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.
And even if more limitations were imposed on people with mental illnesses, it’s important to keep in mind that most mentally ill people aren’t prone to violence—mental illness alone is a bad predictor of gun violence. According to Swanson, the mentally ill are responsible for around 4 percent of violence in this country, “so even if we somehow rid society of mental illness entirely, we’d only reduce the violence by a marginal degree.”
“Prior violence is a much better predictor than mental illness is,” he says. “And violence does escalate—today’s fist and black eye too often becomes tomorrow’s gun and dead body.” A key problem is that the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, established in 1968, doesn’t use up-to-date, evidence-based criteria for blocking access to firearms. For example, convicted felons can’t buy guns—although there are loopholes—but people with a record of violent misdemeanors can, even though that’s one of the best predictors of future violent behavior.
Swanson says there’s a lot we could do if we called the gun lobby’s bluff and focused seriously on keeping guns out of the hands of people who pose an elevated risk of violence. He cites the case of Craig Steven Hicks, the North Carolina man who murdered three Muslim students in cold blood in 2015. “People knew he was angry,” says Swanson. “People were scared of him. But there wasn’t much they could do. He owned those guns legally. If they had the clear legal authority to do so, they could have at least removed his guns” before the bloodshed occurred.
Another example: While some states have enacted more stringent safeguards, federal laws designed to keep guns from perpetrators of domestic violence are riddled with gaps. They don’t apply to stalkers, or people given a temporary restraining order. They don’t apply to people who victimize family members other than their children or partners. Perhaps the biggest problem is that, while they disqualify some abusers from buying new guns, they don’t strip them of the guns they already own.
The answer is to provide a legal mechanism to confiscate guns from potentially violent people. Some states have enacted laws that allow for a temporary civil order to remove guns from high-risk individuals, and Swanson says that these laws have proven effective. In Connecticut, the first state to pass such a law, Swanson and his fellow researchers found that for every 20 removal orders, a potential suicide was averted.
People who are involuntarily committed to a mental-health institution are barred from buying guns, even though that may not may not mean they’re prone to violence. But there’s another gap in the law around people who are only hospitalized briefly in the midst of a mental-health crisis. Swanson says that even when a clinician explicitly deems them to be a threat to themselves or others, these short-term holds often don’t “progress to a gun-disqualifying involuntary-commitment hearing, where someone would meet the definition under federal law.” We could also give police the power to take such patients’ guns away from them until they’ve received treatment and are past their crisis.
Swanson and his colleagues conducted another illuminating study in Florida in 2016. They found that in 72 percent of suicides by gun, the person who killed himself legally owned the gun on the day he used it to take his life, and half of that group had had a temporary involuntary hospitalization in their past. “Some people go out and buy a gun specifically because they’re in that moment of despair, on impulse,” says Swanson. “And at that moment, when someone is feeling so hopeless that they’re inclined to hurt themselves, if they use anything but a gun, they’re very likely to survive. If they have a firearm, they’re very unlikely to survive.”
Another part of the solution is enacting universal background checks—a reform that’s supported by most gun owners but opposed by the gun lobby—but with updated criteria for barring people from buying guns. We shouldn’t allow people who have a string of misdemeanor-assault convictions or who terrorize their neighbors to own guns just because they haven’t shot anyone yet. And Swanson asks, “With mounting evidence that problem drinking elevates violence risk, why not prohibit people with multiple driving-under-the-influence convictions from buying guns?” We could at least do that on a temporary basis.
In a gun-crazy society, we’re not going to eliminate gun violence entirely, but we could reduce it significantly. The gun lobby insists that guns don’t kill people, so let’s call them on it—and, at a minimum, work to keep guns out of the hands of the people who do.