When news broke of the murders at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin on August 5th, people of all faiths and backgrounds and the first responders who came to the scene to help were horrified by the ambush on men and women as they prepared for worship services. Leaders across the country quickly denounced the hate crime and the FBI immediately began investigating the attack as a possible case of domestic terrorism. But as easy as it was for all of us to be outraged by another senseless attack and heartbroken by the congregation’s stories, it was difficult to be surprised by how it took place again in a nation unwilling to curb guns designed just to kill lots of people in the hands of lawless people. Would this have happened without a semi-automatic gun and high-capacity clips of bullets?
The shootings at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin came only two weeks after James Holmes allegedly killed 12 people and injured 58 others at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, in one of the worst mass shootings in American history. Would this have happened without an AR-15 assault rifle, a Remington 870 12-gauge shot gun, and a semi-automatic handgun with high-capacity clips of bullets? After the Aurora massacre, the Denver Post published an interactive timeline listing some of the others:
August 1966, University of Texas at Austin, Texas: 16 people killed, 31 hurt. July 1985, a McDonald’s restaurant in San Ysidro, California: 21 people killed, 19 hurt. October 1991, a Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas: 23 people killed, 22 hurt. May 1998, the community of Springfield, Oregon: four people killed, 21 hurt. April 1999, Columbine High School, Colorado: 13 people killed, 26 hurt. April 2007, Virginia Tech University, Virginia: 32 people killed, 27 hurt. February 2008, Northern Illinois University, Illinois: five people killed, 16 hurt. March 2009, Coffee and Geneva counties in Alabama: 10 people killed, six hurt. April 2009, a community center in Binghamton, New York: 13 people killed, four hurt. November 2009, Fort Hood, Texas: 13 people killed, 24 hurt. Other shootings, like the January 2011 shooting in Tucson, Arizona that killed six people and injured 13, including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, could be added to this list. Would any of this devastation have happened without semi-automatic guns and high capacity clips of bullets?
Every time another mass shooting happens in the United States, the debate over gun control comes fleetingly to the forefront -- until political fear paralyzes courage and action. Inevitably, some people repeat the argument that the solution to preventing mass shootings is not better gun control laws -- even control of assault weapons, which have no place in nonmilitary hands -- but getting even more Americans armed. The apparent fantasy result would be something straight out of Hollywood where every single time a bad person stands up with a gun a good person with their own gun would quickly rise up out of the crowd, shoot the bad person, and save the day.
But arguments like this ignore both common sense and scientific evidence about the connection between the ready availability of guns -- including assault weapons and guns with large ammunition capacity -- and the epidemic of gun violence in America. Daniel W. Webster, professor and co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and a panelist at the Children’s Defense Fund’s recent conference, wrote after the Aurora shootings:
We should not brush aside discussions of gun policy as too politically difficult to expect meaningful change, or "the price for our freedoms." Instead, we should reflect on why the U.S. has a murder rate that is nearly seven times higher than the average murder rate in other high-income countries and a nearly 20 times higher murder rate with guns. And we should consider how flaws in current gun policies contribute to this disparity... Following mass shootings, gun control opponents have not been bashful about pushing for laws to remove restrictions on carrying guns in schools, bars and churches. Indeed, calls for removing restrictions on carrying concealed firearms will not stop mass shootings. Research indicates that so-called right-to-carry laws don’t reduce violence, and may increase aggravated assaults. But studies I have conducted indicate that stricter regulations of gun sales, whether by retail dealers or by private sellers, are associated with fewer guns diverted to criminals. Moreover, national surveys show that a large majority of citizens favor these reforms to our gun laws, including most gun owners.
It is way past time for common-sense gun law reform in America. Many of the victims of mass shootings have been strangers -- sometimes children -- who were personally unknown to the shooters but were simply in “the wrong place at the wrong time,” even if the “wrong place” turned out to be going to class, attending a worship service on a Sunday morning, or going to the local movie theater on a summer evening. In other words, they could have been any one of us.
What will it take for us to do something about it?