When I was in high school, my homeroom teacher had a sign on her wall that read, “For any complex problem, there is a simple solution that will not work.” So it is with our mass shooter problem. Politicians routinely claim that they have the power to stop these tragedies. All we have to do, they say, is enact “reasonable” gun control, such as instituting universal background checks on gun purchases and banning assault weapons and large-capacity magazines. But these policy solutions will not work. The mass shooting problem defies an easy fix.
Three things make the mass shooting problem so difficult to solve. The first is that mass shooters often lack significant criminal histories, and thus, they are not legally disqualified under law from possessing firearms. They are usually formerly law-abiding citizens who, for whatever reason, snap.
Second, the intersection between a mass shooting and mental illness is not straightforward. After Sandy Hook, I emphasized the role that mental illness played in mass shootings. But further research leaves me persuaded that was overstated. Mass shooters are often angry and alienated, but they are not insane. Moreover, the link between mental illness and violence is not simple. Most mentally ill individuals are not violent, and even psychiatric experts cannot predict with any certainty which mentally ill individuals will become violent.
Third, public mass shootings are rare events. Examining news from the past 40 years, Mother Jones has recorded 109 mass shooting events (128 if spree killings are included), or about three per year. Including the spree killings, 1035 people have been killed over the past forty years, or about 26 per year.
Mass shootings may seem more common in recent years due to all the news coverage, but they are not actually ubiquitous. In the 15 years since the Virginia Tech shooting, there have been 87 mass shootings (including spree killings), or about six per year. Since (and including) Virginia Tech, 729 people have been killed, or about 49 people per year. To put this number in perspective, the FBI estimates that 16,425 people were murdered in this country in 2019 alone. Of all the things that may kill us, it is extraordinarily unlikely that we or our children will be killed in a mass shooting
I recognize that to give these dry facts is to miss the psychological impact that mass shootings are having on our society. These events have terrorized a generation since Columbine. Where previous generations of students had tornado drills in school, contemporary students have lockdown drills. Everyone is desperate to prevent shootings at schools. But the unfortunate answer is that not much can be done to stop them entirely.
Universal background checks will not solve the mass shooter problem. Currently, federal law requires a background check for any retail firearm sale from a licensed dealer. But second-hand sales do not require a background check under federal law (though many state laws require such background checks). Expanding background checks to cover private sales will likely have little effect. The National Institute of Justice reports that 77% of mass shooters obtained their firearms legally, and thus, would not have failed an expanded background check. The Uvalde gunman purchased his rifle legally from a licensed dealer after passing the background check. So did the Buffalo supermarket gunman.
Red-flag laws, which provide for a temporary restraining order against someone possessing a firearm, may help a little. The National Institute of Justice found that “nearly all persons who engage in mass shootings were in a state of crisis.” But red-flag laws will not solve the problem. Many people are in crisis, and determining who will be violent is extraordinarily difficult. Red-flag laws also depend on law enforcement becoming aware that someone is in crisis and likely to be violent. And even with this information, law enforcement officers have to use the law. As we saw with the Buffalo shooting, where police failed to invoke New York’s red flag law, there will always be errors in the process.
What about more extreme gun control measures, including banning assault weapons and large-capacity magazines? There is no proven link between bans on rifles and magazines and preventing mass shootings. Most mass shooters use handguns, not rifles. As for magazine bans, mass shooters can easily evade the effect of these laws — maybe they use two revolvers instead of one semiautomatic handgun. But even if these laws reduce the quantity and severity of mass shootings (as a few researchers claim), we would still have multiple mass shootings per year.
This explains why gun owners are loath to accept widespread bans on semiautomatic rifles and ammunition magazines. With good reason, they do not believe these will do much good. And when these measures fail to prevent the next mass shooting, the political pressure to seek further gun control laws will be that much greater. The only kind of gun measure that will significantly reduce mass shootings is to massively disarm the population — with gun confiscation and extremely difficult licensing regimes. That is exactly what has happened in England, Australia, New Zealand and now Canada. And it is probably the result that most U.S. gun control advocates seek, even if they do not publicly say it.
I wish I could end this on a more hopeful note. We all desperately want to believe that there is some set of policy recommendations that will end our mass shooting problem. But I do not have any such list.
Much has likely brought us to this point: the fraying of our family, social and religious bonds; economic upheavals, leading to the social alienation of those left behind; the inaccessibility of mental health resources for those in crisis; and the easy accessibility of information, which enables mass shooters to achieve instant worldwide fame and encourages a copycat effect.
In previous generations, socially alienated individuals may have sought refuge by heading to the frontier or drowning their sorrows in an alcohol bottle. Today, they seek instant fame by killing as many young children as possible before committing suicide or being killed by police. If we want true solutions, we are going to have to look much deeper than passing a few gun control laws. Every complex problem has a simple solution that will not work.
• Robert Leider a professor at the Antonin Scalia Law school at GMU