OPED: Why does the U.S. lead the world in mass shootings?

Zoe Prats
York Suburban High School

Why does America lead the world in mass shootings?

On the night of Sunday, Oct. 1, 64-year-old Stephen Paddock opened fire on a large crowd of concertgoers at the Route 91 Harvest music festival on the Las Vegas Strip, killing 58 people and injuring 489.

We are all struggling to make sense of this unspeakable tragedy and to find our  own way to comfort the families and community that this incomprehensible violence shattered.

But soon, another story will come along, and we will forget — our reactions when we first heard the news, our anger and frustration. Jimmy Kimmel's late night plea to lawmakers for stricter  gun control policy encapsulates this perfectly: "We'll pray for Las Vegas... bills will be written, they'll be watered down, they'll fail, the NRA will smother it all with money and over time we'll get distracted and will move on to the next thing. And then it will happen again. And again."

Why does he get it so painfully right? Why does America lead the world in mass shootings?

First, Americans are unique in the way they view guns because the right to bear them is intrinsic to our government. Only the constitutions of Guatemala and Mexico — which were modeled off the U.S. example — still guarantee a right to bear arms. Second Amendment activists see guns not as a symbol of physical protection, but rather a way to protect themselves from a society that they feel is undermining their ability to control their own lives.

In fact, a national survey conducted in 2013 found that 65 percent of Americans believe the purpose of their right to bear arms remains "to make sure that people are able to protect themselves from tyranny" (Rasmussen Reports).

Second, this mentality fuels our astonishingly high rate of gun ownership. According to Small Arms Survey, there are 270 million civilian-owned guns in the United States. That's more than the total number of votes cast in last year's election and amounts to nearly half of the estimated 650 million civilian-owned guns worldwide (Small Arms Survey).

University of Alabama criminologist Adam Lankford found that national firearm ownership rates and number of mass shooters per country follow a positive trend. It makes sense, then, that the U.S. makes up less than 5 percent of the world's population but is home to 31 percent of global mass shooters.

Astonishingly, between the years 1966 and 2012, there were 90 mass shootings in America, whereas the next four countries with the most mass shootings had 54 combined.

There is something distinctly American about mass shootings and how we respond to them — by sparking a national debate about how to reduce deaths attributable to a weapon that our Constitution protects.

While gun control is a deeply divisive issue, the vast majority of Americans agree that people with mental illnesses should not be allowed to purchase guns and that background checks should be required for weapon sales (Time, "Where America Stands on Guns").

With strong intervention by the NRA and guns rights advocates, gun control legislation has continually eluded Congress. However, mass shootings (and gun violence in general) are not an unsolvable problem.

Here are some measures that can at least limit the carnage when a murderer opens fire on a crowd:

  • Allow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to study this issue. In 1997, the "Dickey Amendment" was added to a bill passed in Congress, effectively barring the CDC from any research that would "advocate or promote gun control." Congress then withdrew $2.6 million from the CDC's budget, the exact same amount that the agency received for firearms research the previous year. We must restore funding to the CDC so it can track and assess gun violence and provide us with science-based guidance for developing preventative measures.
  • Institute sensible gun laws. Assault-style weapons have no place in our schools, movie theaters, places of worship, or communities. A ban on high capacity magazines and devices such as bump stocks, which allow semi-automatic weapons to fire at nearly the rate of a machine gun, will significantly limit the damage a shooter can inflict.
  • Establish a culture of gun safety. Contrary to popular belief, one who owns a  gun is no more safe than one who does not. Research overwhelmingly demonstrates that a gun in the home increases the likelihood not only that a household member will be shot accidentally, but also that someone in the home will die in a suicide or homicide. More guns calls for more safety and protection. Let's insist upon safe and secure gun storage and mandatory training and licensing. Gun owners should be required to refresh their training and renew their permits frequently. Japan enacted such measures in 1958, and in 2014, there were just six gun deaths, compared to 33,599 in the U.S.

There's no doubt about it: America has a huge problem with gun violence. It’s up to us to solve it. Let's work together, not to do away with the Second Amendment, but to institute reasonable regulations that help us all live safer, more responsible lives.

— Zoe Prats is a junior at York Suburban High School. The 2016 presidential election piqued her interest in government and politics and has led her to voice her opinion and become more active in the community. She hopes to earn an undergraduate degree in biochemistry and later study law in graduate school.