After thousands of senseless deaths. After all the pained pleas from surviving family members. After witnessing those pleas blotted out by the grandstanding of our elected officials. After it all, we haven’t come close to addressing mass shootings, the scourge of our era, in a way that comes even close to a solution.
You know the sequence of events like you know your morning breakfast routine. The news pops up on your social media feed, or it spasms across the TV screen, or a websurfing co-worker intones coolly from the adjoining cubicle: Another one. School shooting in Texas. Mall massacre in Indiana. A quickening of the pulse. A tightening of the chest. Again? Again.
Flip through cable channels, back and forth, between your preferred partisan news source and the preferred partisan news source of those other Americans, and the gang’s all there, again — the bulbous heads with the klieglight shine, the expertly coifed hair, all reciting the familiar talking points, each side speaking past each other, resulting in precisely nothing, because no one is drawing from the same facts to begin with.
But what if we were? What if we could agree on a shared set of facts, however small that shared set was? What if we really tried to hear each other? Could a real dialogue finally begin? These were the questions we asked as we began putting together the following pages. Focusing on nine topics that arise in the wake of every mass shooting, we scoured the nation for voices — experts and concerned Americans from both flanks of the debate — willing to speak honestly, without judgment, about subjects many of us tune out unless we agree with the source.
Think of this as a colloquium, a symposium where disparate voices from around the country — and all over the gun violence dilemma — have improbably gathered. Think of this as the beginning of a conversation long overdue.
What we talk about when we talk about guns
Contrary to popular progressive belief, the A and R in AR-15 does not stand for “assault rifle.” While some find this linguistic gaffe laughable, it points to something deeper: When it comes to guns, the two sides seem to be speaking entirely different languages, impairing our ability, as a country, to make progress in the quest to curb mass shootings. (AR, by the way, stands for ArmaLite, after the company that developed the AR-15.)
The left’s lack of both technical know-how and a broader understanding of gun culture manifests in many ways, including legislation proposals, says Amy Swearer, a legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “The way they talk about firearms it’s like they don’t understand what they’re banning,” says Swearer. “What they’re banning isn’t the caliber or anything related to fire. They’re banning pistol grips” — an additional handle mounted toward the back of the weapon that allows users greater control, better aim and more efficient firing. “Even if you take them away, that bullet will cause the same amount of damage.”
Ditto for bills that suggest getting rid of concealed carrying permits, adds Swearer, maintaining that anyone who jumps through the hoops of getting such a license — and there are many hoops — is more law-abiding than the general population, not less so. Mass shootings aren’t committed by people with concealed carry licenses, she says.
Beyond misunderstanding the technical aspects of firearms, gun control advocates also often misunderstand the motivations of gun owners, says Cam Edwards, former host of the NRA radio show “Cam & Co.” “They get gun owners wrong,” he says, “and they get gun ownership wrong.”
But as ownership broadens and more and more progressives arm themselves — and anecdotal evidence from gun dealers and experts suggests they are — that could change.
For sociologist Andrew Whitehead, author of “Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States,” the gulf between gun control advocates and gun rights groups snapped into focus in 2018 when, the week following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, National Rifle Association head Wayne LaPierre spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference and argued that the answer to gun violence is more guns. As he listened closely to LaPierre’s language, Whitehead noticed a link between Christian nationalism and opposition to gun control.
Since then, Whitehead has noticed that the NRA and other gun rights groups increasingly frame the Second Amendment as being divinely inspired, powerful language for Americans who might identify as Christian.
“It becomes not just a public policy issue,” says Whitehead, “but an identity issue: ‘Who am I? Who are we and what does this say about us?’”
But the demographics of gun ownership are changing — skewing slightly more left, more minority and more female. And, according to Swearer, it could be that as firearms cross race, ethnic and “political divides the more you’ll see people understand” one another’s language.
