It’s anti-gun hysteria that’s off the charts

Obama’s call for action on US gun control is grounded on half-truths and misinformation.

A 15-year-old lone gunman, now identified as Jared Padgett, invaded an Oregon high school on Tuesday and opened fire in a gym locker room. He shot and killed 14-year-old Emilio Hoffman and wounded a teacher before then killing himself.

It was the seventy-fourth shooting at an American school since the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012 — and the thirty-seventh this year, according to a tally by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. US President Barack Obama responded on Tumblr the next day: ‘This is not acceptable, this is not normal. We’re the only developed country on Earth where this happens and it happens now once a week and it’s a one-day story. [Gun violence in America] is off the charts.

‘There’s no advanced, developed country on Earth that would put up with this’, he said. ‘This is becoming the norm and we take it for granted in ways that, as a parent, are terrifying to me… If public opinion does not demand change in Congress, it will not change.’

When it was suggested to Obama that mental illness was the underlying problem in many of the shootings, he responded: ‘The United States does not have a monopoly on crazy people.’ The problem, continued Obama, is the availability of guns. ‘This country has to do a lot of soul searching’, he said.

Obama was not alone in calling for increased gun control. Everytown for Gun Safety, a hastily formed gun-control advocacy group, has also been vocal. Huffington Post editor Mark Gongloff mapped Everytown’s data about the seventy-four shootings that have taken place since Sandy Hook and put it out on social media. The result is currently doing the rounds on Twitter:

This is indeed a frightening-looking map. Where is it safe to send one’s children to school with so many shootings going on?

But take a closer look, and a different picture emerges. First, 35 shootings occured on or near a college campus. In other words, these incidents involved adults not children. Second, the figure includes teaching staff who either fired a gun or were fired upon while at school. Third, the figure did not represent fatalities but – literally – shootings; in at least four incidents, no one was injured. If we look at the 44 school shootings between December 15 2012 and February 10 2014 analysed by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the 28 fatalities includes 11 suicides.

The 17 remaining include, as Jesse Walker pointed out in Reason magazine, a 19-year-old shot in the dead of night on the grounds of an elementary school. It is, of course, still a tragedy, but only peripherally a school shooting.

Are there no trustworthy statistics for parents – or Obama – to examine? Well, as luck would have it, not too far away from the Whitehouse, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) published a report this month entitled Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2013. In case it got lost in Obama’s inbox, so here it is again. Rather usefully, the report includes a chart germane to this very issue:

The numbers, as can be seen, are low enough to be subject to variation (note the spike in 2006; and the Sandy Hook massacre is certain to skew 2012 data). Still, the operative word here to describe the number of shootings is ‘low’. We might even say, particularly when considering the rise in population over the same period, that the numbers were, if anything, coming down.

Parents should take further comfort from the context for gun-shooting stats. In the autumn of 2013, about 50million students were enrolled at public elementary and secondary schools in the US. An additional 5million students attend private schools. As the BJS report notes, ‘in 2010-11, 11 of the 1,336 homicides among school-age young people occurred at school’. That means, of course, that less than one per cent of school-age homicides occurred in schools. In other words, schools are extremely safe.

In fact, if we regarded US schools as a country with a population of 50million, the homicide rate would be the lowest recorded (if we exclude small countries that report no homicides at all) in the world.

So, given this rather re-assuring picture of US schools, why the hysterical determination to paint a rather more frightening picture?  Could it be that Obama, as well as some of the vulture-like organisations which hover over every school shooting, has an agenda that is less about school safety and more about banning guns?

Kevin Yuill teaches American studies at the University of Sunderland. His latest book, Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case Against Legalisation, is published by Palgrave Macmillan. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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