Regulating evil: dispelling a deadly narrative about guns

Photo credit: Kali Ryder

As politically polarized as the U.S. is, Americans from all walks of life agree that mass shootings are reprehensible. One thing Americans can’t agree on, however, is how to stop them.

Gun control is one of America’s most politically divisive topics and a point of contention at all levels of conversation, from informal student discussions to legislative battles. Second Amendment purists tirelessly aim to protect the right to bear arms and have spent nearly two years blocking a vote for universal background checks.

Gun-control advocates, however, often fail to fully grasp the rationale behind gun-rights proponents’ opposing reformation. If we could better understand gun-rights talking points, then we could better impede them to achieve proper gun control.

A common argument gun-rights advocates have adopted to defend their position and denounce school shootings simultaneously is that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”

The afternoon after the deadly 2017 Las Vegas shooting where more than 50 people were killed, former Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin defended gun rights with an argument analogous to the aforementioned phrase.

“To all these political opportunists who are seizing on the tragedy in Las Vegas to call for more gun regs, you can’t regulate evil,” Bevin said.

The statement amassed 6,000 retweets almost immediately, with around half of those showing support for Bevin’s unsuitable statement. By disentangling shooters from the weapons they use to carry out their crimes, politicians can denounce horrific incidents involving guns while maintaining their support for gun laws with no teeth.

To a layperson, this argument seems intuitive. Naturally, a gun cannot be fired without someone pulling the trigger, but this argument is the paradigm of a “false dilemma” fallacy, which presents only two options instead of a broader spectrum. When a gun supporter says “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” they imply that it can’t be a combination of both that contributes to the violence.

The reality is that people do kill people, but it is often done so with guns. According to Center for Disease Control mortality data, in 2020, firearm-related injury became the leading cause of death among children and adolescents. Over a 10-year period from 2009-2018, the United States had 288 school shootings, which is 280 more than the next highest country. Since then, we have seen little improvement.

Photo credit: Kali Ryder

Every day that passes, the U.S. misses an opportunity to save lives. In the first month of this year, California alone saw four mass shootings in just one week. Among these shootings was the attack at a Monterey Park nightclub where 11 people were killed during a Lunar New Year celebration; the Half Moon Bay shootings where seven people were killed at two mushroom farm locations; and on Saturday morning, a gunman opened fire killing three people in the Beverly Crest Community in Los Angeles, adding up to a staggering total of 19 people killed in one week due to gun violence. In the wake of such a shocking death toll in such a short period of time in just one state, one has to consider why the “people killing people” have access to guns in the first place.

Australia, a nation that enforces strict gun control policies, has drastically lower firearm-related incidents than the U.S. That wasn’t always the case, but Australia took aggressive action following a major tragedy. In 1996, 35 people were killed and 28 were injured in a mass shooting in a tourist area in the Australian state of Tasmania.. The Australian prime minister at the time, John Howard, quickly moved to tighten firearm policy in the country.

“After this wanton slaughter, I knew that I had to use the authority of my office to curb the possession and use of the type of weapons that killed 35 innocent people. I also knew it wouldn’t be easy,” Howard said in a 2013 op-ed for The New York Times.

While people do kill people, proper gun control has in practice drastically reduced acts of mass violence in other nations.

If guns don’t kill people, but people kill people, then the problem lies within the individuals handling these weapons. In an effort to determine the causes of gun violence, the American Psychological Association (APA) found that factors such as economic status, mental health, anger management issues and exposure to violent media all positively correlate with inclinations towards gun violence.

These facets of the problem must be addressed through institutions that might aid in fewer displays of gun violence such as proper mental health treatment and programs that assist those living in poverty.

With that being said, the recurrence of gun violence in the U.S. can’t be solved by only focusing on the social issues that exist in America. At the core of the solution is the regulation of guns at the state and federal level. A mentally-ill person is treatable, but until there are universal methods to identify and treat those who need help and identify those who might pose risk to the safety of others more clearly, the problem should be approached in whatever way will prevent harm to the public.

Another common argument from gun lobbyists is that the American public feels safer and that crime is deterred when they are able to freely wield firearms. Research conducted by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center suggests the opposite, and the commonly cited statistic of 2.5 million people using guns to defend themselves or their property annually is based on faulty analysis from a 1990s study.

“The evidence is equally compelling that having another weapon, such as mace (spray) or a baseball bat, will also reduce the likelihood of property loss. What guns do is make hostile interactions — robberies, assaults — much more deadly,” David Hemenway, the director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, said.

This serves to starkly undermine the notion that people kill people, not guns. While a person wields the weapon, the severity of injury caused is often dependent on the weapon rather than the person. Anger clouds judgment and having a trigger at one’s fingertips is contributing to America’s gravely unique shooting problem.

The term “gun control” is, on both sides, sometimes misunderstood. Proponents sometimes visualize gun control as a cure-all decree that wipes out guns and their resulting violence for good. Opponents view it catastrophically: police officers storming into their homes, stealing their guns and arresting any resisters. The truth is that gun control will be neither of these things, but a process with individual steps. A beneficial first step would be tightening universal background checks.

Universal background checks, or UBIs, already have proven positive impacts on gun violence. In the last 30 years, over three million gun sales were blocked by a background check. However, there is still room for improvement. Individual state laws allow private gun sales to not require a background check, which allows a swath of the population to access guns when they might use them for harm. In at least one famous case, an unlicensed arms dealer sold a gun to a shooter who killed 32 people in Odessa, Texas. Tightening up UBIs is something very attainable in our society – the law already exists at a federal level and it would just be eliminating a loophole – and this is an achievable way to control gun violence. That said, it is just one step on the long road to quelling gun violence.

This year, Feb. 14 will mark four years since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.. Four years following the death of 17 students and staff and the United States is still hovering over possible gun reform solutions. Many survivors of the Parkland shooting turned to activism in an effort to work to achieve tangible change In 2018, they created March For Our Lives, an organization dedicated to ending the widespread gun violence through education and civic involvement. Today, March For Our Lives has organized hundreds of protests across the country to denounce gun violence and has registered more than 50,000 new voters.

Ultimately, “you can’t regulate evil” is no argument in comparison to innocent lives lost and it certainly doesn’t invalidate evidence that gun reforms can actually work. Sure, restrictions on gun access would not completely eradicate mass shootings, but these restrictions are proven to save lives. In this context, touting “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is a defeatist argument that would allow the status quo to continue: Mass shootings will continue unabated. Even if just one mass shooting is prevented, the gun reforms would have served their purpose. I’m sure many Americans would agree on that.

Jayden Cohen is a freshman majoring in Business Analytics in the Miami Herbert Business School.

+ posts