A couple of weekends ago, there were nine mass shootings across the United States. A mass shooting is defined as a shooting where four or more persons are injured. In just those nine shootings, eight people were killed and more than 60 others were injured. On the same weekend in New York City, another 29 people were shot in incidents that were not considered mass shooting events. The nine mass shootings over the course of a couple of days at least resulted in a small but brief blip on the national media radar but, for the most part, most of these incidents get reported only locally and are treated as almost inevitable, if they are really noticed at all. In general, Americans have become inured to a regular level of violent mass death and injuries from gun violence that is largely unknown to the rest of the developed world.
The US has been an historic outlier among rich countries when it comes to gun violence. Among the top 64 high income countries, the US ranks eighth in gun homicides, with the US territories of Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands ranking first and third respectively. When compared to gun homicides in high income countries with populations over 10 million, the US is by far and away the leader, with a rate more than eight times higher than every other country but one. Firearm homicide rates in the US are over twenty times more than that of the Australia as well as the European Union as a whole. New Hampshire, the state with the lowest rate of gun homicides, has a rate that is equivalent to Pakistan, hardly known as an oasis of peace. 73% of US homicides involve a gun, again vastly higher than the UK, Australia, and Canada.
It’s not that all these other countries have less crime than the US. A study of 20 developed countries showed that the US is similar to other countries in its overall crime rate, but our rates of lethal violence are literally nearly off the chart. As the report notes, the data “shows the United States clustered with other industrial countries in crime rate, but head and shoulders above the rest in violent death”. The reason for this discrepancy is crystal clear – the proliferation and availability of guns in the US. The number of guns per capita in the US are more than double the next highest country, Yemen, a country that has been ravaged by war for years. The study’s author summarized, “The proliferation of off-the-shelf handguns is really our problem. If we regulated guns the way that England regulates guns, we would certainly have a much lower homicide rate”.
The recent spike in murders here in the US highlights this discrepancy. Violent crime has decreased in most developed countries including the US over the last quarter century. (There are a number of theories for why this has occurred, but the most compelling one is the phasing out of leaded gasoline.) Yes, murders have risen over 30% in the US since 2019, but even that number is slightly misleading because we are coming off historic lows in most crime reached in the middle of the last decade. Yet even this recent rise in murders is not matched by corresponding increases in lethal violence in other comparable countries. The causes of this recent divergence seem to baffle our professional media class despite the fact that the US has always been a consistent outlier when it comes to gun violence. David Leonhardt, the consistently wrong New York Times “news analyst” who has pronounced Covid over on multiple occasions, as well as Aaron Chalfin and John MacDonald in the Washington Post, have offered up a number of theories for this latest surge in gun violence.
First, the social and economic disruption caused by the pandemic, something Leonhardt has harped on in his Covid critiques, has also made people more violent. But this is refuted by the fact that we’ve seen similar economic disruption here in the US in the past without a corresponding spike in murders and there is no similar increase in violent crimes in other countries that have implemented far more restrictive pandemic protocols. Another theory states that the BLM protests have created a culture of violence and lawlessness that accounts for the increase in violent crime. But the rise in gun violence began before those summer BLM protests had even started. A corollary of this theory is that defunding the police created the opening for the surge in violence. But hardly any police departments were actually defunded and the increase in violence also occurred in areas where defund was not even a real issue.
A similar theory is that police departments, stung by BLM protests and racial criticism, simply went on a work slowdown, minimizing contact with the public and thus creating a void for violence. This at least has some semblance of evidentiary support as we know police in Minneapolis, Seattle, and Portland all took this kind of approach. But, again, it does not explain why similar surges occurred in places where police did not pull back. Another related theory is that the pandemic forced the justice system to grind to a halt with judges reluctant to send alleged criminals to Covid-infected jails. Combined with limited efforts at bail reform in some places, the result was many more criminals out on the street committing gun violence. This, again, has somewhat limited plausibility because not all areas engaged in bail reform and, despite police rants to the contrary, the actual number of re-arrests for gun violence for people still awaiting sentencing was quite limited.
The Washington Post reporters at least consider that the massive surge in gun purchases that began during the pandemic might be responsible, but they dismiss that by pointing to the aforementioned declining rates of gun homicides during the first decade and a half of this century even as gun purchases were increasing. But in 2020 alone, the FBI did 39 million background checks, nearly 40% of the total for the 14-year period the Post referred to and a 40% increase over 2019. In March of 2021, the FBI did a record 1.2 million background checks and it is estimated that there are now more than 40 million more guns sloshing around in this country than there were before the pandemic began. That is one new gun for every 22 people, not just adults, in this country. In the end, the Post reporters just throw up their hands and declare “The rise in violence during the pandemic appears to be a problem that is uniquely American, so broad explanations that emphasize economic strife, social stresses and disruptions to public services are, at best, incomplete”.
