Not even two weeks have passed since nine people were murdered in a mass shooting on the campus of Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. Yet two more universities already have earned the same dubious distinction as Umpqua Community College: places of higher learning where fatal shootings have taken place. Some 149 shootings — fatal or not — have taken place on school campuses since the start of 2013.
And this is far from the full picture of gun violence in the U.S.
Gun violence is an undeniable public health problem that the U.S. is not addressing. In 2013, guns accounted for nearly as many U.S. deaths (more than 60 percent of them suicides) as motor vehicle traffic: 33,636 vs. 33,804, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This year, some have projected that gun deaths will outnumber automobile-related deaths.
On one hand, that’s a triumph for the approach policymakers and automobile manufacturers have taken over the years to boosting car safety and cutting down on reckless driving — everything from requiring a license to seat belt laws to air bags to driver education. The result has been a consistent drop in the death rate from motor vehicle injuries. In 1970, according to the CDC, there were 27.6 motor vehicle-related deaths for every 100,000 people. By 2000, the rate had dropped to 15.4. By 2013, the rate had continued to drop, reaching 10.9 motor vehicle-related deaths for every 100,000 population — less than half the rate in 1970.
But it’s far from a triumph on the gun safety side of the equation. In 1970, there were 14.3 deaths by firearm for every 100,000 population, according to CDC data; in 2000, the rate was 10.2. By 2013, it had inched back up to 10.4.
Although cars and guns both pose tremendous threats to our public health, the public response to the two couldn’t be more different. The substantial progress in reducing automobile deaths hasn’t led policymakers and automobile manufacturers to declare victory and stop work on automobile and traffic safety initiatives. Engineers continue to work on new safety features, and policymakers contemplate and pass hundreds of new safety requirements each year.
With guns, policymakers are more likely to pass legislation that expands access to weapons and makes it easier for people to carry firearms in public. Even a mass shooting of schoolchildren can’t mobilize enough policymakers to act, although an overwhelming majority of the public — including gun owners — supports basic gun safety measures such as background checks for all gun purchases.
Gun manufacturers that have worked on developing “smart guns” and gun dealers that have stocked them have encountered backlash from the National Rifle Association and gun rights advocates that has forced them to relent or risk going out of business.
And when mass shootings happen, many in elected office try to shift the focus away from guns and claim that mental illness bears more of the blame. Research flatly contradicts that claim, however. A comprehensive 2014 study by researchers at Vanderbilt University identified four factors that do predict gun violence: drug and alcohol use, a personal history of violence, stress in personal relationships and, notably, access to firearms. The focus on mental illness — rather than access to guns, a proven risk factor — unfairly stigmatizes and blames a segment of society whose members are much more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.
One factor that inhibits a more reasoned reaction to gun violence is a shortage of high-quality research into gun violence, its causes and the effectiveness of measures that aim to prevent it. That’s yet another example of the power of the NRA and gun rights advocates: Despite a presidential directive, the U.S. CDC says it lacks funds to devote to research into the public health scourge that is gun violence, and the agency has barely touched the subject since the mid-1990s, when the NRA accused it of being pro-gun control and Congress threatened to strip its funding because of it.
The U.S. desperately needs a more reasoned debate about gun violence that doesn’t ignore common sense and that has nothing to do with stripping a person’s constitutional rights. The CDC can help by acting on its own to devote funds to gun violence research.