Mass shootings are an American problem — with an American solution
On awful, gut-churning days such as Monday, I find it important to remind myself that mass shootings happen almost nowhere else but the United States. As we become normalized to the regular pace of massive, execution-style killings — Sandy Hook, Charleston, Orlando and now Las Vegas — it’s critical to understand that the Groundhog Day phenomenon of horrific mass shootings is exclusive to the United States. I find consolation in this fact, because if the problem is particularly American, then the solution can be, too.
Thus far, though, our response to regular mass slaughter has been, quite frankly, uniquely un-American. Our nation, in a short quarter-millennium, catapulted itself to global preeminence by solving the world’s greatest problems and exporting those solutions to the rest of the world. Participatory democracies. Open economies. Web-based communication. All American innovations to the great conundrums of the globe.
But when it comes to perhaps the oldest and most important human concern — the fear of physical harm — the United States does not lead. In fact, we choose to be an increasingly distant outlier of exceptional violence.
I served as congressman for Newtown, Conn., when a gunman opened fire in Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing 20 children and six educators. The parents of those kids are now my friends. They will never recover from what they have endured. The scars are brutally deep and exposed for all to see. No one should wish the scorching pain of losing a son or daughter on anyone. And so, in a very personal way, my heart has been with Las Vegas every minute since news broke of the tragedy.
And I awoke Monday hoping that maybe this shooting is the one that will persuade America to reclaim the mantle of global leadership that has been at our core since our origin. The path to this leadership lies, I believe, in the special nature of gun violence as a political issue.
First, contrary to the mythology spread by the gun lobby, there is not much real controversy around the first steps we should take to trim rates of gun crime. Large majorities of Americans support universal background checks, permit requirements for gun ownership and bans on the most dangerous kinds of weapons and ammunition. The gun lobby, and the loud vocal minority it echoes, make the issue seem like more of a hot button than it is.
Second, scores of research shows that these interventions work to a stunning degree. In my state of Connecticut, which has expanded background checks and requires issued handgun permits, gun crimes have dropped by 40 percent.
Americans want change, and we know the changes that work. So why are politicians so scared to get it done? Because the gun lobby has rigged the official and unofficial rules of the game to prevent common-sense change.
Just take the rhetoric from gun-lobby loyalists following the shooting: Some chided advocates such as me for “politicizing” the tragedy by calling for policy change to make our communities safer. This tried-and-true tactic attempts to silence voices of change at the height of public receptivity to these calls. Others talked about the inability to “regulate evil,” as if the entire history of government isn’t tied up in passing laws — such as those prohibiting assault, murder and arson — to try to prevent acts of evil.
In the coming days, Republicans who call for sensible changes in our laws will be told that their position is politically unsustainable — the gun lobby will defeat them if they advocate for gun-safety laws. But even this is a fiction: In 2016, four states had gun-law referendums on their ballot, three passed. The winners of three top U.S. Senate races — New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Nevada — all won with the support of advocates in the anti-gun-violence movement. (Two Democrats and one Republican, by the way). The gun lobby is certainly politically powerful, but it loses as many races as it wins.
What happened in Las Vegas reminds us that evil does exist. But we bind together to protect ourselves from the destruction that evil can deliver unchecked. America’s reputation is based on its ability to deliver the world big, Earth-changing solutions. Our failure to lead on the most basic of human desires — physical security — is in many ways the great American paradox. It doesn’t have to be.
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy is a Democrat from Connecticut.
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