Trump’s Florida shooting speech was one giant lie by omission


President Donald Trump just addressed Wednesday’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Not once did he mention one of the glaring problems that came into play for this shooting, which killed at least 17, and others like it: the tremendous abundance of guns in America.

Trump did vaguely promise protection. He said, as he did on Twitter the day before, “No child, no teacher should ever be in danger in an American school. No parent should ever have to fear for their sons and daughters when they kiss them goodbye in the morning.”

On this end, the only specific he touched on was mental health. But he didn’t say what his administration would do about mental health or whether he or Congress is working on any significant legislation to this end.

Guns, meanwhile, barely came up at all. The only reference to “guns” or “firearms” in particular, based on a transcript, was a mention of “gunfire” when describing the Florida shooting.

This misses the entire problem — the issue that keeps America’s gun violence at higher levels than any other developed nation.

Mental health is not what makes America uniquely vulnerable to gun violence. As my colleague Dylan Matthews explained, people with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims, not perpetrators, of violence. And Michael Stone, a psychiatrist at Columbia University who maintains a database of mass shooters, wrote in a 2015 analysis that only 52 out of the 235 killers in the database, or about 22 percent, were mentally ill. “The mentally ill should not bear the burden of being regarded as the ‘chief’ perpetrators of mass murder,” Stone concluded. Other research has backed this up.

The real problem, instead, is guns — and, specifically, America’s extraordinary stockpile of firearms. The US has by far the highest number of guns in the world: According to a 2007 estimate, the number of civilian-owned firearms in the US was 88.8 guns per 100 people, meaning there was almost one privately owned gun per American and more than one per American adult. The world’s second-ranked country was Yemen, a quasi-failed state torn by civil war, where there were 54.8 guns per 100 people.

As a result, America has nearly six times the gun homicide rate of Canada, more than seven times that of Sweden, and nearly 16 times that of Germany, according to United Nations data compiled by the Guardian. (These gun deaths are a big reason America has a much higher overall homicide rate than other developed nations.)

A chart shows America’s disproportionate levels of gun violence.

A chart shows America’s disproportionate levels of gun violence.

This is the core problem, pure and simple. Yet Trump’s speech paid no attention to it.

More guns, more gun deaths

The research, compiled by the Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center, is pretty clear: After controlling for variables such as socioeconomic factors and other crime, places with more guns have more gun deaths.

“Within the United States, a wide array of empirical evidence indicates that more guns in a community leads to more homicide,” David Hemenway, the Injury Control Research Center’s director, wrote in Private Guns, Public Health.

This is true when you look at state-by-state data within the United States, as this chart from Mother Jones demonstrates:

And it’s true when you look at the data across developed nations, as this other chart from researcher Josh Tewksbury shows:

Experts widely believe this is the consequence of America’s relaxed laws and culture surrounding guns: Making more guns more accessible means more guns, and more guns mean more deaths. Researchers have found this to be true not just with homicides, but also with suicides, domestic violence, and even violence against police.

As a breakthrough analysis by UC Berkeley’s Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins in 1999 found, it’s not even that the US has more crime than other developed countries. This chart, from Jeffrey Swanson at Duke University, shows that the US is not an outlier when it comes to overall crime:

Violent and non-violent crime in the US and other rich countries

Violent and non-violent crime in the US and other rich countries

Instead, the US appears to have more lethal violence — and that’s driven in large part by the prevalence of guns.

”A series of specific comparisons of the death rates from property crime and assault in New York City and London show how enormous differences in death risk can be explained even while general patterns are similar,” Zimring and Hawkins wrote. “A preference for crimes of personal force and the willingness and ability to use guns in robbery make similar levels of property crime 54 times as deadly in New York City as in London.”

Homicide in the US versus other rich countries

Homicide in the US versus other rich countries

This is in many ways intuitive: People of every country get into arguments and fights with friends, family, and peers. But in the US, it’s much more likely that someone will get angry at an argument, be able to pull out a gun, and kill someone.

Guns are not the only contributor to violence. (Other factors include, for example, poverty, urbanization, and alcohol consumption.) But when researchers control for other confounding variables, they have found time and time again that America’s high levels of gun ownership are a major reason the US is so much worse in terms of gun violence than its developed peers.

The government can do something about this

Other wealthy countries have dealt with this problem, passing an array of gun control measures, from universal background checks to licensing requirements to outright bans and confiscation schemes.

In 1996, a 28-year-old man walked into a cafe in Port Arthur, Australia, ate lunch, pulled a semi-automatic rifle out of his bag, and opened fire on the crowd, killing 35 people and wounding 23 more. It was the worst mass shooting in Australia’s history.

Australian lawmakers responded with new legislation that, among other provisions, banned certain types of firearms, such as automatic and semi-automatic rifles and shotguns. The Australian government confiscated 650,000 of these guns through a gun buyback program, in which it purchased firearms from gun owners. It established a registry of all guns owned in the country and required a permit for all new firearm purchases. (This is much further than bills typically proposed in the US, which almost never make a serious attempt to immediately reduce the number of guns in the country.)

The result: Australia’s firearm homicide rate dropped by about 42 percent in the seven years after the law passed, and its firearm suicide rate fell by 57 percent, according to a review of the evidence by Harvard researchers.

It’s difficult to know for sure how much of the drop in homicides and suicides was caused specifically by the gun buyback program. Australia’s gun deaths, for one, were already declining before the law passed. But researchers David Hemenway and Mary Vriniotis argue that the gun buyback program very likely played a role: “First, the drop in firearm deaths was largest among the type of firearms most affected by the buyback. Second, firearm deaths in states with higher buyback rates per capita fell proportionately more than in states with lower buyback rates.”

One study of the program, by Australian researchers, found that buying back 3,500 guns per 100,000 people correlated with up to a 50 percent drop in firearm homicides, and a 74 percent drop in gun suicides. As Dylan Matthews noted for Vox, the drop in homicides wasn’t statistically significant because Australia already had a pretty low number of murders. But the drop in suicides most definitely was — and the results are striking.

Firearm suicides plummeted after Australia's gun buyback program began.

Firearm suicides plummeted after Australia's gun buyback program began.

One other fact, noted by Hemenway and Vriniotis in 2011: “While 13 gun massacres (the killing of 4 or more people at one time) occurred in Australia in the 18 years before the [Australia gun control law], resulting in more than one hundred deaths, in the 14 following years (and up to the present), there were no gun massacres.”

This is the kind of action the US — and specifically Congress and Trump — could take.

But America has become resistant to doing anything about this issue, in large part due to a decades-long public campaign by the National Rifle Association (NRA) to convince the US public and politicians that, in fact, the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms and that more guns will actually make people safer, contrary to what the research says.

Trump, in his speech, continued this trend: Although the evidence is clear on how gun violence can be prevented, and despite all the outrage surrounding yet another mass shooting in America, he failed to even recognize the core problem behind these deaths.

For more on America’s gun problem, read Vox’s explainer.

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