Leonhardt doesn’t even mention the increased availability of guns and absurdly concludes that the rise in gun violence is the result of a rise in “anomie” that occurs when there is a “breakdown in societal norms” and “people lose trust in society’s institutions and basic fairness. When empathy for other citizens – or ‘fellow feeling,’ as Roth and others call it – declines and anomie rises, crime also rises.” (Needless to say, Leonhardt omits any discussion on whether this rise of “anomie” might be associated with a Republican party that has become openly anti-democratic, racist, homophobic, and trans phobic and its Trumpist supporters feel increasingly empowered to act out on those positions.)
In fact, there is compelling evidence that gun proliferation simply leads to more gun violence. More guns equal more homicides – more homicides of police; more suicides; more homicides of children. It is the simple application of Occam’s razor. With an estimated 40 million new guns purchased in 2020 alone, a 10% increase in the total number of firearms civilians own, it is hardly surprising that gun violence has surged. Today, there are 120 guns in this country for every 100 Americans. The simplest explanation for America’s outlier status when it comes to gun violence is that the country has more guns per capita than any other country, but such an admission seems impossible for the both-sides narrative required of the mainstream media, so instead we get half-baked theories about “anomie”.
Leonhardt and others like him primarily focus on gun violence in our major urban areas. It is true that most major cities have historically red-lined districts which suffer from chronic poverty, an abundance of drugs, and limited opportunity and those areas live with an unacceptable level of gun violence. The gun lobby and the right like to point to these areas as illustrative of the failure of Democratic governance and gun control in general. Chicago, New York, Baltimore, and Washington DC are continually depicted as dystopian hellholes of perpetual violence where no one is safe.
But a recent study showed that the current gun homicide problem is primarily a red state one. Murder rates are 40% higher in the 25 states won by Donald Trump in 2020. In fact, states that voted for Trump comprise eight of the top ten highest murder rates in the country. The five states with the highest murder rates – Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky, Alabama, and Missouri, (all bastions of GOP rule for years), – all had rates that were more than 240% higher than New York and 150% higher than California. In fact, Illinois, New York, and California aren’t even in the top ten when it comes to state per capita murder rates. Jacksonville, Florida actually had 128 more murders in 2020 than similarly-sized San Francisco. Comparatively tiny Lexington, Kentucky had a murder rate almost twice that of New York City.
The red state murder problem is compounded by red state gun policies. In the last few years, there has been proliferation of laws expanding so-called “gun rights”, primarily in Republican-controlled states. Today, 24 states currently allow permitless concealed carry with Ohio, Alabama, and Indiana becoming the latest to join that group within the last few weeks. Virtually every one of these 24 is Republican-controlled. Most of these same states also allow open carry of hand and long guns. It takes a high dose of willful naivete not to believe that more minimally-vetted, untrained people carrying more easily accessible guns in more places will not result in more gun violence. Just think of Kyle Rittenhouse. And nothing says “fellow feeling” like standing in line behind an angry man with an AR-15 slung over his shoulder as he verbally abuses the person behind the counter at Starbucks for getting his order wrong.
Red state gun policies are also in some ways responsible for the blue city gun violence. Washington DC, for instance, has the strictest gun laws in the country, so strict that the militias planning the 1/6 coup and assault on the Capitol warned their members not to bring guns to the rally. DC’s strict gun laws actually prevented the coup from being more violent and deadly than it was. However, for years, DC has also suffered from incredible gun violence, primarily because of illegal guns brought into the District from Virginia and Maryland. In fact, the right’s description of the poster children for Democratic failure on violent crime – cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York – always manages to omit the fact that a large percentage, sometimes a majority, of guns used in homicides in those cities actually came from out of state, primarily from Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, and other southern Republican states. It is estimated that 60% of the guns recovered in Chicago come from out-of-state, primarily from Wisconsin, Indiana, and, surprisingly, Mississippi.
The underlying problem, of course, is the perversion of the Second Amendment by the gun rights lobby and, most importantly, the conservative Supreme Court. As the distinctly conservative Chief Justice Warren Burger declared as recently as 1991, the principle that the Second Amendment gave individuals the right to bear arms is a “one of the greatest pieces of fraud – I repeat the word ‘fraud’ – on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime”. Legal analyst Dahlia Lithwick has described that principle as “a triple-decker hoax: A lie wrapped in a fabrication, lacquered over with a falsehood”.
For most of this country’s history, the Second Amendment has been interpreted to mean that individual states have the right to form and maintain militias. That opinion was consistently affirmed by the Supreme Court for over two centuries. In 1938, the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment did not confer the right “to keep and bear” what was basically a sawed-off shotgun because the weapon had no relationship to the “preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia”. It was Ronald Reagan himself, with the support of the NRA, who passed the California law restricting the carry of loaded weapons in 1967 when armed Black Panthers began patrolling city streets, and declared there was “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons”.
