As we celebrated Independence Day, there was no independence from the scourge of gun violence and the toll it is taking on the American psyche. The shooter who attacked a parade in Highland Park, Illinois, killing six people and wounding at least 38 others, used a “high-powered rifle,” according to authorities. Survivors report a rain of bullets at the height of the attack.
This attack is bound to renew calls for more “red flag” laws that would help identify and disarm emotionally or mentally unstable persons who are making threats of gun violence or praising mass murderers. But would the Highland Park shooter’s online record of participating in “death fetish” culture sites and making art featuring mass killing have been enough for a judge to order seizure of his guns? The Guardian reports that just one Reddit website featuring gruesome death videos has more than 400,000 subscribers, most of whom will never shoot anyone. Red flag laws may help, but they seem likely either to cast too wide a net or to miss key individuals, given that mental health is not a strong predictor of becoming a mass shooter.
With more than 22,000 deaths by gun reported by July 4 this year, it is not surprising that people are looking for quick solutions. After the execution of 19 elementary schoolers in Texas and a hospital shooting in Oklahoma in May, there were shootings at a graduation party and a nightclub during the first weekend in June. Then an armed man was arrested at the home of a Supreme Court justice.
The outcry was even enough to motivate some Republican senators — enough for the 60 votes needed to surmount a filibuster and pass a new gun control law. But don’t get your hopes up. The Senate bill, now signed into law, does not include renewing the assault weapons ban that, for a decade, lowered deaths in mass shootings, and would have prevented many more in the years since the Senate declined to renew it in 2004. Nor does it expand background checks to all gun show sales. It does increase checks on buyers under age 21, but will not prevent them from buying high-capacity magazines.
You will recall that the Uvalde shooter bought two semiautomatic rifles and more than 1,600 rounds of ammunition, and the Highland Park shooter clearly also had large magazines. Deaths almost triple when shooters use high-capacity magazines. The House passed a better bill that would ban high-capacity magazines and currently untraceable “ghost guns,” as well as requiring secure storage at home. The law we need should also require smart gun technology — a fingerprint or eye-scan lock — that makes handguns fireable only by their owners.
Instead, the “Safer Communities Act” now in effect throws money at the problem by funding more programs to help emotionally disturbed youth and to encourage every state to implement its own “red flag” procedures. That’s a far cry from a unified national standard to stop highly unstable people from buying powerful weapons (New York’s new law could be used as such a standard). As things stand, even a person flagged for severe mental disturbances in one state may be able to visit another state, a gun show or a website to buy an assault rifle with a magazine that holds 80 or more armor-piercing bullets.
Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.
This new law may create a false sense of hope, but will do little to reduce the 316 “routine” shootings that take place on average every day in this country, including around 74 in suicide attempts and another 91 in accidental shootings. This problem is driven by the fact that there are so many guns in American households that someone in a psychic meltdown can easily get hold of one. Gun sales tripled during the pandemic, and there is more than one private firearm per person in America, far more than in any other nation. In 2021 alone, 19.9 million guns were sold in the U.S., amounting to more than $1,1 billion in gross profits. Even if we assume half of that went to guns for hunting sports (which is unlikely), it is still a shocking figure.
Like every crisis, this one produces new markets. In particular, beyond funeral homes and gun manufacturers, opportunities in security are booming. The number of law enforcement officers in this country has increased over 27% in just nine years since its low during the last big recession. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 14% increase in the number of private security guard jobs during this decade. We can expect towns and cities to spend more on police protection for parades and public events. For example, one report shows that, in nominal dollars, Seattle’s expenses on police for large events almost doubled from 2010 to 2016.
That is essentially the NRA’s alternative to gun control: continuing to add armed security personnel without end. But this alleged solution to gun violence is a mirage that recedes as you try to approach it. The NRA wants more armed personnel not only at schools and churches, but also at bars, arts and music festivals, supermarkets, movie theaters, schools, parades,and workplaces where the mass shootings that uniquely plague America keep happening. A security detail will be needed for every federal judge, but also for their family members — potentially more than 3,000 new federal security officers. Eventually the same will hold for all 535 members of Congress and Cabinet members, plus an increasing number of state officials as well.
How expensive that will be is rarely even discussed, but in fact the economic costs entailed by this approach are staggering. Imagine how angry Americans would be if their state doubled sales taxes on every product and service. The NRA’s “armed guards everywhere” approach might entail at least that much.
After every school, movie theater, county fair, mall and nightclub has its own elite military unit at your expense, shooters will move on to farmers markets, dog runs, ski resorts and ice rinks. No amount of armed officers will ever be enough.
A “resource officer” with a handgun was never a familiar figure in school for most of us who are now adults. As one study noted, “in 1975, only 1% of schools reported having police officers on site, but by 2018, approximately 58% of schools had at least one sworn law enforcement official present during the school week” at an annual cost of many billions of dollars — even though, as the Journal of the American Medical Association reported in 2021, there is little evidence that they deter school shootings. This is hardly a sign of progress.
The NRA’s approach would require at least two or three officers with expensive training at every school building, because the presence of a single officer does not stop school shootings – as we saw in Parkland, Florida, and again in Uvalde, Texas. An average school district might need at least 24 SWAT-style security experts, whose salary, benefits and equipment would cost at least $2.5 million a year, at a conservative estimate). Such a midsize district could have hired perhaps 15 to 20 excellent teachers for that sum. And even then, two police officers in a school under attack might feel too outgunned to storm the shooter’s apparent location.