— By Mya Jaradat
How gun advocates propose to stop mass shootings
Gun violence is not about guns. As much as that sentence would seem to crumple under its own logic, that’s exactly what the most ardent gun rights activists maintain. Ask a strong Second Amendment advocate how to curtail one of the greatest scourges of the modern era, and answers range from arming teachers to mental health.
For Jim Wallace, executive director of Gun Owners Action League in Massachusetts, it’s the latter. “We cannot address mass shootings without addressing mental health. If you look at the bulk of (mass shootings), they are committed by people with severe mental illness that go untreated.” Likewise for Zachary Fort, president of the New Mexico Shooting Sports Association. “We need to get people help,” Fort says, “before they spiral into acting out in such a psychotic way.”
Others advocate balkanizing so-called soft targets, such as schools. Kevin Jamison, president of both the Western Missouri Shooters Alliance and Missouri’s Sport Shooting Association, proposes arming teachers or putting gun safes bolted to their desk or closet, to deter potential school shooters.
Kenny Lankford, president of the Wyoming State Shooting Association, proposes taking that a step further: turning students themselves into conscientious gun owners and skilled marksmen. “We are currently working on getting firearm education back into school physical education programs,” Lankford says, “supporting safe youth shooting programs, firearm competitions and lawful firearm ownership.”
These ideas have their detractors and potential pitfalls. Militarizing teachers and turning schools into harder targets, for instance, doesn’t acknowledge that more weapons often escalate, rather than deescalate, potentially violent scenarios. “The solution to gun violence is not more guns, but less,” American Civil Liberties Union deputy legal director Louise Melling has said. And advocating for increased mental health care doesn’t mean much without passable legislation — and the politicians naysaying gun control are rarely the same politicians caucusing in favor of increased access to health care. Not to mention the stigmatizing effects of always equating gun violence with mental health: “The notion that mental illness causes gun violence stereotypes a vast and diverse population of persons diagnosed with psychiatric conditions and oversimplifies links between violence and mental illness,” Jonathan M. Metzl and Kenneth T. MacLeish wrote in American Journal of Public Health.
Mass shootings are not a partisan issue. Lives lost to gun violence is not political. The solutions won’t be simple. On that, both sides seem to agree, including those who propose we stop focusing on the gun part of the gun violence epidemic. “There is not one easy thing you can do,” says Wallace, “to fix the situation.”
— By Genevieve Vahl
The presence of a firearm, no matter its intended purpose, statistically raises the likelihood of violence.
Why the Second Amendment is so important to conservatives
It’s a foundation of gun culture. The text firearm enthusiasts turn to like scripture. The thing they say that progressives will just never understand. The Second Amendment, or lately, simply, 2A, is never far from the minds of conservatives defending the freedom to carry.
“It comes down to the inalienable right of self-defense,” says Amy Swearer, of the Heritage Foundation. Conservatives don’t consider Swearer an expert on Second Amendment issues but the expert. “The best way, the most practical way, of carrying out the right to self-defense,” she says, “is to be armed.”
Likening the Second Amendment to “break in case of emergency glass,” Cam Edwards, editor of bearingarms.com and the former host of a NRA News Radio show, says many conservatives consider the right to bear arms as the last line in the system of checks and balances — not to overthrow the government, but to protect it.
The Second Amendment wasn’t always central to conservative ideology. It’s only within the past 40 years that it’s become increasingly important, in large part due to a concerted effort by the NRA, says Robert Spitzer, author of six books about American gun policy. “Anything that is in the Constitution has special meaning to Americans,” says Spitzer, but “the political right has succeeded in making the Second Amendment something it wasn’t designed to be.”
Historically, the understanding of the Second Amendment was that it was intended to allow state militias to arm themselves. This interpretation held sway from the 1800s to the 1960s, “and then you started to see one or two (articles in law journals) saying it’s about personal rights,” says Spitzer.
Now, saying that one supports the Second Amendment is a way of invoking that one is supportive of a slew of conservative ideas. “Gun rights articulate so nicely that whole package of conservative, new right political beliefs and policy proposals,” says David Yamane, a sociologist at Wake Forest University who is both a gun owner and gun culture expert.
