It has only been five days since a gunman walked into a place of worship in Texas and opened fire, killing 26 people. But America is already moving on.
If you look at the online pages of most major national news outlets, the mass shooting at the Sutherland Springs, Texas, church is no longer anywhere close to the top news. On Google Trends, it’s no longer among the top 50 topics that people are searching for.
We’ve seen this before — just a bit over a month ago, in fact. In October, a gunman killed 58 people at a country music concert in Las Vegas. The shooting drew national attention for a few days, and then the country moved on. Within a week, searches for information about the shooting dropped to a fraction of what they were before.
This, it seems, is just how the US deals with the worst shootings now. Some thoughts and prayers for the first couple of days. Some big media coverage for a few more days. And then people move on to the next news cycle, even as nothing changes.
Part of it may be that the news has been even faster-paced, particularly under the current White House. There’s been a wave of scandals involving sexual misconduct or harassment of women by men, from one of the country’s most famous comedians to big-time Hollywood executives. Allegations of potential pedophilia came out against a Republican candidate for the US Senate on Thursday. There were elections on Tuesday.
Still, the way Americans have essentially shrugged off this mass shooting is not normal by international standards. When a man walked into a cafe in Port Arthur, Australia, and shot and killed 35 people in 1996, the tragedy engulfed that country — leading it to pass a comprehensive set of gun restrictions that led to the confiscation of 650,000 firearms. After a gunman killed 16 children and their teacher in Scotland in 1996, the UK banned most types of handguns. Mass shootings have led other countries, including Canada, Germany, and New Zealand, to take similar action.
This is how countries typically react to tragedies: horror, a real sense that such a thing must be stopped, and then some kind of action to try to stop it from happening again.
In the US, we used to at least feign interest in action. After a mass shooting, politicians would propose sweeping new restrictions on guns. They would debate them for a few weeks or months. The restrictions would ultimately be watered down or fail, in part due to heavy opposition from the National Rifle Association — but at least there was a discussion. (The only major piece of gun legislation since the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado followed the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, when the federal government took steps to boost the reporting of criminal and mental health records to the background check database.)
So far, the Las Vegas and Texas shootings have only led to talk of incredibly mild bills that would hopefully get federal agencies to report more criminal records to the FBI’s background check system and ban a specific type of gun modification. These bills wouldn’t go nearly as far as experts and research suggest is necessary, but even their chances of passing Congress seem remote.
Is that because US gun laws have proved adequate? Certainly not. Recent shootings have, if anything, exposed holes in how existing laws are enforced: In the case of the Texas shooting, the Air Force failed to report a domestic abuse conviction that would have barred the shooter from purchasing firearms. And in the case of the Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting in 2015, the FBI failed to complete a background check that the shooter, Dylann Roof, should have failed because he previously admitted to illegally possessing controlled substances.
But even after yet another atrocity exposed the country’s vulnerabilities here, we have already begun to move on.
America’s unique gun violence problem
Again, it’s worth emphasizing that America is not normal. The US has by far the highest death toll from gun violence of any developed nation, and research has linked that to the country’s abundance of and easy access to firearms.
America has nearly six times the gun homicide rate of Canada, more than seven times that of Sweden, and nearly 16 times that of Germany, according to United Nations 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.)
At the same time, the US has by far the highest number of guns in the world. According to a 2007 estimate, the number of civilian-owned firearms in the US was 88.8 guns per 100 people, meaning there was almost one privately owned gun per American and more than one per American adult. The world’s second-ranked country was Yemen, a quasi-failed state now torn by civil war, where there were 54.8 guns per 100 people.
The research shows these two statistics are connected. Regularly updated reviews of the evidence compiled by the Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center have consistently found that when controlling for variables such as socioeconomic factors and other crime, places with more guns have more gun deaths.
“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.
Here is the correlation in international terms, showing that the number of guns closely tracks with the number of gun deaths — and that the US is a big outlier:
This applies at the state level. This chart, from a 2007 study by Harvard researchers, shows a correlation between statewide firearm homicide victimization rates and household gun ownership after controlling for robbery rates:
A more recent study from 2013, led by a Boston University School of Public Health researcher, reached similar conclusions: After controlling for multiple variables, the study found that a 1 percent increase in gun ownership correlated with a roughly 0.9 percent rise in the firearm homicide rate at the state level.
Other studies have backed this up. As Zack Beauchamp explained for Vox, a breakthrough analysis in the 1990s by UC Berkeley’s Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins found that the US does not, contrary to the old conventional wisdom, have more crime in general than other Western industrial nations. Instead, the US appears to have more lethal violence — and that’s driven in large part by the prevalence of guns.
“A series of specific comparisons of the death rates from property crime and assault in New York City and London show how enormous differences in death risk can be explained even while general patterns are similar,” Zimring and Hawkins wrote. “A preference for crimes of personal force and the willingness and ability to use guns in robbery make similar levels of property crime 54 times as deadly in New York City as in London.”
Other research backs this up. Based on international crime victim survey data put together by Duke University sociologist Jeffrey Swanson, the US is not particularly bad off in terms of overall crime and violence:
Where the US is way worse is homicide — which, as Zimring and Hawkins explained, is largely due to its unusual gun problem:
Stricter gun laws can help prevent such deaths. Last year, researchers from around the country reviewed more than 130 studies from 10 countries on gun control for Epidemiologic Reviews. This is, for now, the most current, extensive review of the research on the effects of gun control. The findings were clear: “The simultaneous implementation of laws targeting multiple firearms restrictions is associated with reductions in firearm deaths.”
The study did not look at one specific intervention, but rather a variety of kinds of gun control, from licensing measures to buyback programs. Time and time again, they found the same line of evidence: Reduced access to guns was followed by a drop in deaths related to guns. And while non-gun homicides also decreased, the drop wasn’t as quick as the one seen in gun-related homicides — indicating that access to guns was a potential causal factor.
This is the kind of data and research that pushed other countries to act after they saw horrific killings. But in the US, five days after a mass shooting, we’re already moving on.