After the horrific shooting in Las Vegas, the impulse of politicians is to lower flags, offer moments of silence and lead somber tributes. But what we need most of all isn’t mourning but action to lower the toll of guns in America.
We needn’t simply acquiesce in this kind of slaughter. When Australia suffered a mass shooting in 1996, the country united behind tougher laws on firearms.
The result is that the gun homicide rate was almost halved, and the gun suicide rate dropped by half, according to The Journal of Public Health Policy. America’s gun homicide rate is now about 20 times Australia’s.
Skeptics will say that there are no magic wands, and they’re right. But it is unconscionable for politicians to continue to empower killers at this scale.
Since 1970, more Americans have died from guns (including suicides, murders and accidents) than the sum total of all the Americans who died in all the wars in American history, back to the American Revolution. Every day, some 92 Americans die from guns, and American kids are 14 times as likely to die from guns as children in other developed countries, according to David Hemenway of Harvard.
We’re not helpless. Here are modest steps we could take that would, collectively, make a difference:
1. Impose universal background checks before buying a gun. More than 4 out of 5 Americans support this measure, to prevent criminals or terrorists from obtaining guns. Harvard research suggests that because of loopholes, 22 percent of guns are acquired without a background check.
2. Ban bump stocks, which allow semiautomatic rifles to fire more like automatics. In Las Vegas, a single gunman was able to shoot hundreds of people because he had converted guns to bump-stock firing.
3. Impose an age limit of 21 on gun purchases. This is already the law for handgun purchases in many states, and it mirrors the law on buying alcohol.
4. Enforce a ban on possession of guns by anyone subject to a domestic violence protection order. This is a moment when people are upset and prone to violence.
5. Limit gun purchases by any one person to no more than, say, two a month and tighten rules on straw purchasers who buy for criminals. Make serial numbers harder to remove.
6. Adopt microstamping of cartridges so that they can be traced to the gun that fired them, which is useful for solving gun crimes.
7. Invest in “smart gun” purchases by police departments or the U.S. military, to promote their use. Such guns incorporate technology to restrict their operation, such as not firing without a PIN, a fingerprint or a device in proximity, like a special bracelet, so that children cannot misuse them and they are less vulnerable to theft.
8. Require safe storage, to reduce theft, suicide and accidents by children.
9. Invest in research to see what interventions will be more effective in reducing gun deaths, so we can base our policies on robust evidence.
These are all modest steps that shouldn’t be controversial, and I can’t claim that they would have an overwhelming effect. But public health experts think it’s plausible that well-crafted safety measures could over time reduce gun deaths by one-third — or more than 10,000 a year.
It might be that nothing could have prevented the slaughter in Las Vegas, but mass shootings are anomalies: Most gun deaths occur in ones or twos, usually with handguns (which kill far more people than assault rifles), and suicides outnumber murders. And we can chip away at gun violence as a whole.
When Connecticut tightened handgun laws, gun homicides there fell by 40 percent. Conversely, Missouri loosened handgun laws, and firearm homicides there rose by 25 percent.
In every other sphere of life, we use safety regulations to try — however imperfectly — to reduce death and injury.
For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has seven pages of rules about ladders, which kill 300 people a year. Yet the federal government doesn’t make a serious effort to reduce gun deaths, with a toll more than 100 times as high.
Gun advocates invariably respond: Cars kill as many people as firearms, but we don’t ban cars. No, but automobiles are an excellent example of intelligent regulation that makes lethal products safer.
By my calculations, we’ve reduced the auto fatality rate per 100 million miles driven by more than 95 percent since 1921. This was accomplished through seat belts, air bags, padded dashboards, better bumpers, lighted roads, highway guardrails, graduated licenses for young people, crackdowns on drunken driving, and so on. We haven’t eliminated auto deaths, but we have reduced the toll — and we should do the same with guns.
The gun lobby says that this isn’t a time for politics. But if we can’t learn lessons from tragedies, we’re doomed to repeat them. Massive gun violence is a particularly American horror and is completely unnecessary.
So let’s mourn. But even more important, let’s act.
Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times.