Why mass shootings keep happening in the US: A deeper look into America’s gun culture
On May 24, an 18-year-old, shot and killed 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. The second deadliest school shooting in the US, after the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting when 20 children and six adults were killed.
With every school shooting, the debate about gun control opens up, as well as the search for culprits. Americans have attributed mass shootings to mental illness or inadequate security, amongst other reasons, but fail to acknowledge that they have a deeply rooted gun culture.
Gun culture encompasses the behaviours, attitudes, and beliefs about firearms and their usage by civilians.
Gun ownership in the United States is the highest in the world. Americans make up less than 5% of the world’s population, yet they own roughly 45% of all the world’s privately held firearms, based on 2018 data from the Small Arms Survey.
The US is one of three countries in the world that protect the right to bear arms in their constitution. The other two are Mexico and Guatemala.
These laws explicitly allow people to use guns as a first resort for self-defense in the face of a threat. After being adopted by most states, Gallup found that 88% of gun owners in 2021 reported self-defense as a primary reason.
In December 2012, a gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and killed 20 children, six adults, and himself. Since then, there have been more than 2,500 mass shootings as of July 2020, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
The Gun Violence Archive includes shootings in which four or more people were murdered, but also shootings in which four or more people were shot at. Still, it’s impressive considering that mass shootings make up less than 2% of America’s firearm deaths.
On average, under this broader definition of mass shootings, America has around one mass shooting each day, according to Mass Shooting Tracker.
The United States has six times as many firearm homicides as Canada, and nearly 16 times as many as Germany. Why? Research, compiled by Harvard, suggests the answer is pretty simple: The US has way more guns than other developed nations.
Although America’s political debate about guns centres around mass shootings and murders, most gun-related deaths in the US are suicides, and the states with the most gun ownership, are the ones with the most suicides, according to the CDC.
Economist Richard Florida took a look at gun deaths and other social indicators in 2011 and found that stress and mental illness didn’t correlate with gun deaths. But he did find one telling correlation: States with tighter gun control laws have fewer gun-related deaths.
Even though 52% of Americans support stricter gun control, according to Gallup, only 19% support a ban on handguns. This may arise from the fact that 4 in 10 Americans live in a household with a gun, while 30% say they own one, according to the Pew Research Center.
The weapon used in Uvalde was an AR-15 variant; so was the one used in the Buffalo supermarket shooting less than two weeks before. Both shooters were under 21. Texas laws, allow 18-year-olds to purchase a long gun or rifle.
The families of nine victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting agreed to a 73 million dollar settlement of a lawsuit against the maker of the rifle used to kill 20 first graders and six teachers in 2012.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton banned the AR-15 and other similar semiautomatic rifles. After its ban, mass shootings were down in the decade that followed, in comparison to the decade before (1984-94) and the one after (2004-14), NPR reported in 2018. But once the ban expired in 2004, gun manufacturers quickly began production and sales rose.
Congress tried to pass a compromise bill to expand background checks in 2013, months after the Sandy Hook shooting. The bill failed to pass, as most Republicans and a handful of Democrats opposed the legislation.
Democrats have already passed bills to expand background checks to all firearm sales or transfers and close the so-called “Charleston loophole”. That loophole, which would increase the amount of time that licensed gun sellers must wait to receive a completed background check before transferring a gun to an unlicensed buyer, allowed a white shooter to target a historically Black church in Charleston in 2015.
Still, guns and gun culture are deeply embedded in America. “And to change a culture is infinitely harder than to change laws”, writes journalist Graeme Wood for The Atlantic. “I am not sure where that leaves us. Or rather, I am all too sure”, he states.