Mass shootings bolster conservatives’ support for an individualistic interpretation of the 231-year-old addendum to the constitution, says Spitzer, reinforcing the notion that they need to be individually armed and ready should a shooting take place, as Swearer’s interpretation suggests.
“The Second Amendment is about … individual self-defense against criminals,” she says, “and about collective self-defense as communities or a nation against tyrants and invading armies. It’s not divinely inspired.
It’s about a natural inalienable right … that transcends religion. It’s innately human.”
— By Mya Jaradat
What would an assault rifle ban really look like?
After every mass shooting, a similar refrain issues from gun control advocates. Stop the guns and you stop the massacres. But is this call to nix arms practical? How, exactly, would it work? Sure, it’s been done in other countries. After a 1996 shooting in Australia claimed 35 lives, more than one million guns were bought back and smelted. The same year, the U.K. successfully implemented a handgun ban. In 2019, New Zealand banned assault weapons and high-capacity magazines after a gunman killed 51 people in two mosques. But those are countries with different histories and cultures. Countries where firearms aren’t de facto totems of individual liberty. Countries that, let’s face it, don’t have so many guns that they’ve lost count.
In the U.S. no one knows exactly how many weapons are out there circulating, says Josh Horwitz, of the Center for Gun Violence Solutions. The best estimates place the number at nearly 400 million. In other words, there are more guns in America than people.
And between the massive black market and poor regulations on the transfer of guns, authorities don’t even know who owns that unknown quantity, says Yamane. There’s no federal gun registry, just a few state registries, including in California, which, notes Yamane, “doesn’t allow private sales of firearms.” That “doesn’t mean California knows everyone who owns a firearm down to the last gun,” he says, and there would be no process for authorities to collect the guns of convicted felons — a group that isn’t supposed to have firearms in the first place.
Tim Moore, a 35-year-old gun owner who lives in the town of Lake Placid, Florida, says at any given point in the day, he is not more than six feet away from a firearm. He scoffs at the idea of a ban, not based on the morality of it — Moore, like most gun owners, does believe there should be some restrictions on firearms — but because of the logistics.
“Let’s say 20 percent do a buy back. How are you going to get the rest?” Moore says, pointing to the vastness of the country and the fact that we don’t know which homes hold guns and which don’t. And even if the government cuts off the flow by stopping sales of new weapons, Moore asks, are the nearly 400 million weapons that are already circulating simply “going to wither away?”
— By Mya Jaradat
Do good guys with guns really stop bad guys with guns?
When a 22-year-old used a handgun to kill an Indiana mall shooter in July 2022, pro-gun outlets touted his heroism as yet another example of a “good guy with a gun” — a frequently proposed solution to mass shootings. As Coby Garcia noted shortly afterward in the Harvard Political Review, “There are numerous examples in which armed civilians have engaged with active shooters and neutralized the situation.” But how much do we really know? Is carrying a weapon more likely to protect? Or more likely to escalate the situation and increase casualties?
An oft-cited survey by criminology researcher Gary Kleck found that Americans use guns defensively about 2.5 million times per year — some five times more than guns are used in crimes annually. (Though, estimates vary — often considerably — from 2,000 to 100,000 or more.) “There are a lot of Americans who own guns for self-protection, but … a surprisingly large number of them have actually used guns for self-protection,” Kleck says.
Harvard’s David Hemenway, a longtime Kleck adversary, has criticized Kleck’s methodology, saying it’s impossible to answer the “good guy with a gun” question by extrapolating survey results. Hemenway instead points to a 2020 Stanford study that found men who owned handguns were eight times more likely to die of self-inflicted gunshots; or a landmark 1993 study that found owning a gun nearly tripled the odds of homicide by a close contact. Hemenway’s point: The presence of a firearm, no matter its intended purpose, statistically raises the likelihood of violence.
