Why gun control efforts should go beyond mass shootings, advocates say

Suicides account for 60% of annual gun deaths, data shows.

April 26, 2021, 6:03 AM

A spate of mass shootings in recent months has once again trained the spotlight on how to prevent those tragedies, which garner national headlines and the attention of lawmakers and activists alike.

But data from the Gun Violence Archive shows that they account for a small fraction of the tens of thousands of deaths from gun violence in the U.S. each year.

Now, some are questioning whether gun control efforts are too focused on mass shootings rather than smaller-scale, but more prevalent, deaths and suicides by gun.

Mass shootings like the 2012 Sandy Hook, which claimed 26 lives, the 2018 Parkland massacre and others scarred the nation and led to efforts to ban assault weapons, high-capacity magazines and bump stocks, but have faced challenges in getting passed into law.

In March, the House passed a bipartisan bill for universal background checks for gun sales. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has promised to hold a vote on the legislation. But the odds of it passing are slim because of Senate rules that require 60 votes.

Advocates say President Joe Biden’s executive actions, announced earlier this month in the wake of the Atlanta and Colorado shootings this year, could help combat less prominent acts of gun violence, but they are limited initiatives because they're not legislative proposals.

Biden's actions included a proposed rule to regulate the sale of so-called “ghost guns” and ask the Department of Justice to publish model "red flag" legislation -- which allows police or family members to petition a court to order the temporary removal of firearms from a person if deemed mentally unfit or potentially a harm to themselves or others -- for states within 60 days. They also called for investments in evidence-based community violence intervention to end gun violence in communities experiencing spikes in homicides, and a new annual report on firearms trafficking, which hasn't been done since 2000.

Rob Pincus, the co-founder of the Center for Gun Rights and Responsibility, a group that works with gun owners and advocates for safe gun use, said magazine capacity limits and assault weapon bans “don’t address the issues of suicide, negligence, or specific targeted homicides" and should focus more on homicide and suicide by firearm.

“How many bullets is enough to kill yourself? It's one. So there is no magazine capacity ban that's going to have any impact whatsoever on [a majority] of the firearms involved deaths,” Pincus told ABC News.

Mass shootings a fraction of gun deaths

Gun violence has surged in recent years -- even as the coronavirus pandemic shut down public gatherings.

2020 saw the highest level of gun violence deaths in 20 years, according to firearm death data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2020, 43,551 gun violence deaths were reported, according to the Gun Violence Archive, an independent database that has collected gun violence incidents from law enforcement agencies, media and the government since 2013.

Of those, 19,395 deaths were homicides, murders, unintentional deaths or instances of defensive gun use and 24,000 were suicides. A fraction, however -- 610 deaths -- were from mass shootings, which the Gun Violence Archive defines as a minimum of four victims shot, either injured or killed. Not all mass shootings are public events that make national news.

PHOTO: Illustration
Total Number of Gun Violence Deaths 2019 & 2020
ABC News / Gun Violence Archive.org

In 2019, the Gun Violence Archive reported nearly 40,000 deaths involving guns, more than 15,000 from homicides, murders, unintentional deaths or defensive gun use, over 24,000 from suicides and 417 from mass shootings.

“The reality is that mass shootings, though, represent about 4% of all gun deaths,” Kris Brown, the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, told ABC News. “It's not to be any one thing that solves an epidemic that claims 40,000 lives and leaves 80,000 injured [a year].” Those numbers are five-year averages Brady established based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) annual gun fatality data.

Focus on mental health

Brown said Indiana has a "red flag" law and if it was used, it could have prevented the Indianapolis Fedex facility shooting on April 15 that left 8 dead. Last year the gunman's mother told police she was worried about his behavior after he purchased a gun and allegedly threatened police suicide. Police could have alerted a court and petitioned an order to remove his firearm.

“It's just heartbreaking that an extreme risk law was not thought of there, because it's exactly those kinds of situations that can save lives,” Brown said.

