October 3, 2023

We Shouldn’t Be Surprised

By Stephen Tuttle | Feb. 25, 2023

We’ve become very good at this, haven’t we?

First will come the flowers, candles, and teddy bears, all left at an appropriate site, some with notes of condolence. There will be a candlelight vigil and a non-denominational prayer service attended by more people than have ever previously been to a church. Then the president or governor or mayor will instruct us to lower flags to half-mast.

There will be eulogies sadly intoning the goodness of those murdered. Relatives of the dead will pledge to do “something.” Politicians will promise that this time, by golly, they are going to take action. T-shirts will appear with a one-word reference to the scene of the massacre, usually a city, followed by the word “strong.”

We will all be shocked, saddened, sickened, depressed, disgusted, infuriated, and appalled, but we can’t possibly claim to be surprised. Something happening out of the ordinary is required for a surprise, and shootings of the sort that recently occurred at MSU are commonplace—a regular part of our gun culture lives.

There is no official definition of mass shootings. The Gun Violence Archive defines it as four or more people, excluding the shooter, shot at roughly the same place and same time. By their definition, there have already been 71 mass shootings in 24 states just this year. They list 647 mass shootings in 39 states in 2022.

The FBI has a different approach. They track mass killings, not just shootings. Their definition of mass killing requires at least four non-familial fatalities excluding the shooter in roughly the same location and at the same time. They list seven such episodes so far this year, but the MSU incident didn’t have quite enough death to satisfy their definition.

(We now have to index killings by category. There’s mass killing as defined by the FBI; then there’s “spree” killing defined as multiple fatalities within a reasonably short time span but spread out of over more than one location; serial killing, which is multiple fatalities in separate locations over an extended period of time; then there’s familicide, in which someone wipes out their family; gang-related shootings including drive-by killings, which have their own category; and, of course, good old-fashioned murder of just one person.)

The murder-by-gun rate in the U.S. had been in a steady decline for the better part of four decades until recently, though mass killings have been on the increase during that same period. According to Pew Research, our current murder-by-gun rate is the highest it’s been since 2001. There were about 45,000 gun deaths in 2022, with more than half the result of suicides, and, depending on whose definition is used, somewhere between 500 and 750 deaths from mass shootings.

Politicians on one side of the political aisle claim they are going to regulate the most dangerous guns and restrict gun ownership from the most dangerous people. The politicians on the other side of the aisle say the solution is more “good people” with guns who can stop the “bad people” with guns.

To be fair, the gun reformers have had some modest legislative successes. Some states did enact some regulations, and the Trump Administration banned bump-stocks nationwide.

But then those laws got to court and the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) established a new benchmark for all the new reforms and restrictions. They must be part of an “historical tradition” of regulation, SCOTUS said—or at least five justices did. It is a standard that eliminates virtually all attempts at gun regulation or restrictions; since there is no tradition of firearm regulation, no new regulation meets the court’s test.

The Trump bump-stock ban was overturned based on that definition. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently overturned a prohibition of gun ownership for someone accused or convicted of domestic violence because there is no historical tradition of such regulation. Well, no, because domestic violence wasn’t even codified as criminal behavior in most states until the 1970s. In fact, lots of our laws do not have a long held historical tradition; for example, women couldn’t vote until 1920, and most drugs were legal until 1935.

Based on that same “logic” of historical tradition, various courts have overturned laws banning guns without serial numbers, untraceable ghost gun parts, gun ownership for very young people, gun ownership by convicted felons, and the sale and possession of assault rifles as recent examples. The gun law reformers have lost.

Those wishing to shoot large numbers of people can now legally obtain their killing tools. Mass shootings have already occurred in preschools, elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, colleges, Christian churches, synagogues, malls, factories, government offices, big box retailers, night clubs, big cities, small towns, villages….

We shouldn’t be surprised if it happens here—it might be happening right now.


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