Ezra Klein recently noted that “only with gun violence do we respond to repeated tragedies by saying that mourning is acceptable but discussing how to prevent more tragedies is not. … [T]alking about how to stop mass shootings in the aftermath of a string of mass shootings isn’t ‘too soon.’ It’s much too late.”
If the recent horror in Connecticut will at last lead to substantial conversation, debate, and action on gun violence in the United States, we’ll need more than emotional anecdotes and constitutional arguments. We need data.
We’ll need something more as well: a fearless assessment of the cultural climate in the United States that not only breeds but also glorifies violence.
Here are some initial thoughts concerning both, and please join me in collecting the resources we need to mobilize our shock and grief into action.
“Assault weapons” are difficult to classify yet generally refer to any weapon that has or appears to have the features of a fully- or semi-automatic firearm (the former fires repeated rounds with one pull of the trigger; the latter fires a round with each pull of the trigger without the need to re-load).
Fully-automatic weapons have been regulated since 1934 (The National Firearms Act). Legislation enacted in 1994 regulated “assault weapons” (the broader term that includes a wide variety of semi-automatic firearms and those that appear to be so). But this legislation had a “sunset feature” and lapsed without renewal in September 2004.
Does regulatory legislation make a difference in curbing gun violence? Data-collecting agencies and other organizations are split on this question. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, has concluded that there is insufficient evidence to claim that such legislation is effective.
This question is so difficult to address, in part, because “correlation” does not necessarily mean “causation.” Just because, in other words, a reduction in gun violence correlates to the passage of legislation does not necessarily mean that the legislation caused the reduction. That said, correlation is not irrelevant.
Consider, for example, that starting with the Columbine incident, there were five mass killings between 1999 and 2004, when the assault weapons ban expired. Since then, there have been twenty-six mass killings over the last eight years. Consider as well that in all of the mass killings over the last thirty years, 75% of the weapons used were obtained legally.
If these correlations will have any traction in the national conversation we must now surely have, then we will need to do some serious soul-searching.
“Soul Sickness”: The Cultural Climate
Assessing the cultural climate is even more difficult than mapping gun violence data. A host of factors will need to contribute to this long overdue and challenging national conversation, including issues of race, class, drug addiction, mental health, and also media and pop culture images.
Given yesterday’s horrific specter of children as victims, one place we might begin assessing our cultural climate is with toys, especially in the midst of this Christmas-shopping season. The effects of violent computer games and television shows on children involve the same “correlation versus causation” problem noted above, yet surely this topic belongs to any conversation we need to have about a culture saturated with violent images.
Note, for example, that the now-lapsed assault weapons ban defined those weapons as having particular features, including: a folding or telescoping stock; a bayonet mount; a magazine that attaches outside the pistol grip; and a grenade launcher (among others).
Why those features matter becomes shockingly clear by doing a simple Google search for “children’s toy guns.” (The image posted here is just one of dozens when I did that search myself.)
In a society where there are nearly ten times as many gun stores as there are McDonald’s restaurants and children’s toys mimic assault weapons, we are long past the time for a serious conversation about gun control in a culture of violence. Let us prepare well for that conversation by collecting the data we need and fostering the courage it will require to examine the deep sources of our discontent.
Let us also pray. As God’s peculiar people, prayer matters. And in this season, let us pray ever more fervently for peace…and the will to act.