The push to address gun violence often follows a high-profile mass shooting, and typically doesn’t last very long. By the next news cycle, the majority of people have moved on to another issue, and little progress has been made.
Things have felt different this time, though, after the mass elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. More than two weeks later, the story is still circulating in the press, and politicians and advocates are still vehemently pushing for change.
Still, gun violence is present every single day, and it is not always in the form of a brutal, publicized massacre -- though those do feel more common these days. The violence exists in the form of mass shootings, yes, but also in smaller-scale interpersonal violence, in accidental shootings, in suicides.
Tens of thousands of people are killed by gun violence every year in the U.S. alone.
Over the last few decades, the problem has been growing in severity. Only recently have researchers begun to dissect the causes of gun violence and potential solutions.
Firearms hold a certain value in American society and policy, so any talk of changing the status quo is often met with harsh critique. And while there is nothing wrong with responsible gun ownership, most everyone can agree that firearms are not only possessed by responsible or well-intentioned people.
But, contrary to popular commentary, experts don’t necessarily believe that the answer to gun violence is to remove guns from the equation altogether. The issue is more involved and complex and so, too, is the solution.
We’re taking a look at the prevalence of gun violence in the U.S., the impact it’s having, how gun restrictions -- or a lack thereof -- play a role, and what experts are doing to address the problem.
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Gun violence has reached a breaking point in America.
On average, 111 people are shot and killed every day in the U.S. -- that’s more than 40,000 people each year.
Most of the public sees this gun violence in the form of mass or brutal shootings that are reported on in the news or online. Surely, the massacre of 19 elementary school children and two teachers in Texas was one of the most monstrous and unfathomable public examples of gun violence in our nation.
In general, active shooter incidents have been on the rise over the last few decades.
According to an FBI report filed in May 2021, there were 333 active shooter incidents across the U.S. between 2000-2019. In the year 2000, three active shooter incidents were reported in the country. In 2019, the report says 30 active shooter incidents occurred.
Of the 333 active shooter situations from that 20-year period, 135 qualified as “mass killings” -- when three or more people are killed in one incident, as the FBI defines it. The definition of a “mass shooting” varies widely across the nation and across institutions.
According to the latest FBI report, active shooter incidents increased by 52.5% between 2020 and 2021.
Many news outlets, like the Associated Press, define mass shootings as when four or more people are killed in one incident, excluding the shooter. Some organizations, like the Gun Violence Archive, define mass shootings as when four or more people are shot, but not necessarily killed, excluding the shooter. When following this definition, there have reportedly been more than 250 mass shootings in the U.S. this year alone. It’s only June.
The AP reports that 169 people have died in a total of 14 mass school shootings in the U.S., starting with the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School.
These mass killings are the most public representations of gun violence, but they only represent a small percentage of the deaths caused by gun violence in the U.S. In fact, the most common form of gun violence is suicide.
Of the 40,000 people who die from firearm injuries every year, about 60% of them are people who have killed themselves, according to today’s expert Dr. Patrick Carter.
Dr. Carter is the co-director of the Firearm Injury Prevention Center at the University of Michigan, where researchers and scholars are working to better understand gun violence, potential prevention and solutions and how they’re implemented.
The emergency medicine doctor and professor says that firearm fatalities have been steadily increasing across the U.S. since about 2013-2014. In fact, when it comes to injury-related deaths, firearm deaths have surpassed deaths from motor vehicle crashes, Carter said.
About 30%-38% of firearm fatalities are due to interpersonal violence, which includes homicides, community violence and intimate partner violence. There has reportedly been a steady increase in firearm deaths among adolescents and young adults specifically, which is primarily driven by interpersonal violence and suicide.
“A child in high school is more likely to die from a firearm-related death than any other cause before graduation,” Dr. Carter said.
And gun violence doesn’t just occur in urban settings, as some would believe; experts say it happens in all types of communities.
According to Carter, rural settings see higher rates of firearm suicide and unintentional injuries, while homicide rates may be higher in more urban communities. The problem, though, tends to impact children from both types of communities at similar rates, our expert says.
