December 14, 2018

We All Care About Gun Violence, But There’s No Easy Solution

The video was heartbreaking.

A father, Jason Coffman, spoke before the cameras of his 22-year-old son, Cody, who had just been murdered in yet another mass shooting, this time in Thousand Oaks. “I am speechless and heartbroken,” he said through tears. “I cannot believe that it’s happened to my family. I just want him to know that he is going to be missed.”

They will all be missed: In Pittsburgh, where 11 people died in the hail of bullets in a shul; In Florida, where 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School; In Texas, where 10 people were killed at Santa Fe High School; and at other schools and public places too numerous to list here. Mass shootings have become so common that one of the victims in Thousand Oaks, Telemachus Orfanos, had survived a previous mass shooting — at the country music festival in Las Vegas last year in which 58 people were murdered.

Mass shootings can happen anywhere. Mass shootings,  unfortunately, are unstoppable.

Thousand Oaks is listed as the third-safest city in the United States by Niche, a service that ranks livability of communities across the country. California is the most heavily gun-controlled state in the country, too, with laws including “may issue” statutes that enable authorities to summarily reject concealed-carry permits, ammunition purchased through a federally licensed firearms dealer, 10-round limitations on magazine size, and a 10-day waiting period for firearm purchases, among other limitations. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence says California has the nation’s toughest gun laws.

Yet California has also seen, in the past five years alone, mass shootings in San Bernardino (14 dead), Rancho Tehama Reserve (five dead), Isla Vista (six dead) and Santa Monica (five dead).

The problem of mass shootings isn’t limited to California, of course. It isn’t even limited to the United States. A study of mass shootings across the world from 2009 to 2015 shows that on a population-adjusted basis, Norway experienced the world’s highest mass shooting death rate (the Anders Breivik massacre of 2011 ended with 77 dead), followed by Serbia, France, Macedonia, Albania, Slovakia, Finland, Belgium and the Czech Republic. The United States, by this metric, ranked 11th globally. 

“California is the most heavily gun-controlled state in the country.”

We’ve heard from many of those on the political left that “thoughts and prayers” aren’t enough in the wake of mass shootings. But neither is emoting that “something must be done” without actually attempting to determine the correlation between proposed legislation and possible outcome. Banning sales of AR-15s might sound good in theory but the weapon used in the Thousand Oaks mass shooting was a handgun. Requiring universal background checks wouldn’t have stopped the Thousand Oaks shooter, either — California already has them. 

But isn’t doing something better than doing nothing? It depends on the “something.” Mass shootings have been prevented or minimized by good citizens with guns, too: A former NRA instructor used his own AR-15 to shoot the perpetrator in the Sutherland Springs church shooting in Texas in 2017. And law enforcement’s use of guns is usually the key factor in ending mass shootings once they start.

Perhaps it’s too narrow to talk about mass shootings in the context of gun violence. While mass shootings provide political flashpoints, the truth is that mass shootings are a tremendous statistical outlier. School shootings in the United States have actually been in steady decline since the 1990s. Perhaps we truly ought to talk about minimizing gun violence more broadly through gun control policies.

The problem here is that there is no obvious correlation between severity of gun laws and overall murder rates. If we truly care about people dying, we should worry less about method of murder than number of murders — and by that metric, states that heavily regulate gun ownership are no better than states that don’t. As professor Eugene Volokh of the UCLA School of Law has written, “states with more gun restrictions on average have very slightly higher homicide rates, though the tendency is so small as to be essentially zero.” And as for the idea of gun buybacks and bans, as statistician Leah Libresco wrote last year in The Washington Post, neither the United Kingdom nor Australia “experienced drops in mass shootings or other gun-related crime that could be attributed to their buybacks and bans.” In fact, the United States has approximately 400 million outstanding weapons in public hands — and the murder rate has dropped precipitously since the 1990s. 

All of this suggests that there is no silver-bullet gun control solution to stopping mass shootings or homicide more broadly. That’s because there isn’t. 

Now, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do to mitigate risks at the margins, both with gun control measures and with other measures, too. On the gun control side, we should start by enforcing existing laws: Too many shooters have fallen through the cracks thanks to flaws in state reporting systems or failures by individuals to take lawful measures to prevent dangerous individuals from accessing firearms. David French of National Review also has suggested gun violence restraining orders: statutes aimed at allowing spouses, siblings, parents or a person living with a potentially threatening person to petition a court for an order to temporarily remove Second Amendment rights from that person. That law is already on the books in California — obviously, it didn’t stop what happened in Thousand Oaks, even though the police were called to the home of the gunman’s mother back in April.

“We must acknowledge that heated rhetoric has a tendency to raise the general temperature —  and that a boiling pot spills over the edges more than a lukewarm one.”

We also have to harden existing vulnerable targets. Synagogues across America have been doing this for years — and it does, in fact, help minimize risk. In 1999, a white supremacist mass shooter scoped out the Simon Wiesenthal Center on Pico Boulevard and Roxbury Drive as a shooting target; he was dissuaded from attacking because of the presence of guards. Instead, he drove to the unprotected West Valley Jewish Community Center. Shooters tend to choose targets where they believe they will be most successful in wreaking havoc. The Thousand Oaks bar was a gun-free zone — until a shooter invaded the premises armed with a gun. 

On the media side, we must stop giving outsized attention to shooters, who revel in precisely that attention. At the site I run, Daily Wire, we stopped doing so earlier this year, citing social science studies that found that “media contagion” could make mass shootings more common by catering to potential shooters’ desire for fame. Malcolm Gladwell has posited a slow-motion “riot” of mass shootings in which “young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.” As a society, we’ve decided that it’s more important to home in on mass shootings than to downplay shooters, hoping that our attention will focus the minds of our political opponents. It isn’t working.

“We should start by enforcing existing laws: Too many shooters have fallen through the cracks thanks to flaws in state reporting systems.”

When it comes to social policy, we must emphasize the presence of fathers in the home, too. Of the 27 deadliest mass shooters in American history, just one was raised with a biological father in the home since childhood. Violent crime has been consistently linked to family instability in every country in which such measures have been available.

We should also de-escalate the rhetoric on matters both political and moral. Not all mass shootings are politically driven — they’re often driven by the mental illness of a disturbed individual. And while we cannot blame politicians for radicals taking their words to the level of violence without their intent or consent, we must acknowledge that heated rhetoric has a tendency to raise the general temperature — and that a boiling pot spills over the edges more than a lukewarm one. Responsible rhetoric would be a welcome change from our current rage. (I plead guilty in this respect, and I have tried to work to change how I address issues on precisely this basis.)

In the end, though, no set of policies can completely insulate us from tragedies. The only thing we can do is attempt to build a social fabric together: a place in which we trust our neighbors, in which we are aware of rising threats, in which we rely on one another in times of grief but build with one another in times of strength. If we tear one another apart over tragedy — if we suggest that our political opponents don’t care enough about those who die in acts of evil — we become complicit in fraying precisely the social fabric so necessary to the preservation of both a free and safe society.


Ben Shapiro is editor-in-chief at Daily Wire, host of the podcast “The Ben Shapiro Show” and author of The New York Times best-seller “Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear Silences Americans.”