But “human beings often don’t make these kinds of decisions based on rational-choice economics,” explains Joseph Pierre, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral science at UCLA. “Gun ownership has a lot to do with how guns make us feel.” So even if owning a gun increases the risk of an accidental shooting or suicide, our brains often dismiss that elevated risk based on the possibility of preventing harm — even if that possibility is unlikely. “For gun owners,” Pierre says, “the actual odds of (defensive gun use) aren’t all that meaningful when they’re juxtaposed with the (faulty) perception that the odds” are in the gun owner’s favor.
— By Ethan Bauer
In the U.S. no one knows exactly how many weapons are out there. The best estimates place the number at nearly 400 million. In other words, there are more guns in America than people.
What it’s like to survive a mass shooting
Melissa Williams heard the storm of bullets first. They pinged off metal gates near the stage during the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas. “Nobody really knew where to run,” she remembers of that October 1, 2017, evening. Bodies dropped. People were trampled.
Lisa Fine-Cavalli, another festival attendee, remembers the initial denial. “It’s just fireworks,” people had said. Fine-Cavalli came from Sacramento. Williams from Southern California. Both were especially excited to see their favorite country artist, Jason Aldean — who happened to be on stage when the barrage began.
Fine-Cavalli knew those bursts weren’t fireworks. She took cover under bleachers as the worst shooting in U.S. history began, unfolding like a sadistic game of red-light green-light: People waited for the pop-pop-pop to cease so they could run, only to drop again when the shooting resumed. The air vibrated as bullets whizzed past her head. “I just kept thinking,” Fine-Cavalli says, “that we were probably all going to die.”
Williams and Fine-Cavalli escaped the bullets but not the burden of survival. The effects have lingered since that fateful night when a mysterious gunman slaughtered 58 and injured more than 500, unleashing a tsunami of consequences for survivors and for America.
Psychotherapist Harper West has seen it before. A school shooting gripped her suburban Detroit community the same year as the Las Vegas shooting. The first therapy appointments were with the survivors, carrying guilt. “Why didn’t I get shot?” they wondered. Next came the trauma-adjacent; people who didn’t experience the rampage themselves, but who were still feeling its shockwave.
University of California, Irvine’s Roxane Cohen Silver studies “collective trauma” — events that can impact a broader group than those directly affected, like the Las Vegas shooting. “Traditional media, as well as social media, can broadcast the tragedy instantaneously beyond the directly impacted communities,” she explains. “It can shape our threat perceptions,” adds University of California, Santa Barbara’s Erika Felix, “which can increase our anxiety.” The American Psychological Association confirmed as much in a 2019 survey, which found almost 80 percent of Americans fear mass shootings, with children particularly stressed.
Williams still can’t fully process what she witnessed in Las Vegas; she also can’t escape it. “You find yourself looking at pictures, or at documentaries,” she says, “just trying to believe that you were actually there.”
Fine-Cavalli couldn’t sleep for three months. She still has recurring nightmares. “It just alters your existence completely,” she says. “I don’t trust people like I used to. I’m more edgy. I’m more quick to anger — or to be emotional.” She’s also still stricken with disbelief.
Even now, after five trying years, she often recalls escaping the hail of bullets only to come across a truck piled with bloody, mangled bodies. “This can’t be real,” she told herself then. She walked, then ran, then walked toward her hotel, passing people along the Strip, waving yardlong margaritas, taking selfies with gambling winnings, still unaware of the carnage. “How,” Fine-Cavalli asked herself, “can these people not know?”
— By Ethan Bauer
What AR-15s do to children’s bodies
Mass shooters have made AR-15-style semi-automatic rifles their weapons of choice, at least in high-profile events like Sandy Hook, Parkland and Uvalde. They do so for the same reasons that some champion AR-15s as the best self-defense weapons on the market: They’re easy to shoot, they’re versatile and they inflict serious damage quickly. “I personally,” explained one such advocate in the NRA’s American Rifleman magazine, “stand in support of the AR-15.”
