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Why "thoughts and prayers" aren't enough after a mass shooting

After the mass shooting at a gay club in Orlando, Florida, many politicians are offering their "thoughts and prayers" on social media — continuing a long tradition of reactions to all-too-typical mass shootings in America.

But this isn't enough. In response to the San Bernardino, California, mass shooting, Igor Volsky, deputy director of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, explained why, highlighting how much money the politicians offering their thoughts and prayers raised from America's gun lobby.

Speaking to MSNBC's Chris Hayes in December, Volsky explained his rationale:

Well, it just started in the sense that it's so predictable — the responses are so predictable. I mean, they've been thinking and praying about this since Newtown. We're almost as you point out, at the anniversary, December 14th. We had such an opportunity then as a country to pass some actual gun reforms. We didn't. Here we are almost a year after, having the same conversation and these lawmakers are having the same, same exact reaction they had then and to all of the shootings we've seen since then.

As Volsky acknowledges later in the interview, there's more at play than money and campaigning from America's gun lobby. Many Americans and conservative politicians believe in gun rights, and guns are a big part of America's culture. So they oppose more restrictions on guns.

But Volsky is right that thoughts and prayers don't automatically translate to any substantive policy, even as the US deals with extraordinary levels of gun violence that no other developed nation does.

America's levels of gun violence are unique in the developed world

America has far more gun homicides than other developed countries.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

No other developed country in the world has anywhere near the same rate of gun violence as America. The US has nearly six times the gun homicide rate of Canada, more than seven times of Sweden, and nearly 16 times of Germany, according to UN data compiled by the Guardian. (These gun deaths are a big reason America has a much higher overall homicide rate, which includes non-gun deaths, than other developed nations.)

In fact, no other developed country comes close to the levels of gun violence, including suicides, 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 evidence 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 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 gun deaths. Researchers have found this is true not just with gun homicides but also with suicides, domestic violence, and even violence against police.

In response to the San Bernardino shooting, President Barack Obama told CBS News that Americans should not accept the regularity of this type of gun violence: "There are steps we can take to make Americans safer and that we should come together in a bipartisan basis at every level of government to make these rare as opposed to normal. We should never think that this is something that just happens in the ordinary course of events."

Obama mass shooting

At the same time, other developed nations have had some big successes curtailing gun violence by reducing the number of guns. After a 1996 mass shooting in Port Arthur, Australia, killed 35 people and wounded 23 more, lawmakers passed new restrictions on guns and imposed a mandatory buyback program that essentially confiscated people's guns, seizing at least 650,000 firearms.

According to one review of the evidence by Harvard researchers. Australia's firearm homicide rate dropped by about 42 percent in the seven years after the law passed, and its firearm suicide rate fell by 57 percent. Although it's hard to gauge how much of this was driven by the buyback program, researchers argue it likely played some role: "First, the drop in firearm deaths was largest among the type of firearms most affected by the buyback. Second, firearm deaths in states with higher buyback rates per capita fell proportionately more than in states with lower buyback rates."

Still, similar measures would be very difficult to pass in America, a nation in which gun culture and ownership are tremendously ingrained. And gun owners are backed by a powerful lobby: the National Rifle Association. Combined, these forces have stopped any serious gun legislation from passing at the federal level — although some states have passed new restrictions in the past few years.

These political forces, and genuine support for gun rights, render politicians unwilling to do anything about guns. And America suffers the consequences.


Watch: America's gun problem, explained in 18 charts