The on-air shooting of a reporter and a photographer in Franklin County, Virginia, on Wednesday morning was terrifying. It has given Americans a very close look at what some of America's tens of thousands of annual gun deaths look like.
But the televised tragedy also demonstrates that the country's focus on mass shootings — which are often the only events that lead to substantial discussions about national gun policy — misrepresents both the total amount of gun violence in the US and what gun violence typically looks like.
There is a lot of scholarly debate about what constitutes a mass shooting — whether it's when four or more people are killed, whether it's when four or more people are shot but fewer than four die, whether gang violence counts, whether domestic violence counts, and so on. Some of the technical definitions wouldn't consider the initial killing of Virginia journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward as a mass shooting.
But a shooting is a shooting. It is as horrific and grisly as the act thousands of Americans have seen today through the Virginia newscast.
The US has extraordinary levels of gun violence: America has six times as many firearm homicides as Canada, and 15 times as many as Germany, according to UN data compiled by the Guardian's Simon Rogers.
In fact, no other developed country comes close to the levels of gun violence, including suicides, or gun ownership that America has, as this chart from Tewksbury Lab shows:
The correlation this chart demonstrates — more guns mean more gun deaths — has been backed by a lot of research. Whether at the state or country level, reviews of the studies by the Harvard School of Public Health's Injury Control Research Center have consistently found that places with more guns have more deaths after controlling for variables like socioeconomic factors and other crime. "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 widely believed by some experts to be the consequence of America's relaxed policy approach to and culture of guns: Making more guns more accessible means more guns, and more guns mean more deaths. Researchers have found this not just with general homicides, but also with suicides, domestic violence, and even violence against police.
Maybe some Americans can look at these statistics and studies and still decide that the right to bear arms should be protected and gun control is bad policy. But given the research, the enormous costs of America's gun policies should at least be acknowledged.
The debate doesn't ever go into that. After a mass shooting, any talk of America's outsized levels of gun violence and gun policy is derailed by political platitudes about how the government is trying to take away Americans' guns and how it's wrong to "score political points" and take advantage of a tragedy to try to change policy. The research and the costs of easy access to guns are almost never acknowledged. And none of this is talked about after the dozens of other gun-related homicides and suicides that happen each day in the US but aren't considered mass shootings.
But America's high levels of gun violence mean horrible shootings happen every day. The Virginia TV shooting gives us a chilling, up-close glimpse into what those deaths look like. But it shouldn't take video footage or a certain number of people killed or shot to realize that America has a unique problem with guns.