What is driving gun violence in America?
This question does not have an extremely clear answer.
Part of the problem: There has not been much research on gun violence, what causes it and how to effectively prevent it. Only recently has there been a push for comprehensive research to be conducted, so the findings are not yet conclusive.
Still, experts do cite a variety of factors that contribute to gun violence in the U.S. Among one of the most common driving factors is simply access to guns.
The United States is not the only nation that allows civilian gun ownership, but it does happen to be the country with the highest civilian gun ownership in the world. In fact, research found that there are more firearms in the U.S. than there are people who live here.
According to data from Small Arms Survey, there are 120.5 firearms in civilian possession per every 100 U.S. residents. Unsurprisingly, the nation has some of the most lax national regulations when it comes to purchasing a firearm.
National regulations dictate that a person in the U.S. who wishes to buy a gun must only pass an immediate background check that considers things like criminal convictions, domestic violence and immigration status. Many states have added restrictions and regulations that may require additional background checks or waiting periods. But, for the most part, Americans can typically purchase a gun within hours.
Under federal law, Americans are not required to undergo a background check when purchasing a firearm from a private seller. Researchers previously found that about 40% of gun owners purchased their firearm without going through a background check.
In most other countries, the process of purchasing a firearm is more involved and takes much longer than it does in the U.S. Other nations require people to provide character references, test to prove their knowledge of firearms, purchase regulated firearm storage, and/or wait a period of time -- often a month or so -- between the application process and the actual purchase.
In Canada, there are 34.7 firearms per every 100 residents. In Britain, there are 4.6 firearms per every 100 residents. And in Japan, there are 0.3 firearms per every 100 residents.
Gun violence does affect other countries around the world, but the issue is not as prevalent in most other developed nations as it is in the United States.
Some firearms are diverted from the legal market to the illegal market, but “most people obtain guns legally” in the U.S., Dr. Carter said.
The problem is not only that guns are accessible, but that they are also accessible to “high risk” individuals, experts say.
“Someone who is in a crisis and has access to a firearm that is not secured, that access is increasing their risk for a firearm injury,” Carter said. This is true for most forms of gun violence, including suicide.
There is currently no federal law that regulates how firearms should be stored. A statewide law regulating gun storage doesn’t exist in Michigan, either.
Some experts point to escalating community violence, the lack of mandated firearm education and the lack of a well-funded mental health infrastructure as contributing to the rising violence.
How can we prevent gun violence?
Again, another loaded question. But at least this one has way more answers.
Dr. Carter says the Firearm Injury Prevention Center is treating the problem as a public health issue and as a health issue. First and foremost, research on the issue must continue to fully understand what contributes to the problem, and which potential solutions and prevention tactics work and which do not.
A great analogy that Dr. Carter shared with me: The reason that deaths related to motor vehicle crashes decreased so significantly in the U.S. -- down 75% in the last 50 years -- is because of the “rigorous” research done to understand “all aspects of the problem, and then all aspects of the solutions.” That research has led to safer cars, safer roads, policy interventions and better data. “And some of that was sort of through institutions and academic centers focused on it like this.”
Carter says that the federal government didn’t fund firearm research in the U.S. for a long time. Funding is picking up now, though, and so is the research.
Still, it’s important to note that the data on firearm injury in the U.S. is not as well known as the data on firearm deaths, as injuries are not reported in the same way that the CDC reports firearm deaths. So a significant number of people are getting injured by firearms and not dying, but those numbers aren’t entirely clear.
Experts like Carter stress that taking guns away from responsible gun owners is not the solution to gun violence in America.
“It’s about preventing people who have access who should not,” the doctor said.
Our expert says that one way to tackle the issue is through a harm-reduction approach, rather than choosing between the two extremes of “everyone should have access to guns at every moment in time,” or “no one should have access to guns.” Instead, there are steps that can be taken to help prevent harm, whether it be through education, counseling, enhanced regulations, etc.
