The aftermath of each high-profile shooting plays out the same. One side says it’s the result of a culture engorged and enamored with guns, while the other blames, well, almost anything else — terrorism, mental illness, race, poverty, a weak and divisive president. Predictably, nothing changes.

Because of how wrapped up it is in personal and political identity, the cause and effect of gun violence is parsed like no other issue, and it is paralyzing. Most people understand it is a complex interplay of factors that gives the United States an almost unprecedented number of firearm deaths each year, yet when a high-profile shooting hijacks the country’s attention, people almost instantly, reflexively run to one side or the other.

Few other issues are like this. After the number of car crash deaths peaked in the late 1960s, a series of measures were put in place to make it safer to be on the road. Yet when a safety belt fails to save a life in a single accident, we don’t say the laws are useless. When a person is ejected from a vehicle, we don’t say, “See, what good are airbags?”

Each shooting, however, becomes a referendum on a specific factor related to gun violence.

If the killer in a mass shooting pledges allegiance to ISIS, the sole problem must be terrorism, never mind any other personal problems and prejudices exhibited by the shooter, or the ease in which they acquired firearms meant to kill multiple targets.

If the weapon of choice among mass killers is an assault rifle, then the problem must be the proliferation of military-style firearms, never mind that the vast majority of firearm-related homicides involve handguns.


The reason this happens has almost nothing to do with mass shootings themselves.

Proponents of gun control, justifiably upset at the daily toll of gun violence in the U.S., want to capitalize on the outsized attention mass shootings receive, and leverage it into action.

However, when gun laws are only part of the equation, opponents are happy to point that out, and use it to obstruct even the most sensible of measures.

And besides the deadly use of guns, the mass shootings that grab headlines have little in common with the unremarkable everyday violence that constitutes most homicides by firearm.

The very real need for sensible gun control, and for a public health approach to gun safety, does not hinge on shootings like those in Orlando and San Bernardino.

Instead, action should come in response to the daily killings in places like Chicago and Baltimore, or to the abused women killed disproportionately by guns, or to the children who are victims of so many accidental shootings.

Stopping the rare madman is one thing. Ending systemic, entrenched violence is quite another. The debate should reflect that.

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