PHOTO: Crime scene investigators walk through the parking lot at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis, April 16, 2021.
Crime scene investigators walk through the parking lot at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis, April 16, 2021.
Jeff Dean/AFP via Getty Images

Pincus said focusing on gun owner’s mental health is key in curbing such shootings as well as suicides, which account for a majority of gun deaths in the U.S. each year.

“Indianapolis is such an unfortunate example of where the "red flag" system fails,” he said. “He never got mental health attention. He never got over whatever suicidal impulse and rage he had," he said.

Pincus said "red flag laws" don't offer the mental health support gun owners may need and suggested mental health professionals should be able to work with their clients on a cooperative basis to have them placed on a list to prohibit them from purchasing firearms.

“What we're really talking about is mental health practitioners having a mechanism to work with gun owners in clinical situations, during counseling or therapy and say, 'Would you agree, this is a time when your mom can hold your gun or put [the guns] in storage for a time. This is a temporary state. But we're also going to put you into the National Instant Check system on a prohibited list to prevent a tragedy from happening while you're in this condition,'” he said.

Violence intervention and access control

Advocates say safe storage and addressing mental health is key, as about 60% of gun deaths are from suicide according to a Department of Justice survey from 2010 -- a trend advocates say has persisted over the years.

Another key way to end gun violence is investment into community violence intervention programs that send case workers to victims of gun violence, work in hospitals with victims, and those recently released from prison.

"The gun violence that we see that plays out on a regular basis in this country is overwhelmingly not mass shootings. It's suicides with firearms and interpersonal gun violence," that disproportionately effects urban communities of color, Robin Lloyd, the managing director of Giffords, a gun control advocacy group, told ABC News.

“A huge proportion of the people who are shot end up later on becoming potential perpetrators,” Brown said. A 2002 U.S. Department of Justice report found juveniles who are victims of violence are more likely to commit gun violence offenses.

Pincus stressed the greatest way to tackle gun homicides and suicides is training and prevention of unauthorized access.

PHOTO: Ghost guns that were secured by the DC Metropolitan Police Department are displayed during a press conference held by Mayor Muriel Bowser who announced a new legislation to ban the import of ghost gun kits and parts in Washington, Feb. 28, 2020.
Ghost guns that were secured by the DC Metropolitan Police Department are on display during a press conference held by Mayor Muriel Bowser who announced a new legislation to ban the import of kits and parts used to make untraceable ghost guns in Washington, D.C., Feb. 28, 2020. The guns that come in the kits can be easily assembled without the need of sophisticated machinery.
The Washington Post via Getty Images, FILE

“When we focus on access control, we focus on secured storage, we focus on making sure people around the gun in the household are educated in its use,” he said.

Advocates also called for greater awareness campaigns focused on responsible gun use, safe storage, mental health and suicide prevention similar to campaigns urging the public to wear seat belts in cars and to stop smoking.

“It's public awareness, education, and social pressure," Pincus said.

Calls for a national standard

At the federal level, gun reform activists are pushing for universal background checks to stop not just mass shootings, but all forms of gun violence.

“The background check loophole is basically the fact that you can buy a firearm in this country legally without getting a background check. That happens at gun shows, it happens via the internet, it just happens because two people can meet in a parking lot. No questions asked," Lloyd said.

"Because there's a patchwork of laws in this country, it makes [gun guidelines] inconsistent. Illinois, for example, even though the state has stronger gun laws, because its [neighbors] Indiana, Wisconsin and others don't, guns are very easily trafficked from those states into Illinois. And that puts Illinois communities at risk," she added.

A reason Congress has been slow to act on gun reform is the Senate filibuster, a rule that requires 60 Senators to agree to vote on a bill.

Jared Carter, a constitutional law expert from Vermont Law School, explained ultimately little is likely to change with gun reform when it comes to passing legislation.

“I think the likelihood of anything controversial, and we know that gun rights Second Amendment issues are some of the most controversial, are not going to pass if you need to get 60 votes in the Senate,” Carter told ABC News. “As long as the filibuster is still in existence, nothing of significance is going to pass.”

“It has not helped America that this issue has become politicized. A bullet is not political. It will hit you indiscriminately,” Brown said.

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