Tragic shootings in Boulder, Colorado, and Atlanta, Georgia, startled a nation that had focused its attention on battling a pandemic and weathering a contentious election cycle. Still, the year 2020 saw the highest rate of gun homicides in more than 20 years, and, depending on how one defines “mass shooting,” it also experienced more than a 50% increase in mass shootings compared to recent years, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

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We reached out to experts and analysts across the board for their response to a simple question: How would you explain why there is so much gun violence in the United States?

Read their insights below.

We haven’t invested in prevention

By Lisa Fujie Parks, associate program director at Prevention Institute.

A public health approach to understanding why there’s so much gun violence in the U.S. looks at the factors that either raise the risk of gun violence or protect against gun violence. As risk factors mount, the likelihood of violence increases.

In the U.S., risk factors for gun violence include easy access to deadly weapons, a culture that often valorizes aggression, and generations of racial injustice that burdens urban communities of color with risk factors for gun violence — economic stress, concentrated poverty, lack of access to opportunity and social exclusion.

One of the reasons gun violence is so high is that we haven’t invested in what works to prevent violence. Instead, we tend to focus on law enforcement and criminal justice after violence has already occurred. We can change that. U.S. cities have successfully reduced gun violence by addressing risk and protective factors in their communities. These cities invest in safe parks and inclusive schools, help communities rebuild trust and social connections, extend economic opportunities, and share power and decision-making with communities most affected by violence. As protective factors mount, violence decreases. These cities show us a way out of gun violence.

Freedom has dangers

By Connor Boyack, president of Libertas Institute.

Freedom is the American tradition, but it’s dangerous. Jefferson called it the “tempestuous sea of liberty,” contrasted against the “calm of despotism” in which our lives might be far more restricted by the paternalistic state — no doubt “for our safety.”

Freedom means that some people will make poor choices; there will always be a comparative few who ingest harmful things into their bodies; text while driving; birth children that they abuse; or even shoot others with a firearm.

The question as to why there is so much gun violence has a simple answer: freedom. In response, some might suggest restricting the freedom to purchase, own and use firearms. But these restrictions on freedom have consequences, including preventing innocent people from protecting themselves. In a futile effort to deter violent people, you increasingly consign peaceful people to a horrible fate by disarming them against those who might do them harm.

There are common threads tying many mass shootings together, including mental health, antidepressant use and the failure of so-called “gun free zones.” These are topics that deserve discussion, but restricting the freedom of peaceful people is an antithetical approach that should be taken off the table.

The gun industry is out of control

By Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center.

The short answer is simple: We have too many guns. This is in large part due to the gun lobby myth — that guns are effective self-defense tools. The reality is that a gun in the home is far more likely to be used in a criminal homicide, suicide or fatal unintentional shooting.

Compounding the problem is an out-of-control gun industry. Guns are the only consumer products manufactured in America not subject to federal health and safety regulation. The gun industry has exploited this unique exemption: churning out military-style assault weapons, high-capacity pistols and an endless array of accessories — such as bump stocks — designed to make guns even more lethal.

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The Boulder attack is the direct result of the gun industry’s embrace of militarization and heightened lethality. The shooter chose — and had ready access to — a new breed of semi-automatic assault pistol. His Ruger AR-556 pistol combined the firepower of a rifle with the concealability of a pistol in a configuration designed to evade federal restrictions on short-barreled rifles. We all witnessed the consequences.

America is being held hostage by the firearms industry, and until gunmakers are held accountable, communities across our nation will continue to pay the price in preventable death and injury. 

The reality is complex

By Amy Swearer, legal fellow in the Edwin Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

The question is too narrowly phrased for any answer to reflect a full and fair picture of gun violence in the United States.

Legal context is important. The U.S. Constitution protects an individual right of American civilians to keep and bear arms, while other nations consider it a mere privilege subject to the government’s good graces and arbitrary whims. Our government is largely prohibited from enacting the types of restrictive, burdensome gun laws imposed in other countries.

Still, the reality is more complex than “more guns mean more overall death.” As just one example, Americans are far more likely to kill themselves with firearms than are their European counterparts, but our overall suicide rate is comparable to — and even lower than — that of many other countries with far more restrictive gun laws.

Some historical perspective is also warranted. We experienced an unprecedented spike in gun violence during 2020. But the evidence suggests this was due largely to COVID-19-related societal stressors and abrupt changes in policing practices, not rising gun sales. Rates of gun crime and gun homicide remain much lower today than in the early 1990s, despite the presence of far more guns per capita and loosened restrictions on public carry in many states.