The current epidemic of avoidable gun fatalities in the USA is set to worsen, as Alan Austin reports.
MIDWAY THROUGH 2022, the USA is on track to record the highest-ever annual tally of children aged 0 to 11 killed and injured by firearms. The toll to the end of June was 546. The highest total on record was 1,063 last year.
The USA will almost certainly reach the highest-ever annual total of teenagers 12 to 17 killed and injured by guns. The 30 June tally was 2,401. The highest ever was 4,632, also last year.
Deaths and injuries in school shootings so far this year total 78. That compares with 78 for all of last year and just 12 the year before. The highest was 124 in 2018.
Other categories tracking towards fresh records are school teachers shot, police officers shot, victims shot by police and suicides by gun. Numbers that are high, but below the records – so far – include homicide, at 9,939 to the end of June and mass shooting incidents, at 297.
All these categories of gun deaths are zero or close to zero in Australia this year, as in other developed countries with effective gun laws.
A common definition of a mass shooting, used by monitoring organisation Gun Violence Archive and others, is an incident in which four or more victims are killed or wounded, not including the perpetrator.
Mass shootings can be divided into three categories: family murders, criminal gang violence and random public shootings. The distinctions are important because gun laws impact each category differently. Criminal gangs will always access the full range of weapons and disregard laws, so will be unaffected by gun ownership legislation.
Historical analysis confirms gun restrictions lead to a significant decline in family mass murders and a dramatic fall in random public shootings.
Australia remains the classic case study of the effectiveness of reducing gun ownership. It is the best model for the USA given the multiple historical, cultural, social and economic similarities.
In the 26 years from 1971 to 1996, there were seven family mass shootings with 40 people killed. One criminal gang mass shooting killed seven and injured 28. Nine random public mass shootings caused 81 deaths and 70 injuries. The last of these, the Port Arthur massacre, galvanised the community and all governments – federal, state and territory – and led swiftly to the 1996 National Firearms Agreement.
This eventually took about a million firearms out of the community, reducing greatly private ownership of semi-automatic weapons.
The impact was immediate and dramatic. For the next six years, there was only one bikie gang shooting which killed three and injured two. Then in October 2002, a mentally-disturbed man shot seven people with a handgun at Victoria’s Monash University, killing two and injuring five.
That led immediately to federal, state and territory governments passing new laws, the National Handgun Control Agreement (2002).
In the 20 years since then, there have been one targeted mass shooting, two family mass shootings and three random public mass shootings.
Victims of all mass shootings in the 26 years since 1996 number 28 killed and 18 injured, a total of 46. That compares with 128 killed and 98 injured in mass shootings in the 26 years before 1996, a total of 226. The difference is even more pronounced when measured by population, which has now increased by 42 per cent since 1996. Mass shooting victims relative to population since 1996 are 86 per cent lower than before.
There have been no shootings with more than seven victims since 1996; there were eight in the 26 years before. Nineteen of the last 26 years have had no mass shootings of any kind. The last was in 2019.
Other countries with similar gun laws with no mass shootings since 2019 include New Zealand, Argentina, the Netherlands, Italy, Japan, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Denmark. Countries with just one mass shooting since 2019 include the United Kingdom, Canada, France and Norway.
The USA, in contrast, recorded an average of 371 mass shootings over the four years 2016 to 2019 and more than 600 in each of the last two years. With 297 to 30 June, the USA is on track for a similar toll this year. See blue chart, below.
There is good news and bad news. On Friday 24 June, America’s Congress passed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act after months of intense negotiation. This strengthens background checks for gun buyers under 21 and restricts access for people convicted of domestic abuse or found by the courts to be a danger to themselves or others.
Will it reduce gun deaths significantly? Probably not. The main cause of rampant gun killings remains unaddressed — easy access to assault weapons by ordinary citizens, some of whom from time to time have a bad day.
Unfortunately, the day before this congressional decision, a New York law that restricted firearms outside the home was overturned. That decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, newly stacked by Trump-appointed conservatives, now allows virtually all Americans to carry concealed and loaded handguns in public.
New York’s Governor described the judgment as “not just reckless, it’s reprehensible”.
President Joe Biden said:
“This ruling contradicts both common sense and the Constitution and should deeply trouble us all.”
There is some evidence that public opinion in the USA is shifting towards Australian-style gun control. But there’s little chance of effective reform as long as the powerful National Rifle Association and the myriad gun lobbyists in the federal and state legislatures can ensure laws that limit weapon availability are never passed.
The evidence suggests U.S. gun deaths will go much higher before there’s any hope of them being lowered.
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