It is only since the NRA started foisting this fraud on the American public in the 1970s that the current (mis)understanding of the individual right to bear arms has become the norm. If you believe that the Founders intended for individuals to have the right to bear arms, then you would have to absurdly believe that they intended for slaves to be able to own and carry weapons. But that is what the Supreme Court finally held in the 2008 DC v Heller decision. Like “originalism”, “textualism”, the “major questions” doctrine, the individual right to bear arms is a fiction created by conservatives on the Supreme Court to justify their own political beliefs.
But Lithwick highlights a secondary fraud behind this fictional individual right to bear arms. Conservatives and the gun lobby treat this right as the only one that is totally sacrosanct and unable to be limited in any way. Almost every other right we have is circumscribed in some way. You have the right to free speech but cannot just yell “FIRE!” in a crowded theater. But any attempt to limit gun rights in a similar way are met with howls of outrage from the right and the claim that Democrats are trying to take away America’s guns. So far, the Supreme Court still has maintained the precedent since Heller that there are reasonable limitations on Second Amendment rights but, as it has done with abortion for years, it is slowly chipping away at the scope of those limitations. A New York gun case currently in front of the Court is expected to result in the Court expanding the rights of individuals to carry guns outside the home in a ruling later the Spring. It’s not hard to imagine what the effects of such a decision will be but it will probably provide another opportunity for the media to write even more pieces on “anomie” int the wake of more mass shootings.
While the GOP and Republican courts are expanding the availability and use of guns, easily available technology is making legal guns even deadlier by performing the same functions as illegal ones. Bump stocks turned semi-automatic weapons into ones that resembled fully automatic weapons like machine guns. Those were finally banned in 2018 after their use in the Las Vegas mass shooting in 2017. Today’s version of bump stocks is “auto sears” which again turn semi-automatic guns into automatic ones and are increasingly now used to basically turn Glock pistols into machine guns. As Alain Stephens notes, “Over the last five years, advances in low-cost manufacturing tools, such as 3D printers, plus global commerce on the internet have combined to create a vast black market of illegal machine gun makers, dealers, and traffickers. With an auto sear, anyone willing to break the law can effectively create a machine gun for as little as $20”. Untraceable guns can now be easily manufactured by using 3D printing or by purchasing “ghost gun” kits that package the necessary unfinished legal parts to assemble illegal guns that have no serial number. The Biden administration is taking steps to crack down on “ghost guns” and there is currently ongoing litigation over any ghost gun restrictions. Interestingly, the notoriously and radically conservative Fifth Circuit is making an extraordinary power grab to try and force that case to be heard in Texas instead of New Jersey, presumably to further expand “gun rights”.
The red state murder problem is yet another example of Republican policies killing their own constituents. We see similar, higher death rates in red counties when it comes to Covid. We know that the Trump administration’s initial (non)response to Covid was driven by the belief that it was a blue state problem and a recent study showed that the fact that Covid was killing minority populations at higher rates than others resulted in it being treated as less of a threat and actually reduced support for safety measures. Red states have also been the most resistant to Medicaid expansion and every Republican in Congress voted against the Child Tax Credit that has reduced child poverty by around 30% and whose primary beneficiaries live in red states. The result is that, in general, life expectancy in Republican states is lower than in Democratic ones. As Jennifer Rubin writes, “Living in red America can be life-threatening…the politics of red states is killing their residents”.
There is a common thread running through all these deadly Republican policies. If Republicans can convince their supporters and enough constituents that largely urban minority (and Democratic) populations are getting killed or prevent those minority populations from getting government (described as “free”) help, then their constituents will apparently happily support those policies even if they result in higher death rates for their own communities. With guns, not only do Republicans get to focus on urban gun violence and death but they also create the fear of those urban marauders that further drive gun sales among their constituents. Perhaps the finest example of this is the Idaho town where armed citizens lined the streets in preparation for a mythical online-created Antifa rally.
When it comes to gun violence, nothing is likely to change any time soon. With the current makeup of a relatively youthful conservative Supreme Court and united opposition from Republicans, there will be no movement toward taking the steps to create responsible gun ownership in the country any time soon. We all know what that will take because we see it work in many other countries – mandatory background checks and thorough vetting; mandatory registration and training; severely limiting the availability and use of handguns; and requiring guns to be locked away unless deployed for their intended use. Instead, we will continue to see tens of thousands of Americans needlessly die from gun violence every year, largely due to Republican policies, conservative courts, changing gun technology, and simply the astounding number of guns that are already held in this country. Those deaths are the true toll of the real American exceptionalism.