Another day in America, another pile of bodies, and another set of cries for gun control. Predictably, the Atlanta and Boulder and Indianapolis mass public shootings were followed by calls to ban AR-style rifles. President Biden proposes to subject “ghost guns” to background checks and place pistol-stabilizing braces under the National Firearms Act as short-barreled rifles.
This marks a return to the old, pre-pandemic normal in America in which extremely rare cases of large-scale homicide bring efforts to regulate guns and gun parts in ways so general they are unlikely to have the desired effect of dramatically reducing gun violence.
As tragic as they are, overemphasis on these dramatic but rare events diverts our attention from the vast majority of homicides which involve fewer than four victims, victims who are shot with regular old handguns that are acquired in transactions not covered by criminal background checks.
Having studied American gun culture for a decade now, I find myself returning repeatedly to an important truth: Everyday gun violence in the United States is concentrated in places and among people that are most affected by economic and racial inequality. Efforts to reduce this violence should, therefore, be equally concentrated on addressing its causes in these same areas. Doing so shifts efforts at intervention away from guns per se, a move that allows us to circumvent federal gridlock on gun legislation and as well as legal challenges to gun regulation. We can carve a political path forward right now by decoupling violence reduction from gun control.
***CORRECTION: A FACEBOOK READER noticed something in the Mother Jones data I presented recently that I had missed. Beginning in 2013, MJ changed their definition of a mass public shooting from 4 or more victims to 3 or more victims in 2013 (see more below), but did not retroactively update their database. Although not deceptive (they said plainly they were doing this, I simply missed it), this is methodologically problematic. So I eliminated those cases, which reduces the total number in the database from 114 incidents to 95, and re-did the chart here.***
Gun trainer Rob Pincus texted to ask me tonight if I had any source for data on the seasonality of mass shooting activity. I.e., mass shootings by month.
I did not, but I was intrigued enough by the idea to do a little work when I got home tonight. The fruit of that labor is below. Important notes and interpretive points follow the chart.
The debate over civilian ownership of AR-15 platform rifles heats up every time there is a mass murder in the United States using one. Because I study gun culture, people often ask me, “Why does anyone need one of those weapons of war, anyway?”
I usually don’t have a good answer, since handguns are the gun of choice of Gun Culture 2.0, and most of my personal experience with firearms has been with handguns. In fact, about 5 years ago I bought an AR platform rifle with the intention of learning more about it, and it sat untouched for 4 years. Last fall someone shot 5 rounds through it and it has not been touched again since.
So I am happy to bring forth the writing of someone who has thought about this issue more than I have. Jon Stokes is a computer engineer who has two master’s degrees from Harvard Divinity School, co-founded Ars Technica, was an editor at Wired, and continues to be a progressive gun nut.
I appreciate his allowing me to re-print his essay, “Why I ‘Need’ an AR-15,” originally published on Medium in June 2016 following the mass murder at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando.
Image courtesy of Oleg Volk