Traditionally, in the aftermath of these massacres, AR-15-style rifles have received a lot, maybe even most, of the attention — the seemingly monthly debate over how and why they should be banned. Recently, thanks to the release of crime-scene photos, trauma surgeons willing to go on record and revelations that authorities had to use DNA testing to identify mangled kids in Uvalde, what those weapons actually do, physically, to the human body is coming into focus. “Highlighting what actually happens to our children,” says Las Vegas trauma surgeon Deborah Kuhls, “really sucks people in enough to look at the whole problem.”
Though the overwhelming majority of gun injuries are not caused by AR-15-style weapons, the injuries they inflict are especially gruesome and deadly compared to those from a handgun. The first time Kuhls saw the effects, the high-velocity bullet had not only penetrated chest muscles and fat, but sent shockwaves that bruised relatively distant organs, including the victim’s lungs and heart. “I just thought of this bullet,” she recalls, “just destroying his soft tissue.”
“It’s about energy,” says Utah trauma surgeon Dr. Toby Enniss. All bullets move fast to the naked eye, but AR-15 bullets leave the muzzle two to three times faster than typical handguns. Surgeons call the results “cavitating lesions” — shredded tissue surrounding the bullet’s trajectory. The energy is “physically pushing tissue out of its way,” Enniss says. And it’s especially potent in children, where the effects of high-velocity weapons are multiplied. “If I walked up to you and shot you with an AR-15 in your kneecap, it would just pulverize your bones,” says Johns Hopkins trauma surgeon Dr. Joseph Sakran. “(With children), the cavities are smaller, the organs are compressed in a smaller space. … It’s not a surprise that some of the parents (in Uvalde) couldn’t identify their kids.”
— By Ethan Bauer
Why can’t Congress pass meaningful legislation?
The massacre in Uvalde, Texas, this summer spurred the passing of the Safer Communities Act, the first piece of bipartisan gun legislation in almost 30 years. The bill was introduced in 2021, not by a Democrat, but by the Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio — a reminder that issues surrounding guns don’t fall neatly along party lines. Nor does the criticism of the recent legislation — with opposition coming from both sides, albeit for different reasons. Some on the left call it toothless and say that while the law is a significant step forward, it doesn’t go far enough; on the right, Republican leaders called on legislators to vote against the bill and tarred those who supported it as RINOs.
Nonetheless it passed, becoming the latest chapter in the zig-zagging tale of bipartisan legislation that seems unable to fix the scourge of gun violence. Take the firearms control bill passed in 1968, in the wake of the Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy assassinations; it was rolled back in 1986 by a law signed by then-President Ronald Reagan. In subsequent years, however, Reagan, a 1981 presidential assassination attempt target, made a public about-face, culminating with his 1991 New York Times op-ed titled “Why I’m for the Brady Bill.” (The name referred to his aide, James Brady, shot during the attempt on Reagan’s life.) Imposing a five-day waiting period, the Brady Bill took effect the same year Congress passed the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban, a law criticized in large part, because it included a 10-year sunset clause. Following the law’s 2004 lapse, notes Robert Spitzer, author of six books on American gun policy and a City University of New York Cortland political science professor, mass shootings “began an annual increase.”
This summer’s Safer Communities Act passed at a time of extreme party polarization, Spitzer says. “The two parties have become ever wider apart on the gun issue.” This shows up on the state level with “more liberal states strengthening their laws and more conservative states loosening their laws.” This red-blue state divide is “symptomatic of the polarization and balkanization of American politics despite the fact that there was this (most recent) agreement.”
Though some gun control advocates are pleased with much of the new law, experts say that while it narrowed a few holes in previous legislation, it didn’t close them entirely. For instance, Josh Horwitz, co-director of Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for Gun Violence Solutions, believes the bill’s emphasis on mental health is misplaced.
Nonetheless, Horwitz was encouraged by the legislation. “This is what a compromise looks like,” he says, in “a very divided country on firearms.”
— By Mya Jaradat