On Valentine’s Day, in Parkland, Florida the unthinkable happened. Two weeks later, we’re now seeing something long thought impossible: genuine cracks in the right’s opposition to gun reform.
Survivors of the gun massacre at Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School, which took 17 lives, have used social media and protests outside the White House and elsewhere to keep the public’s attention focused on the need for new restrictions on access to firearms.
Over the last week, three influential Florida Republicans—U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, Gov. Rick Scott, and Rep. Brian Mast—have all supported new regulations on guns ranging from increasing the minimum age to purchase a rifle to 21, banning bump stocks, and an outright ban on high-capacity magazines. At least 10 major U.S. businesses, including Hertz, Avis, Delta Airlines, United Airlines, and the First National Bank of Omaha, have ended their marketing agreements with the National Rifle Association and no longer offer discounts and special deals to member of the organization. After Parkland, seven in 10 Americans now support stricter gun regulations, which has led to the highest levels of public support for gun reform in recent years.
Despite years of advocacy for gun control, including protests and social media activism by Black teens, none of these developments would have been seen as likely events on February 13. But the debate has clearly shifted.
What we need now is for those who’ve long stood in the way of reform to allow the country begin to address what is, in every sense of the phrase, a public health crisis.
Mass shootings grab the public’s attention. But they represent a fraction of the problem. In 2017, there were 316 such shootings—defined as four or more people being shot—which killed 398 people and injured another 1,685. That same year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that tracks U.S. shootings via reports from media and law enforcement, there were 61,527 shootings that killed 15,592 people and injured 31,186. When deaths by suicide involving firearms are included, the number of people who died by gun violence in 2017 rises to more than 37,000.
As with any public health crisis, the burden falls disproportionately on marginalized communities. Black people in the United States are eight times more likely to be killed by guns than white people, and people who are targeted for hate crimes are more likely to die when guns are involved. On a per capita basis, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people are more likely to be the targets of violence than other groups protected in federal hate crimes law, and more than half (47) of the 88 LGBT people who lost their lives due to anti-LGBT violence between 2012 and 2015 were shot to death. Meanwhile, people who are suicidal and have access to guns are much more likely to die than those who do not have access to guns. LGBT people are more likely to consider and attempt suicide.
While all of this is alarming, we actually have no idea of the true extent of this public health crisis because in 1996 Congress banned public funding for research into the causes of gun violence. A comprehensive agenda to reduce gun violence in the United States would begin by lifting that ban. Other elements would include:
Reinstatement of the Congressional ban on assault weapons, which ended in 2004
State and federal bans on the purchase of guns by those who have been convicted of domestic abuse or hate crimes or who are included on the TSA’s No Fly list
Background checks on those purchasing firearms at gun shows or online
Promotion of safer gun design and storage
There is broad consensus among policymakers and advocates around these ideas. We will accomplish more—and make our country safer—by focusing on them and ignoring the deeply cynical push to arm teachers or to blame law enforcement for this recent tragedy.
Sean Cahill is the Director of Health Policy Research for The Fenway Institute and co-author of the 2016 policy brief, “Gun Violence and LGBT Health.”