The target options will also expand. Every office, every government official’s home street and every floor of every hospital will need at least two guards with assault rifles and armor. After every school, cinema, county fair, mall and nightclub, every large holiday party or summer concert has its own elite militia unit at your expense — all priced into everything you buy — the shooters will move on to farmer’s markets, ski resorts, dog parks, rush hour traffic jams, ice rinks, you name it. No number of armed officers in the world will be enough, but their presence everywhere will create the numbing, tourism-killing sense of living in a war zone.
The law passed by the Senate will not stop our slide down this slippery slope. We will eventually see armed guards and vigilantes — including armed teachers, armed bus drivers, armed supermarket managers and so on — at cross purposes in mass shooting events, mistaking each other for the active shooter. How many innocent civilians will get caught in the crossfire during shootouts in ordinary public spaces as we “harden our targets” according to the NRA’s insane dictates? And how many more children will accidentally get shot at home because of all these newly armed ordinary civilians? An estimated 4.3 million kids already live in homes with one or more loaded and unlocked guns.
In areas where violent crime is perceived to be high, we are also likely to see more ordinary civilians carrying guns, ostensibly for self-protection, now that the Supreme Court has made it much easier to get concealed carry permits by striking down a New York law. Everytown USA reports that direct and indirect costs of gun violence now top $280 billion a year. A study in Mother Jones gave a figure of $229 billion in 2015 dollars. Yet such calculations don’t usually even begin to add up the likely costs of all these additional security guards.
For comparison, $280 billion is more than all state spending on Medicaid and all federal spending on Veterans Affairs. It’s more than 10 times the total amount of spending on Pell Grants, the main federal aid program for college expenses. After another decade, the money we spend on hordes of armed guards, health care for the injured, life insurance for the murdered, counseling for children traumatized by shootings, prisons for gun crime convicts, and other effects of the gun glut could equal half our entire national defense budget (which itself equals the combined defense budgets of the next seven nations). No other advanced democratic society would even consider sacrificing so much just to subsidize one destructive industry.
When we start keeping our kids away from Fourth of July parades, we are allowing politicians like Ted Cruz, subsidiaries of the NRA, to destroy the fabric of our society.
There is another insidious and less obvious social cost of the gun glut: more isolation. Already parents have moved more than a million students out of public schools during the COVID pandemic, and one-third of American adults say that fear of shootings keeps them and their kids from going to certain events and venues. As shootings increase, more parents will decide to homeschool their kids or keep them from participating in sports, shopping with friends or visiting beaches and rock concerts. When we start keeping our kids away from Fourth of July parades, we are allowing politicians like Ted Cruz, who are fully-owned subsidiaries of the NRA, to destroy the social fabric of our society.
In sum, the NRA plan is an arms-race spiral with no logical end. Because officers with handguns are not enough, we will need armor-piercing weapons to stop mass shooters. The armor will get stronger and so will the guns and bullets, with the weapons industry cashing in at every iteration cycle. It’s a bit like a web programmer who attacks your computer with viruses and then sells you antivirus software: Their goal is to direct attention away from the root of the problem.
That root, once again, is the vast number of guns in this society, including assault rifles, and their ready availability in most states. This is the main difference between the U.S. and other developed democratic nations, where most mentally ill people, suicidal people or those on a rampage of hate cannot easily get hold of a powerful firearm when their crisis arrives.
To really fix the problem, we have to reduce the fears of neighbors cultivated by mass media, which drive gun sales. The sense that others around you are arming up also triggers second-order fears. Americans feel the need to own a gun because the enormous number in circulation make it far more likely that a criminal here will use a gun while committing a crime. There is no technological substitute for deep social trust, as sociologists researching “social capital” have found. The proliferation of guns erodes that trust like the strongest acid, and produces a defeatist sense that mass shootings are “inevitable.”
That point also helps explain what’s wrong with the NRA’s main arguments against new gun laws. Against red flag laws, supporters of our disastrous status quo say they depend on family members, school officials or mental health professionals to report dangerous individuals; but as we saw in the Buffalo shooting, such people often face counter-pressures not to report. Against limits on magazines and armor-piercing semiautomatic guns (or “assault rifles”), they say that there is already an “immense stock” of them on hand, so a ban will do little. Against gun-show checks, they cite mass shooters who passed background checks.
Sadly, these arguments are largely correct: even the House bills would only reduce, not stop, the carnage from rising numbers of mass shootings. But that doesn’t mean that “resistance is futile” and we should give up. These objections only show that, in addition to such stronger laws, we must reject the spiraling addiction to powerful weapons and armed guards in our society, which fuels potential shooters’ sense that this is a quick route to fame. The only sane course is to reject the whole arms race that is so self-defeating for all of us.
We could start by adding steep federal taxes on sales of all guns other than standard hunting rifles, which would recapture at least some of the costs in medical insurance, lost productivity and life insurance that are being imposed on us. For semiautomatics, the tax could be 1,000%, as one Virginia lawmaker recently proposed. Then we could end the immunity from civil liability lawsuits that gun manufacturers enjoy.
Of course, none of this is possible while the filibuster curse endures. More fundamentally, we need a cultural shift, or even a crusade: We have to start heaping scorn on “gun culture,” and making everyone understand its appalling and ever-increasing social costs. We need to reverse the idea that masculine image and status come from AK-47s and instead project the message that this kind of posturing is immature and weak: You don’t need a gun to be a real man, or have a confident and powerful identity. That requires a society-wide effort to counter the NRA’s lies, starting with discussions in our homes and extending to mass advertising campaigns. It eventually worked with the tobacco peddlers, and we can set ourselves free from our addiction to guns too.
Read more on America’s epidemic of gun violence: