Insanity often is defined as doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting a different outcome. As a psychiatrist, I find this to be true. Unfortunately, the uniquely American form of insanity that is firearm violence results in more than 35,000 deaths and 100,000 injuries each year, shattering lives and communities for years to come.
In the wake of the tragic mass shooting on May 31 in Virginia Beach, Gov. Ralph Northam has called for a special session of the Virginia General Assembly to reconsider a package of gun control legislation, many of which the legislature voted down earlier this year.
But Northam has provided the commonwealth of Virginia a historic opportunity to stop the insanity. As our legislators reconsider the need for comprehensive gun control, let the scientific evidence regarding the efficacy (or lack thereof) of different types of legislation guide this special session’s debates and policy decisions.
The first step in breaking the cycle: Legislators must stop approaching gun control as if mass shootings are the only significant type of gun violence and that only gun control legislation that would stop mass shootings is worth discussing. My intent is not to minimize the devastation or loss that mass shootings cause. However, we will not be able to effectively reduce the toll gun violence takes on our communities by limiting our efforts to these high-profile events.
To understand the need to change the basis of the gun control debate, consider the problem of climate change as an analogy. Most people understand that weather is not the same as climate, and that a scientific consensus confirms a pattern of global warming. Weather bears some relation to climate patterns, but does not define them. Mass shootings are like violent, unpredictable and terrifying weather, such as tornados or lightning strikes.
Gun violence, like climate, is a much larger phenomenon that affects exponentially larger numbers of people every day, whether a mass shooting has taken place or not. The increasing number of mass shootings is related to the increasing problem of gun violence in the United States, but does not define it.
Nationally, about 100 people a day — more than 35,000 people a year — die from firearms. Suicide accounts for 60% of all firearm deaths; another 30% are firearm homicides. In contrast, the number of people who die in mass shootings constitute 1% or less of all firearm deaths. In Virginia, as Northam pointed out, more people die from firearms than from motor vehicle accidents. In the decade, about 10,000 people have died from gun violence in the commonwealth. However, since 2006, mass shootings have accounted for a total of 44 deaths: 32 at Virginia Tech in 2007 and 12 in Virginia Beach in May.
Research has demonstrated that the violent climate created by lack of effective gun regulation can be reduced by enacting comprehensive, evidence-based policies, many of which are supported by overwhelming majorities of Americans, such as proposed by Northam. Many types of gun laws are demonstrably effective at reducing gun deaths and injuries, keeping guns away from criminals and other prohibited people, and fighting illegal gun trafficking.
States where guns are more regulated have demonstrably lower rates of gun death. In contrast, empty slogans, like the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, are not supported by systematic research evidence. Resorting to anecdotal evidence to advance this argument is like saying today’s cold temperature proves that global warming is a hoax.
However, the insanity began almost immediately after the Virginia Beach shooting. Gun control opponents again argue that a specific proposal, such as universal background checks, would not have prevented this mass shooting, implying, again, that gun control reforms are not worth enacting. For example, The Virginian Pilot reported that Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, when confronted on June 3 about his pro-gun voting record, responded, “Nothing would have helped us in Virginia Beach.”
Norment’s statement is true: No public safety legislation will prevent every gun death, nor will legislation prevent any specific mass shooting. Nevertheless, Norment’s statement is dangerously disingenuous, because it implies that gun control legislation, unless it can stop every mass shooting, is ineffective. Gun control measures decrease rates of less high-profile gun deaths. Are those lives worth less than lives lost in a mass shooting?
Let’s stop the insanity of repeating the same tired debates that perpetuate the unacceptable status quo. Virginia voters should insist that our legislators provide evidence to support their positions regarding gun control, pro or con. Legislators like Norment who resort to arguments unsupported by evidence should be treated like climate change deniers. Gun control opponents should support their arguments with evidence, not rhetoric. Those legislators who fail to do so should be held accountable this fall.