The latest incident in America’s epidemic of gun violence — this time at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday — has left 19 children and two teachers dead. Last year alone, more than 1,500 children under 18 were killed by firearms. America’s gun scourge is not about mental illness. It is, and always has been, about the 400 million guns that remain largely unregulated on the streets and in our homes, some of which are then brought to our children’s schools.
Bloomberg Opinion’s Sarah Green Carmichael hosted a live Twitter Space to discuss US firearm policy with Francis Wilkinson, a Bloomberg columnist covering gun control. Aditi Nerurkar, a physician at Harvard Medical School, joined them for the latter half of the discussion. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Sarah Green Carmichael: This is a day for me as a parent and an American. I am absolutely devastated by the school shooting in Texas. These mass school shootings are such a uniquely American phenomenon. There have been 27 school shootings so far this year. I was a high school student when the Columbine shooting happened, and I’m now a 40-year-old middle-aged person. Why haven’t we been able to stop this from happening?
Francis Wilkinson: There are two reasons. One is culture and one is politics. We have a very powerful gun-centric movement in this country that both views guns almost as sacred objects and also toys — take Senator Ted Cruz, cooking bacon on the barrel of a semiautomatic rifle, or a 9-year-old using an Uzi at a shooting range with tragic results. Gun culture has enormous influence in our politics; if you look at the way states handle guns, you see wide divergences. The Supreme Court’s going to be ruling on a case involving gun possession that could really make it very difficult for even the blue states to regulate guns.
SGC: A lot of people keep getting hung up on the Second Amendment. Can you give us a brief sense of where you think the Supreme Court case is going legally? Last fall, when the case was heard at the court, you interviewed a really interesting legal scholar and historian, Patrick J. Charles, about the long history of gun regulation.
FW: My guess is that the court will do what most people expect, which is to expand the District of Columbia v. Heller ruling to the streets. In 2008, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a very closely divided 5-4 majority decision in which he harnessed some of the evidence for the Second Amendment as a personal right to own a gun and possess a gun in your home. (Former Chief Justice Warren Burger considered this interpretation to be one of the greatest frauds ever perpetrated on the American people, and many people agree with that sentiment.) Heller extended a right that had previously been understood as a militia right to an individual right. What the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association case seeks to do is extend that right into the streets where you can carry it in public and you cannot be prohibited from carrying it on your person.
What we’ve seen is conservatives have been using the courts to push an agenda that is not always popular. We see this with Roe v. Wade. It is another way of cementing power. There is an element of raw power to all of these gun decisions. They’re trying to use raw power to make blue states conform to red-state laws. They’re trying to use raw power to nationalize gun culture. I think at some point, if Americans want to reject that, they’re going to need to become much more politically active on gun issues than they have been.
Aditi Nerurkar: When I was a clinical physician, I saw many patients who were victims of gun violence. When people say that gun control isn’t a public-health issue, it enrages me and makes my blood boil because ultimately, the victims of gun violence end up in medical facilities where people like me care for them. Most Americans are in favor of tighter gun control, but there are a handful of very powerful people in government who have deep ties to the NRA and political affiliations and funding that are preventing it from happening.
SGC: There’s a horrible feeling of deja vu that we are just doing this over and over again. Parents are bereaved again. Politicians offer their empty thoughts and prayers. Again, someone stands up and says, Oh, it’s too soon to politicize this. We just seem stuck in this deadlock and I’m wondering if you really see any way to move forward at this point.
FW: Creating a sense of futility is part of the political game here. If you don’t want something to happen, you cultivate a sense of futility that nothing can be done about it. And we’ve seen that for a long time now. While that’s going on, the NRA and other parts of the gun movement in the US have been trying to sell as many guns as possible. But there is no question that things can be done because we’ve watched them be done over the last 10 or 15 years in a lot of blue states. We’ve seen California and Hawaii regulate guns and ammunition. We’ve seen states adopt “red flag” laws. And if you see the correlation between those states and states that are free-flowing gun states, you see a very different kind of death rate from firearms. So yes, there is something we can do, but it’s going to have to take a very concerted effort because as the gun culture has expanded and nationalized its agenda, it’s created an incredibly difficult fight. It’ll take a lot more political pressure from Americans who are not part of the gun culture.
SGC: Would banning semiautomatic weapons help curtail the problem? These mass shootings have really soared in the years since the assault weapons ban expired.
FW: There are tens and tens of millions of semiautomatic pistols in circulation, which are capable of firing off enough rounds in rapid succession to kill any number of children in a classroom. So my suspicion is that a ban on assault weapons would not completely end mass shootings. But obviously if you look at the mass shootings in the US, the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle is the rifle of choice. This is a huge problem in a country with perhaps 400 million guns. The question is: Where do you begin? We have not begun yet. I think for a lot of people it’s pretty rational to begin with the most deadly and arguably least justifiable weapon in the entire arsenal.
SGC: Unfortunately, it’s not just about this heartbreaking shooting yesterday, but also the shooting in Buffalo that occurred at a supermarket not even two weeks ago. Both shooters were able to buy the guns legally. It still blows my mind that a troubled 18-year-old could just walk into a store and walk out with one of these military-grade weapons.
FW: There are three ways to regulate guns:
- You regulate the type of gun.
- You regulate where you can have a gun.
- You regulate who can have a gun.
