The Safeway parking lot near Tucson, Arizona, was bustling on January 8th, 2011, as people lined up to participate in a “Congress on Your Corner” event with newly reelected Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. As the three-term Democrat began talking with constituents, a man opened fire on the crowd with a semiautomatic pistol, killing six people and severely injuring Giffords. Even in an era of nearly constant mass shootings, the attack on a sitting member of Congress stood out. It was followed with calls for more robust gun control.
Seven years later, horrific mass shootings remain an American way of life, and though there have been some changes to gun control policy at the state level – particularly in the wake of the 2012 Newtown shooting, in which 20 children and seven adults died – the federal government appears reluctant to act.
But legislative inaction shouldn’t be seen as inevitable. A full 100 years before the Giffords shooting, a murder in New York – an audacious midday shooting in Gramercy Park – spurred widespread public outcry. “There oughta be a law,” said George Petit le Brun, a member of the coroner’s staff at the time. Undeterred by opposition, he set out to make that happen by targeting legislators and prominent community members. He succeeded, spurring an important moment in the gun control debate: New York state’s Sullivan Act required people to obtain licenses for small guns, and carrying a concealed weapon without a license became classified as a felony. Much of the opposition to that law could be ripped from recent headlines, showing that while times may change, underlying sentiments often remain the same. But why is it so difficult to accomplish what George Petit le Bruin did today, in an era of even more sophisticated weapons?
Some of those best suited to explore why the U.S. can’t seem to move forward on gun violence are those who have experienced it firsthand, like Mary Reed, who brought her child to meet Giffords in that Safeway parking lot, and who was shot three times while she shielded her daughter from the gunman. One of the shots landed close to her spine, and she still experiences chronic pain.
Like many survivors of gun violence, Reed has become an advocate, working with groups like Everytown for Gun Safety to push for meaningful changes not just to the laws surrounding guns but to how we talk about them. Reed, who watched friends and loved ones die around her in the Bay Area during the peak of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, sees many parallels between gun violence and the terror that dominated the headlines in the Eighties. Both are public health issues, Reed notes, but only one was approached that way. “We have to open our hearts and see things differently,” she says. “People keep victims as others, and use distancing language like ‘wrong place, wrong time.'” Personal, humanizing conversations were key to breaking down the stigma around HIV and AIDS, and they could provide insight into challenging gun violence; when Reed’s past comes up in conversation, “people step away,” uncomfortable about being confronted with a gun violence survivor, she says.
“I try to seek common ground. Because we can all agree that a two-year-old should never have a loaded weapon. If that’s where we can agree, let’s begin there. Let’s start at the beginning.” Reed’s search for the lowest common denominator – toddlers shouldn’t kill toddlers, for example – allows her to talk with ardent Second Amendment supporters, like a friend in Texas who was horrified when a child he knew picked up a (thankfully unloaded) gun. She recalls his confession that he “kind of discounted what you were saying,” until the incident awakened him to the fact that “many gun owners don’t respect guns as weapons.” That made it possible to have a conversation about how to address the issue.
These interpersonal conversations take time and patience, two things often absent from the national dialogue about gun violence. But, Reed adds, there’s another important component: The scarcity of hard, peer-reviewed data on gun violence. “If we had tried to fight the AIDS epidemic like we’re trying to fight gun violence, then everybody that had AIDS would not be in any computerized system. They’d still be in paper files. … I think people would have had a fit if we had a public health issue and said, ‘No, legally we cannot computerize that.'” That’s precisely the issue with gun violence data: The NRA has successfully battled to restrict funding on research that would help Americans better understand the nature and scope of this epidemic.
It’s not just how we talk about gun violence that may be stymying the process of moving forward on solutions. Victims of mass shootings tend to get a lot of attention because of the horrifying circumstances surrounding their injuries, but Reed notes that such occurrences are relative outliers: The vast majority of gun violence in the United States doesn’t take place in mass shooting contexts. “The number of people that are missing from our society due to gun violence is enormous,” she says. Indeed, 90 people die by gun every day, many in intimate partner violence contexts.
“We ignore victims of what people have callously referred to as ‘everyday violence.’ And that is a huge problem,” Reed says. She likens mass shootings to outbreaks, in contrast with the endemic nature of ongoing gun violence. Focusing solely on mass shootings addresses only one aspect of the problem, and a comparatively small one.
Responding only to headline-grabbing mass shootings is also a largely reactionary measure, rather than a preventive one. A recent Gallup poll showed that more Americans are actively interested in there being more gun laws. But on the federal level, at least, little has changed, even as some states are slowly rolling out reforms to gun policy.
The key to tackling the gun violence epidemic may be incremental movement on policies that many people, including gun owners, can agree on. But finding those policies will require a willingness to, as Reed puts it, “find another way in” – to have personal and potentially uncomfortable conversations that involve give and take on both sides. Ultimately, whoever is most willing to shift their perspective could dictate the future of gun regulation in the U.S.