Thoughts and Prayers? No Thanks.

40 miles away from where I live – where I eat, sleep, go out – the formerly unthinkable happened. 12 people were fatally shot at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, California. Most of the victims were people only two or three years older than I am. Now I sit in a hauntingly quiet library as I ask myself: am I next?

We’ve all heard the story before: a man walks into a public space or crowded venue, pulls out a handgun, rifle, or automatic weapon, and starts firing. Countless innocent lives are lost. We know what happens next too. Politicians tweet out their thoughts and prayers, the media and public erupt with anger, and then… nothing. In two weeks we’re back to tweeting about getting bread and how the referees are why the Browns lost again. We’ve committed ourselves to an endless cycle of violence.

But we can break it.

It starts with understanding the facts. According to the Washington Post, in the 50 years prior to the 1966 University of Texas tower shooting, there were 25 public mass shootings with 4 or more victims (Washington Post, 2018). Between just 2000 and 2013, the FBI identified 160 active shooter incidents, with an average of 6.4 per year in the first seven years and 16.4 per year in the last seven years of the study with a total of 486 killed and 557 wounded (FBI 2014). It is clear that mass shootings have been on the rise as they become more fatal, and it’s easy to understand why: guns are becoming more technologically-advanced as more people get access to them.

That being said, the problem goes deeper than crazy people with guns committing atrocities like mass shootings. When it comes down to it, America has a gun problem. Not a mental health problem. Not a security problem. Certainly not a problem of too few guns. America has a gun problem, period.

Typically after tragedies like the one witnessed earlier this week, people want to find a reason for the unexplainable. The mental health of the perpetrator thus quickly falls into question, as people assume a relationship between violence and mental illness. While it may be comforting to think there’s a reason for the violence (because admitting we have too many guns seems to be a last resort option for Americans), coming to such a conclusion distracts from the necessary policy debate of gun control because in reality, mental illnesses account for a minimal amount of violence.

A study published by the American Psychiatric Association in 2016 found that “the overall contribution of people with serious mental illness to violent crimes is only 3%. When these crimes are examined in detail, an even smaller percentage of them to found to involve firearms” (Mass Shootings and Mental Illness, 2016). Another 2015 study found that “less than 5% of gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were committed by people diagnosed with mental illness” (New York Times, 2018). A final note on mental illness: “Americans do not appear to have more mental health problems than other developed nations of a comparable size, which experience far fewer shootings” (New York Times, 2018). The continued criminalization of the mentally ill – an already vulnerable demographic – serves no benefit.

The more we conflate mental health and gun violence, the more we ignore the real reason for gun violence: having guns.

The United States has the highest rate of gun ownership per capita with 89 firearms for every 100 people. Unsurprisingly, when Americans have so many guns, a lot of them are going to get hurt. Specifically, Americans are 25.2 times more likely to suffer a gun-related death than residents of other high-income nations (51 times more likely than someone in the United Kingdom) (CNN, 2018).

Gun advocates like the NRA and President Trump have suggested, as a solution to this uniquely American problem, injecting more guns into our system; that more “good guys with guns” will provide protection when shootings break out. However, research from Stanford University based on 37 years worth of data found that states had 15% more violent crime 10 years after lowering the bar for concealed-carry licenses (The Trace, 2017). When we follow the NRA’s plan to get more “good guys” with guns, we actually see an increase in violence. Ultimately, it makes sense, because the sole purpose of a gun is to injure and kill. More people with the ability to do so will result in more injuries and deaths. Therefore, the notion that more guns would prevent violence, or that “guns don’t kill, bad guys with guns kill” is inherently false. Simple logic is backed by hard evidence: more guns result in more violence.

There are simple measures that can be taken without violating the Second Amendment. Some of the easiest measures include banning automatic weapons, expanded capacity magazines, and bump stocks. More thorough legislation could mimic that of Australia’s, where they have stringent rules on purchasing and registering firearms including having a “genuine reason” for each firearm you own. Many countries have policies that restrict gun ownership enough to prevent gun violence while still allowing firearms in some circumstances (consider Australia, Germany, or the UK, where gun violence is nearly eliminated).

I want to make a quick note on something: all of the studies I cite are fully funded by private sources, given that the government does not fund research on gun violence. In fact, since the passing of the 1996 Dickey Amendment (lobbied for by the NRA) the federal government has not been allowed to fund research on gun violence (NPR 2018). The significance of this lies in the fact Congress is prevented from understanding the issues critical to addressing the problem of gun violence in the U.S. simply because the NRA and gun lobby prevents it from happening.

Given the aforementioned, I’m sure you’re asking yourself what you can do to help. I’ve gone and assembled a short laundry list of what you can do.

Start by voting for and supporting politicians that support common sense gun reform

I know election day has already passed, but that doesn’t mean you can’t donate to campaigns with platforms featuring gun control. You can find a list of candidates from the most recent election endorsed by the nonprofit group, Everytown for Gun Safety, here.

Donate to nonprofit organizations that lobby for gun control

Examples include Everytown for Gun Safety, the Brady Campaign, and Americans for Responsible Solutions. Every penny counts in the fight against gun violence.

Communicate with your representatives

Call them. Email them. Fax them. Send them carrier pigeons for all I care. There is a service called Resistbot that figures out who your Representatives and Senators are based on your zip code and let’s you send a custom message that will be faxed to their offices. Just text RESIST to 50409 to get started.

Speak up.

Go to protests and rallies. Make it a point to talk about gun control. Don’t let the fire you feel today die out. Don’t say you can’t change anything. Don’t let the NRA decide what’s best for you.

I want to end the article on this note: change doesn’t come from one person alone. Change doesn’t come from blindly accepting what comes at us. Change is work, but the countless lives that will be saved for decades to come will be worth it.

You can be the 5-minute discussion, the $5 donated, or the vote cast that makes the change.

– Kareem Danan

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