About nine hours before Stephen Paddock opened fire on a concert in Las Vegas, killing 58, gunshots rang out on a street in Lawrence, Kansas, just as bars were closing in the college town. When the gunfire died down, three people, all under the age of 25, lay dead, and two others were injured. It was a big local news story, but didn’t garner a lot of national coverage. Police haven’t made any arrests.
We’re riveted by mass shootings—understandably so—but statistically, the kind of quotidian gun violence that played out that night in downtown Lawrence takes far more lives. In 2016, mass shootings, defined as those involving four or more victims, accounted for less than 2 percent of all gun-related deaths, excluding suicides.
We may never be able to stop mass shooters like Paddock, who didn’t have a history that would disqualify him from owning guns. But the kind of violence that shook Lawrence that night—as well as suicides involving guns—could be cut significantly with smarter public policies.
Police say the bloodshed in Kansas began with some kind of altercation in a bar earlier in the evening. In most countries, whatever the fight was about would likely have been settled with fists. In the United States, far more people who are prone to getting into a fight are armed. According to a 2015 study published in the journal Behavioral Sciences and the Law, around 9 percent of the adult population in the United States have both a history of impulse- and anger-control problems and easy access to a gun; around 1.5 percent of adults in the United States are angry, impulsive, and carry a gun with them. And Duke University professor of psychiatry Jeffrey Swanson, the lead investigator of the study, says that number “might even be higher now, because the data were collected several years ago, and since that time there’s been a real expansion of concealed carry.”
As if that weren’t troubling enough, the study found “a significant three-way association among owning multiple guns, carrying a gun, and having impulsive angry behavior.” People who owned six or more guns were about four times more likely to be among those carrying around both a gun and a chip on their shoulder than those with only one gun.
The NRA calls for better mental-health care as a way of deflecting calls for gun control. But even if more gun owners received treatment for mental-health issues, Swanson says that, while his team “did find that many of these individuals would meet criteria for some kind of psychopathology, it didn’t tend to be the kinds of disorders that characterize populations that are involuntarily committed and would thereby lose their gun rights under existing federal law.” Many of these angry gun-owners abused alcohol or drugs, or suffered from depression, anxiety, PTSD, compulsive gambling, and other personality disorders that would not make them ineligible to buy a gun or two—or seven.