The threat from within: America’s mass shooting crisis

In the wake of the terrorist attacks that killed 130 in Paris on November 13, 2015, questions have been raised about whether at least one of the attackers entered Europe as a refugee from Syria.  This has some American lawmakers to call for an end to admitting any more Syrian refugees, while the House of Representatives just voted for stricter screening requirements which would make it much tougher to admit them (among those voting in favor of the bill was Boulder’s own Rep. Jared Polis).

These lawmakers would argue that by banning or restricting Syrian refugees, the American public would be safer from the kind of attacks carried out in Paris – in which almost all of the victims were killed by firearms in various locations around the city, with 89 victims killed at the Bataclan theater alone.

However, this sentiment would seem to ignore the fact that over 1,200 Americans have already been killed in almost 1,000 mass shootings since the beginning of 2013 (where mass shooting is defined as four or more people shot in one incident).  And so far in 2015, there have been almost 300 mass shootings, including the recent shooting in Colorado Springs that left three dead.  While no individual mass shooting in the U.S. comes close to the numbers of lives lost in the Paris 11/13 attacks, the accumulation has given the U.S. a grim notoriety – leading the world in mass shootings.

It seems like Americans have more to fear from fellow Americans than Syrian refugees – who already face a very difficult path to gain asylum.

The following graph illustrates the huge disparity in gun death rates between the US and the rest of the world.


Credit: Humanosphere

Recently, former Governor of Maryland and current Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley visited the CU campus to talk gun violence; specifically, he called for tougher measures to stop mass shootings and touted his record as governor when he “signed some of the strictest gun control laws in the country.”  The measures he approved in Maryland included a ban on most semi-automatic rifles, reducing the size of magazines to 10 rounds, and a robust background check and fingerprinting system to track gun owners – measures he now says should be applied nationwide, as he explained to Under the Flatirons in October.

So far, Gov. O’Malley has been the only presidential candidate from either party to make gun control a priority in his platform, even though some experts consider gun violence to be a major public health concern.  In fact, Republican candidate Ben Carson made waves  when he recently said that “[n]o body with bullet holes is more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.

Much of the reluctance to take a strong stand on gun control may be due to the fact that gun rights advocates have a strong presence in battleground states like Colorado.  As the New York Times explains, “[g]un control advocates say politicians’ fear of the gun rights lobby is exaggerated, but even in swing states and some more liberal ones, that lobby has a reputation for punishing those who step out of line.”

No clearer example of that reputation can be found than when gun rights groups forced a recall election in 2013 and managed to oust two Democratic state senators after they voted in favor of gun laws  which restricted the size of magazines and required background checks for private sales, eliminating the so-called “gun show loophole.”

Despite these recent measures, Colorado is still a concealed-carry and open-carry state.  Citizens can apply for a concealed-carry permit which allows them to carry a holstered firearm hidden from view anywhere it is not expressly forbidden by law; CU’s concealed carry ban was recently struck down, meaning anyone with a permit can carry a concealed handgun on campus.  Open-carry does not require a permit, and it is legal to openly carry everywhere except the city and county of Denver.

Colorado’s hands-off approach to guns remains despite the fact that two of the nation’s most infamous mass shootings occurred here – the rampage at Columbine High School in 1999 that killed 13 and the 2012 massacre in the AMC theater in Aurora that killed 12.  In fact, mass shootings appear to embolden gun rights advocates, many of whom call for firearm bans to be lifted from schools and theaters arguing that law-abiding gun owners would prevent and deter mass shootings.  This fits with the gun rights lobby’s overarching theory that more guns will lead to less violent crime and decrease the risk of homicide.

However, years of research done by Harvard’s Injury Control Research Center has shown  that more guns actually raise the risk of homicide, both on the state and international levels, and FBI statistics have shown that for every criminal killed with a gun in self defense, 34 innocent people die.

The American perspective on guns is unique among developed nations, but so is the number of mass shootings.   The facts seem to show that the average American has more to fear from their fellow citizen than any Syrian refugee who may be granted asylum.

Even if the refugees are banned, mass shootings will continue to be a uniquely American experience.

Click the image below to be taken to an interactive history of mass shootings in America from 1949 to the present day – including stories, images, and video from each incident.

Banner image

Visualization by Deepan Dutta, Under the Flatirons.


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