Mass shootings in this country – at schools, homes, offices, malls – have kept up their pace in the past year. Meanwhile, the post-Newtown call for comprehensive gun-control reform has failed to take root.
It’s remarkable, really.
More than 31,000 people in this country are killed by guns every year in homicides, suicides and accidents. (Another 75,000 seek treatment at emergency rooms for nonfatal gunshot wounds.)
What the FBI defines as “mass shootings” – four or more fatalities – account for only about 1 percent of gun homicides but get the most media attention. USA Today keeps track of them in an interactive map that reveals a tedious trend.
In 2011, the year before the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre in Newtown, Conn., 111 people were killed in 23 mass shootings. In 2012, 123 people were killed in 20 mass shootings (including Newtown, in which 20 first-graders and six adults were murdered). In 2013, it was 24 mass shootings and 112 deaths.
In the days after Newtown, the president spoke at a memorial. He said, “These tragedies must end.” But they didn’t.
He said, “And to end them, we must change.” But we didn’t.
He said, “We can’t tolerate this anymore.” But we do.
Why does the needle move so quickly on some social issues and refuse to budge on others?
I’ve been thinking of this because of what happened in Roswell last month. And because of what has been happening across the country – and here – in regard to gay marriage.
In the aftermath of Newtown, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 56 percent of Americans backed gun-control measures. In February, two months after the shooting, support rose to 61 percent.
Congress failed to act on any of the measures, and on the first anniversary of Newtown, public support for gun control in the same poll had slid down to 52 percent. Other polls track the same trend – about a 50-50 split on whether we need tighter gun controls. The polls also show most Americans don’t rate it as an issue of much importance.
Compare that to the swift swing in public opinion about homosexuality.
In Gallup polling over more than a decade on the questions of whether homosexuality is morally acceptable, the “no” and “yes” lines met and crisscrossed in 2008 at 48 percent and 48 percent. In 2013, gay approval was at 59 percent.
Acceptance of gay marriage also has continued to grow, especially among younger Americans.
As social attitudes have changed, so have states’ gay marriage laws. Thirty-three states have same-sex marriage bans, almost all enacted before 2009. Seventeen states have legalized same-sex marriage, almost all after 2008. In those 17 states, the laws were changed through popular vote, legislative action or state courts.
The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which tracks gun legislation, identifies 53 of 406 new bills introduced in state legislatures for the 2014 sessions that are moving forward. Of those, 33 would strengthen the state’s gun laws, 19 would weaken them and 11 would have a minimal impact. Not exactly a sea change.
What does that all mean?
That “gun control” can be anything from expanded background checks to closing the gun show loophole to outright bans of certain gun models; it’s not as easy as the simple yes or no question of gay marriage.
But also that the people lead with their attitudes and then change follows; the change doesn’t lead the people.
The shooting at Berrendo Middle School last month wouldn’t come close to qualifying for the FBI’s mass shooting list – not enough victims and no fatalities. Still, it was wrenching for the townsfolk of Roswell and the rest of New Mexico.
People in each state that have lived through one or more of those news-making shootings – and that would be almost every state – must have experienced those same emotions and more. And yet people’s attitudes haven’t changed sufficiently to force the issue. We get the change we demand, and we’re not demanding gun control. At least not yet.