A Grain Of Saul: Think You Know How To End Gun Violence? You're Probably Right.

We don't have to pick one solution.

A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.  

Few topics cause a division like the debate on gun violence.

What seems to be the singular unifying factor in the gun violence debate is that everyone admits there is a problem. Since 2000, there have been more than 130 school shootings at elementary, middle and high schools where students were targeted. The United States has the 31st highest rate of gun violence in the world, eight times higher than its northern neighbor Canada.


To try and solve that problem, people from the right and left of the political spectrum have offered a myriad of ideas. What's frustrating about the debate is that, often times, those solutions are presented as if they are mutually exclusive. Tell gun rights advocates that you want stricter FBI background checks, and they might say we need to address mental health instead. But why can't we pursue both?

A police officer walks outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida. REUTERS/Zachary Fagenson.

Not every idea is worth its salt, but many are worth implementing as part of a holistic approach to addressing gun violence. The truth is gun violence won't be fixed by any single initiative because it has many different causes. Instead of debating which singular solution will unilaterally fix the problem, we should build a comprehensive plan incorporating multiple solutions, including many of the most popular ones.

Better FBI background checks will limit the number of people with violent histories who can purchase weapons. After November's mass shooting in a Texas church, The Chicago Tribune reported that the FBI's background check system lost millions of records of "criminal convictions, mental illness diagnoses and other flags that would keep guns out of potentially dangerous hands." Almost every gun-loving American I know agrees it is too easy for people with documented histories of erratic or violent behavior to get weapons. More stringent checks could help. 

Improving access to mental health care would, seemingly, reduce the rate of suicide in the United States, which accounts for the majority of gun-related deaths.There also are signs improving mental health care access in this country could reduce the number of mass shootings: a Columbia University study from 2015 found that 52 of the 235 killers in a database of mass shooters were mentally ill. But be careful not to stigmatize: people who are mentally ill are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators.

Others say we should blame men, not mental illness, for mass shootings. Politico's Laura Kiesel points to data that shows serious mental illnesses accounts for just "14.8 percent of all of the mass shootings committed in the U.S" between 1966 and 2015. But of the 96 mass shootings committed since 1982, all but two were men. Kiesel says addressing toxic masculinity needs to be a part of stemming gun violence, and it's easy to understand why.

Limiting "loophole" sales would stop most people from being able to buy a gun without a federal background check. Right now, private sellers, collectors, friends and family members can all buy firearms from each other without conducting background checks. President Barack Obama tried to limit the number of people who could sell guns without a federal license, but insisted that Congress would need to act to change the law entirely. That's still true. We need legislation that dictates that it is against federal law to sell a firearm to anyone — your friends, family members, someone over the internet in the same state — without first conducting a federal background check. 

Make AR-15s and similar rifles much harder to buy. This one isn't going to go over well with gun rights enthusiasts, but I believe it's time. Newtown, San Bernardino, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs and now Parkland, Florida's shootings account for five of the six deadliest mass shootings in the last six years. AR-15- style semiautomatic rifles were used in all of them, and the gun continues to be sold with little resistance from lawmakers. The damage it can do to a body compared to a regular old handgun is unthinkable. And in Florida, it's easier to buy an AR-15 than a handgun, The New York Times reported.

An AR-15, commonly used in mass shootings. Photo / Isaac Saul

Increase the vetting for concealed handgun permits. If you're going to restrict AR-15s, it makes no sense not to restrict handguns, too. They account for fewer mass shootings but more gun violence. While AR-15s are known to do more damage, in many ways reloading and firing off repeated rounds in a handgun is just as easy. Many of my friends in the military and law enforcement insist that with a few magazines, someone who is trained with a 9mm Glock could fire as many rounds as someone with an AR-15 in the span of ten minutes.

We should abolish gun-free zones.  There is a popular meme going around in conservative circles suggesting we should hire unemployed vets to give schools armed protection. While that plan has its flaws, ending gun-free zones — which is going to piss off a lot of liberals — is worthwhile. Gun-free zones are places like schools, government buildings and churches where no guns are allowed, even by those who have the legal right to carry. 

A close friend of mine was in the Navy and served two tours of duty in Afghanistan. He has a concealed handgun in Florida but can't carry it onto campus when he goes to college, and he puts it like this: If a campus or school shooter walks into a building with a weapon, he or she will have — on average — about 10 minutes to fire without any resistance before police get there. 

"I could help if I had my Glock, but I'm not allowed so I'm defenseless," he said. "Why is that smart?" I have a tough time finding a good answer. Arming campus security and a select few trained teachers and allowing trained military and law enforcement personnel to have weapons in gun-free zones is an unsettling but potentially life-saving step.

The media needs to stop naming and glorifying mass shooters, as well. At A Plus, we don't publish the name of mass shooters because of the documented "media contagion" effect. A paper presented at an American Psychological Association conference cited "pathological narcissism" as a common trait in mass shooters. That means they are incentivized by the fame media outlets often given them. 

There are other popular ideas that would probably be less effective. Lots of people have tried to link antidepressants and other medications to mass shootings, but the evidence of a direct cause and effect is not convincing. Conservative commentators have also frequently employed the "good guy with a gun argument," which goes like this: if a good guy with a gun was present during a mass shooting, he could stop the shooter before the shooter did more damage. Therefore, we need more guns, not fewer. But the Florida high school had an armed security guard. In Texas, where a "good guy" stopped a man who shot up a church in Sutherland Springs, 26 people still died. 

I've seen enough anecdotal evidence of good guys with guns stopping bad guys with guns to call for an end to gun-free zones, but that doesn't mean we generally would be safer with more guns. The data on the whole — again — shows the opposite. Despite being 4.4 percent of the world's population, Americans have almost half of the world's civilian-owned guns. In states with more guns, there are more gun deaths. In countries with more guns, there are more gun deaths. In states with more gun control, there are fewer gun deaths. The data can't be much clearer than that. 

We need to make it harder for people to purchase and carry weapons, while also using trained personnel to defend so-called "soft targets" and addressing mental health issues.

On the whole, Americans of all political backgrounds seem to have valuable ideas on how to stop gun violence. The next step is realizing we don't need to pick just one.

You can follow @Ike_Saul on Twitter

Cover image via Shutterstock / Nicole S Glass.


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