Clean Slate?

Dateline 1/8/'24 School Gun Violence gets a jump on the New Year

Rick Weiss

1/8/20245 min read

The New Year is traditionally about making fresh starts and blank slates. Our hopes are high. Our resolutions are shiny and new and all things yet seem possible. I’ll procrastinate less. Adopt better work or study habits. We’d like to think that maybe, just maybe by virtue of its newness, that things will be different this year. But the first week of the year was not yet out and already America has slipped back into our most destructive habit. Last week's school shooting reminds us of the famous quote from Albert Einstein that the definition of madness is continuing to do the same thing but expecting different results.

Thursday was the kids’ first day back at Perry High School in Perry, Iowa where five people were shot, a sixth-grader was killed and the 17-year old shooter, a student who was frequently bullied, took his own life. Perry is a small town of 8,000 residents 40 miles northwest of state capital Des Moines. Imagine being HS senior Ava Augustus, who when shots were heard, looked to the window in the guidance counselor’s office she was sitting in and realized that it was much too small to escape through.

What do the numbers show us?

For numerical perspective, we increasingly turn to The Gun Violence Archive for both a historical and up-to-date view. The GVA was started by a retired systems analyst named Mark Bryant. It is a database of all shootings in the United States, coming from police, media and government sources from all 50 states. And occasionally as cited in this podcast, Mr. Bryant hops in a rental car and drives to an out of the way farming community to confirm details. He talks to parents of victims. He and his staff absorb their pain and document it.

Of course, there is no blank slate when it comes to the tragedy of school gun violence and other shootings. For family and friends of victims, time stops at the point when their loved one was killed. Across our country, the tragedies accumulate. They need to be understood, both individually and collectively. However to sixth grader Zoey Battista, the only number that matters was 1. Murdered fellow sixth grader Ahmir Jolliff, nicknamed “Smiley” was her best friend.

The GVA is widely used by journalists, politicians and activists. It and its founders are not without their critics. Second Amendment advocates say that it inflates by its definition of what constitutes “mass shooting.” How many lives does it take?

We might just as well ask “How many guns does it take?”

According to Pew Research one in three Americans owns a gun. Many of the 45% of American households who own a gun own more than one. Vox reports that in our country, there are more guns than people.

In recent years, U.S. courts have codified a virtually absolutist interpretation of the Second Amendment, as the almost 400 million guns and the thousands of shootings they enable increase.

We believe that the Gun Violence Archive is credible. So to explain 2023 which showed a decline across the board from 2022, 2021, 2020 numbers, Second Amendment advocates are quick to jump on that one year decline and say that more guns equal more safety. Philadelphia, my own city, no stranger to gun violence, has seen a 26% post-pandemic drop.

Let's dig into these numbers. There are two good reasons we believe the argument that more guns could ever equal less gun violence is dangerous and counter-intuitive. A one-year decline after a decade of increase is more likely a blip than a trend. To look at it another way, the pandemic years (2020-2022) show an unsurprising spike but they are arguably outliers. On both charts, compare 2023 numbers to 2019 and 2014 numbers and we’re still riding an overall, decade-long climb of violence. From the GVA’s tabulations, on a 10 year basis the only indices that have dropped are “defensive gun use” and “unintentional shooting.” Despite what the gun advocates argue, fewer people used guns last year to defend themselves than 9, 10 years ago. Everything else is up. Especially suicide by gun.

We at ask what the two-thirds majority of non-gun owners ask, namely does the escalating violence infringe on our freedoms of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?" Are those of us who don’t carry firearms by choice becoming Second Amendment second-class citizens who live in fear that all it takes is one person with a gun to deprive many of us our "inalienable rights"? Aren’t our rights, if not more important, just as important as gun-owners’ rights? Is it even possible to strike a balance when one person can take so much from so many?

These are reasonable questions that we believe deserve unbiased answers.

Mr. Bryant’s Gun Violence Archive is doing something the government should be doing and should have been doing all along. The Centers for Disease Control is set up to record, scientifically analyze and report this sort of data. Yet there are people in government who’d rather they not. This is the one that staggers. If it’s really not the problem Second Amendment advocates says it is, why not get reliable numbers to put the issue to bed once and for all? Is it possible they don’t want to know the real answers?

We return to Professor Einstein to reframe our not-so-final question. Isn’t it madness to expect a better, safer future for our nation’s young people when we’ve done so little to change the present?


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