The reality is in America, basically any mentally or emotionally troubled person can walk into a gun shop and buy a gun. People who have made extremely disturbing comments to other students or to family members are able to buy a gun. I remember a case a few years ago where a schizophrenic woman was suicidal. Her mother called the local gun shop and said, Please do not sell her a gun. The schizophrenic woman went in, bought a gun legally, and came home and used that gun to shoot her father in a paranoid episode.
There’s been a big movement in this country recently in some states to enact red-flag laws. And they have worked in instances where people who have been troubled have sought to buy a gun, but they were on a list and they were prevented. This is a very, very small number of people, though, at this point, and a lot of states do not have red-flag laws.
SGC: In just a couple of days, the NRA is going to be holding a big meeting in Texas. How do you expect it to unfold?
FW: The NRA is going to do what the NRA does best: foment fear. That’s what sells guns, as we saw with Covid, right? In the early days of the virus, we saw people in upstate New York in line waiting to get a gun. There’s a kind of primal mechanism to it — you’re not going to stop a pandemic with a firearm, but a lot of people went out and bought them just because social insecurity prompts these sorts of feelings. If you go back and look at Wayne LaPierre’s speeches over the years, he’s talking about the most outlandish breakdown of society. The NRA’s position is that government isn’t capable of keeping you safe. Nothing can help you. Everyone is against you. The world hates you. You better have an arsenal in your home or else you’re going to die. That sounds like absolute hyperbole coming from me. But it’s basically the message that the NRA has delivered over and over. So in Texas, they’re going to go through the same ritualistic machinations that they go through every year at these things. They’ll talk about how nothing’s going to save you but a gun. The police aren’t going to get there in time. You’re on your own; government is broken. The only friend you’ve got, the only thing you can rely on, is a gun. And that gets at the sense of futility that we were discussing earlier. Of course, if you look at the statistics, owning a gun is more likely to lead to gun violence in your own home than not owning a gun.
SGC: There are technological ways to make guns safer. We have handprint technology. We have safe-storage laws and practices. Why does the NRA oppose even these restrictions that exist as much to protect gun owners as other people?
FW: Protecting gun owners is not actually what the gun industry and the NRA are concerned with. What they’re concerned with is selling guns. Massacres, unfortunately, help sell guns. Chaos helps sell guns. Fear helps sell guns. None of those three things are aided by safe-storage laws. So you can’t really expect the gun industry to be terribly interested in doing things that are going to reduce fear and enhance rationality. We constantly see cases of children being shot or shooting when they get their hands on a firearm that their mother or father has left carelessly somewhere. But again, fear and chaos breed gun sales, and it’s a very cynical business.
SGC: Just weeks ago, the New England Journal of Medicine showed that guns are now the leading cause of death among children and adolescents. That is ahead of traffic crashes, drug overdoses, drowning and of course ahead of Covid-19. There are many things parents worry about, and yet guns are the biggest cause of death.
FW: Part of that is also suicides, which is a big part of gun violence. The majority of gun killings in the United States are suicide.
SGC: The Harvard School of Public Health reported that more people kill themselves with a firearm than are murdered by one; 85% of people who attempt suicide with a gun succeed compared to just 3% of people who attempt suicide via drug overdose, and suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the US. Why don’t we focus more on suicides and why do we focus so much on homicides when it comes to guns?
AN: One thing that I would really like to do is decouple the idea of mental health and guns. The US does not have a higher rate of mental illness compared to other countries, but we do have a higher rate of gun violence. And often those who have mental-health issues are not taking a gun and shooting others. Instead, they inflict self-harm.
One of the excuses people often say when they’re talking about guns is “Oh, it was just a person who was mentally ill.” That vicious cycle just continues to repeat. Often mental illness is the scapegoat, but gun control is a public-health issue. And we need to really reframe the conversation on a national level, because we are the only industrialized nation with 288 school shootings since 2009.
SGC: Frank, you recently spoke to a father in Philadelphia who said that it was easier for teenagers to get guns than to buy cigarettes. And cigarettes and Big Tobacco have obviously been subjected to plenty of lawsuits. Might there be a model here that could let us have some creative ways of solving this problem?
AN: It’s incredible just how many similarities there are historically between the NRA and Big Tobacco. Many of the health risks of cigarettes were hidden and covered up by Big Tobacco. It was only very recently in my lifetime that cigarettes became a public-health issue. The surgeon general’s warning on boxes of cigarettes, changing the age, showing ID — there are so many tighter measures now, and all this was fueled by the American people. In many ways, guns are the cigarettes of 2022. We won against a lobby because of the American people’s will to fight and change things. We need to do the same with the NRA with gun control, because in many ways the American people — like with cigarettes back in the 1980s — are against guns and gun violence and want stricter control.
SGC: I am always struggling on these days to focus on anything but shootings like this. I’m bizarrely grateful to have my job as a distraction. If I had to do something that wasn’t related to this topic today, I don’t know how I would be able to focus on it.
AN: In moments like these, our mental health, both individually and collectively, is incredibly important. Many of us haven’t even fully grieved the Buffalo shooting, and now this happens. It’s smart to manage our social media use and our news feeds and all of the things that we do online. As someone who works in public health, I urge everyone to take care of your mental health during this time. Reach out to loved ones you know. Hug your kids if you have them. If you’re a parent, just take care of yourselves, because it is a really difficult and emotional time. I can only imagine the parents of those children. —Bloomberg