American mass shootings: a political failure?

By Laila Bell

California and New York might sit on opposite ends of the United States, but they have something very American in common. In a period of less than two weeks in April, both states saw mass shootings that made international headlines, reigniting the recurring debates about the nation’s gun laws. In Sacramento, California, six people were killed and twelve injured in an early morning mass shooting on 3rd April, apparently erupting over a gang dispute. Just over a week later, Frank James detonated two smoke grenades and opened fire on rush-hour commuters in Brooklyn, shooting ten people and leaving a further thirteen injured. Just over a week ago, further upstate in Buffalo, New York, the country suffered its worst act of terror of the year—a racially charged store shooting which killed ten people. The question that has infuriated Americans in the aftermath of each of these attacks thus remains: why do American politicians consistently fail to confront the mass shooting epidemic that riddles their country?

It goes without saying that the events in Sacramento and New York are not isolated incidents, but it is hard to accurately identify the scale of the problem when the term ‘mass shooting’ is not properly defined in U.S. law. The FBI does not define these violent events in their own right, although they do have a definition for ‘mass murder’, where four or more people are shot and killed in one location or two locations near together. The Congressional Research Archive, the Gun Violence Archive and the Giffords Law Centre all adopt the FBI’s definition, with the added stipulation that the weapon of choice is a firearm. The threshold of four deaths, with no provisions on the number of injuries incurred by a shooter, is arbitrary. For example, if a gunman killed three people and injured three hundred, the incident does not count as a mass shooting. According to these standards, Frank James’ notorious attack is not technically a mass shooting.

Education and systemic overhauls are certainly critical to preventing men like Frank James from turning to violence

For journalist, editor, and author Mark Follman, the solution to the problem is prevention. He created the first public database of U.S. mass shootings and won numerous accolades for his investigations into gun violence. His most recent book, Trigger Points, champions the growing method of behavioural threat assessment — an evidence-based approach for identifying potentially violent individuals and analysing their threat level. Follman’s method certainly holds a lot of value. New York shooter Frank James posted a video on YouTube as recently as the Monday before he launched his attack; the verbal onslaughts on his channel included racial grievances and aggressive misogyny. His case reflects an increasing tendency for discontented Americans to select the gun as their weapon of choice to express their social, cultural, and political indignations. Education and systemic overhauls are certainly critical to preventing men like Frank James from turning to violence. However, it might take generations for prevention to fully take effect. This lag will not save lives immediately, which is why some Americans want stricter gun laws enacted, and they want them enacted now.

Enshrining stricter firearm measures in the U.S. law is far easier said than done, mainly due to the nation’s conservatives worshipping of the U.S. constitution. The right to bear arms is protected by the Second Amendment: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This ironclad guarantee means that many Republicans, including former president Donald Trump, render any restriction an infringement on their constitutional rights.

Enshrining stricter firearm measures in the U.S. law is far easier said than done

Joe Biden called for gun control measures over a year ago, after ten people were gunned down at a supermarket in Colorado. He called for the imposition of “common-sense” constraints on the purchase of firearms, urging the U.S. Senate to approve two bills that would strengthen background checks on gun buyers. These were rejected by Republicans in the chamber.

Biden has achieved greater success in the last week, but only because he issued an executive order, which does not require approval from Republicans in Congress. His order implemented restrictions on “ghost guns”, untraceable self-assembled firearms. This order will do little to reduce the number of mass shootings, but it does send a clear message: Biden will attempt to use his limited individual authority as President to battle gun crimes, even if lawmakers won’t. There is not an overwhelming amount of public support for anti-gun measures in America. In a 2020 poll by Gallup, only fifty-two per cent of Americans surveyed supported tighter gun laws. The rest felt they needed no altering, and eleven per cent advocated the laws being relaxed. It seems that the U.S. will continue to struggle to confront the mass shooting problem, because for many conservatives and their political representatives, there is no problem at all.

Image: Fibonacci Blue via Wikimedia Commons

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