Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has set up a commission to study school safety in the aftermath of mass shootings like the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in Parkland, Florida, in February. But on Tuesday, DeVos revealed that the commission will not study a key problem: guns.
“That is not part of the commission’s charge, per se,” DeVos told members of Congress.
Pressed further, she said that the commission will study “school safety and how we can ensure our students are safe at school.”
The commission’s report should come out by the end of the year, DeVos has said. According to Juana Summers at CNN, the first hearing focused on positive behavioral interventions like mentoring and counseling; changes to the country’s gun laws did not come up.
Sen. Leahy: Will your school safety commission look at the role of firearms?— NBC News (@NBCNews) June 5, 2018
Sec. DeVos: "That is not part of the commission's charge, per se."
Leahy: "So you're studying gun violence but not considering the role of guns?"
DeVos: "We're actually studying school safety." pic.twitter.com/aGxwNHglRW
This is the latest absurd example of a politician or pundit avoiding the root of the problem. Since the Parkland shooting, we’ve had gun-friendly politicians and news outlets evade the issue of firearms and instead suggest fixes like making video games less violent, building fewer doors at schools, reducing access to porn, and installing actual weapons of war to blow open escape holes in schools. But the firearms used to carry out these deadly travesties? Out of the question.
In reality, though, easy access to firearms is central to the US’s gun violence problem — not just at schools but more broadly as well.
America’s unique gun violence problem
The US 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.)
Mass shootings actually make up a small fraction of America’s gun deaths, constituting less than 2 percent of such deaths in 2016. But America does see a lot of these horrific events: According to CNN, “The US makes up less than 5% of the world’s population, but holds 31% of global mass shooters.”
So why is the US such an outlier? Researchers widely believe that it’s America’s tremendous abundance of and access to guns. According to estimates, in 2007 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 torn by civil war, where there were 54.8 guns per 100 people.
The research, compiled by the Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center, is clear: After controlling for variables such as socioeconomic factors and other crime, places with more guns have more gun deaths. Researchers have found this to be true not just with homicides but also with suicides (which in recent years accounted for around 60 percent of US gun deaths), domestic violence, and even violence against police.
As a breakthrough analysis by UC Berkeley’s Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins in the 1990s found, it’s not even that the US has more crime than other developed countries. This chart, based on data from Jeffrey Swanson at Duke University, shows that the US is not an outlier when it comes to overall crime:
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.”
This is in many ways intuitive: People of every country get into arguments and fights with friends, family, and peers. But in the US, it’s much more likely that someone will get angry at an argument and be able to pull out a gun and kill someone.
Stronger gun laws could help combat this. A 2016 review of 130 studies in 10 countries, published in Epidemiologic Reviews, found that new legal restrictions on owning and purchasing guns tended to be followed by a drop in gun violence — a strong indicator that restricting access to guns can save lives. A review of the US evidence by RAND also linked some gun control measures, including background checks, to reduced injuries and deaths.
But the US maintains some of the weakest gun laws in the developed world. Until America confronts that issue, it will continue seeing more shootings than the rest of the developed world.
For more on America’s gun problem, read Vox’s explainer.