“We don’t tell people they can’t have a pool,” Carter said. “We tell people they can have a pool and teach them how to do it safer.”
Allowing a person to buy a gun is similar to granting a license to a new teenage driver, Carter says.
There is a graduated approach that teens must follow before they can obtain their driver’s license. Then, once they have a license, they must follow certain rules that are based on certain risk behaviors, like wearing a seatbelt, or not driving under the influence.
“This doesn’t mean taking away cars,” Carter said. “It just means including behaviors that decrease the potential for injury or harm, that don’t include any extreme proposals.”
Policy interventions can help prevent firearm violence, including the “low hanging fruit” of mandating secure gun storage. Dr. Carter says that some states have been implementing red flag laws, through which someone can file a petition saying they think someone else is at risk of harming themselves or others, and if that concern is validated by a court system, a petition can be filed for a temporary removal of a firearm from the situation.
Carter said that the research on the impact of those laws is still being carried out, but it is an “increasingly frequent tool,” and he thinks it’s a promising one when it comes to decreasing the potential for violence.
Other policy is focusing on expanding background checks when purchasing a gun in the U.S.
Many people focus on policy intervention as the most important approach to addressing gun violence, but our expert says that is only one of many approaches that can have an impact.
When it comes to addressing interpersonal violence in communities, especially among youth, Carter says that the center has focused on what can be done in health care setting to help decrease risk factors for those at risk. This work includes addressing substance abuse, decreasing issues around anger, and teaching people how they can be safer in their community and how to respond to violence in a different way.
Our expert says that children largely tell the research center that they carry guns because they are trying to protect themselves, and that they live in neighborhoods with higher levels of violence.
“Often, it’s for protection, but if (kids are) in an encounter with someone that escalates, they’re more likely to use (a firearm) even if they didn’t intend to,” Carter said.
The doctor said they are focusing on two key factors: preventing escalation that leads to gun violence, and preventing the violence from having secondary effects, like on mental health, afterward.
There are also structural factors that can reportedly contribute to gun violence prevention. This type of work includes “greening” communities, or cleaning up vacant lots that are in disrepair and creating safe and comfortable spaces for people to come out in the community and interact in a safe way. Greening decreases the likelihood of violent encounters, Carter said.
Community policing has also reportedly proven to decrease some of the violent outcomes in communities struggling with violent behavior. Though Carter says that every community may be different and have different needs, and so the response to gun violence must combine a variety of interventions that work for a particular region, and that there is no one magic answer.
When it comes to suicide prevention, Carter says that it’s essential to prevent someone experiencing a mental health crisis from having easy access to a firearm in the home.
“Data shows that youth who survive a firearm suicide attempt tell us that they planned it for less than five minutes,” Carter said. “It was about the access to the firearm in that moment that led to the injury outcome.”
It is also important to prevent someone who is depressed or at risk from having access to firearms, experts say. In a medical space, this could include lethal means counseling, which is defined as “assessing whether a person at risk for suicide has access to a firearm or other lethal means, and working with them and their family and support system to limit their access until they are no longer at elevated risk.”
Carter says that this doesn’t mean taking guns away from people, but ensuring people don’t keep guns in the home during a time of crisis. There is reportedly evidence that lethal means counseling works when it comes to more general violence and suicide, and now researchers are testing if this counseling works for firearms, too.
Academics and experts are focusing on data and evidence-based solutions to see what works. Carter says that data is at the forefront of their work, as other intervention strategies -- like the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program -- didn’t actually work, and instead reportedly increased the potential for violence.
In the meantime
Most of us are not experts or researchers who can fight the issue at a national level. But, we can support politicians, organizations and initiatives that are working toward solutions.
For those of you who are gun owners, it may be a good time to review gun safety and safe storage yourself, or educate your children or loved ones about firearm safety and its importance.
Gun violence in America has been labeled an epidemic, and it will not get solved overnight. Yet, still, there is hope that those working on solutions every day will help guide us toward a more peaceful future.