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Why the U.S. has done almost nothing to stop mass shootings

October 2, 2015 at 6:40 PM EDT
The violence in Oregon is one of nearly a thousand mass shootings to have taken place since the Newtown shooting in 2009. For all of the discussion of what can be done to prevent future tragedies, little has changed. What can be done to stop the violence? Judy Woodruff talks with Todd Clear of the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice and Jeffrey Swanson of Duke University.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The shooting in Oregon has again provoked many discussions about what can be done to prevent future tragedies.

Since the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012, there have been more than 985 mass shootings, where four or more people are injured or killed. This year alone, the crowdsourced Mass Shooting Tracker reports that there have been more than 295 shootings. You can see where these have happened on a map on our Web site.

For all of the discussions, little has changed.

And, tonight, we explore this with Todd Clear. He’s a professor and former Dean at Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice. He has written widely on gun violence. And Jeffrey Swanson, he’s a professor of psychology and behavioral science at Duke University.

And we welcome you both to the program.

Professor Swanson, I’m going to start with you.

You told us today that it may be the case these mass shootings are growing more common, but you said that doesn’t mean that they are easier to predict. What did you mean by that?

JEFFREY SWANSON, Duke University: Well, here we are again, Judy, talking about a horrifying mass casualty shooting, and it’s just appalling.

We’re asking ourselves the same question. Is this about mental illness? And let me just be clear. You don’t have to be a psychiatry professor to know that this is not the act of a healthy minded person. It is the act of a deeply disturbed person. It’s appalling.

But, on the other hand, it’s also an atypical act. It’s atypical of people with mental illnesses, the vast majority of whom are not violent and never will be, and it’s atypical of perpetrators of gun crimes, most of whom do not have mental illness. These are acts that are caused by many factors acting together. They are difficult to predict and therefore difficult to prevent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Professor Todd Clear, every time we have one of these mass shootings, there are calls to do something about the availability to guns — of guns to people who have mental problems. Has it become harder in any part of the country for people with emotional problems, mental problems to get hold of a gun?

TODD CLEAR, Rutgers School of Criminal Justice: Well, there have been attempts to put new legislation in place in various locations, but the politics of this is very difficult because it’s hard — while most Americans and many people would think, sensibly, that having some kind of screening for gun availability is valuable, it’s hard to get this — movement on this politically because the people who are opposed to gun regulation, to any gun regulation, are so strong and organized, that the political movement on questions like this are difficult.

But there is a lot of variation in drug laws locally in the states, but the fact that states — adjacent states have different gun laws, gun regulation laws, means that the lax states next door can produce guns that end up in the states that have stronger regulations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Professor Swanson, do you see any more — that it’s more difficult anywhere in the country for someone with a mental health problem to get access to a gun?

JEFFREY SWANSON: The problem with firearms here in this country is they’re very prevalent and they’re highly lethal and they’re constitutionally protected.

So it is, unfortunately, too easy, still, for people inclined to harm others or themselves to obtain a firearm. The criteria that we have are both too narrow and too broad at the same time. They identify lots of people who aren’t dangerous and they fail to identified some who are.

We did a study last year showing that approximately 9 percent of adults in this country have impulsive, angry behavior. These are the kinds of people who smash and break things when they get angry and have access to a firearm, and probably 1.5 percent have impulsive, angry behavior that’s pathological and are carrying a gun around with them.

The vast majority of those individuals are never going to be involuntarily committed, and thereby prohibited from a firearm. Often, they don’t have a disqualifying criminal record. So, it is difficult.

And we need to think more clearly about having more accurate criteria for preventing the purchase of a gun and also think about what to do about all the existing guns that are out there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We heard — Professor Clear, we heard President Obama this afternoon at the White House refer again to the fact that the difference between the United States and other advanced countries around the world, I think high-income countries, where people have access to a good education, is that there is such a wide access to guns in this country.

Is there that much difference between the U.S. and other countries on this?

TODD CLEAR: Well, yes, absolutely.

The United States has a very strongly established culture of gun availability. And the markets that deliver the guns are more widely spread, both the legal and the illegal markets, than in most other countries. Now, it is true that in some — in countries that have a lot of strife going on and war-torn countries, guns have a different pattern, but in Western democracies, we stand out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Professor Clear, we know polls show most Americans, on the one hand, they say there should be stricter background checks, but on the other hand they say they don’t think the gun laws should be stricter in general. I mean, there is a contradiction out there. How do you understand and read the public on this?

TODD CLEAR: Well, I think there’s a couple of things going on. I think there is a deep distrust that’s broadly spread, particularly across people who would be more likely to own guns, a deep distrust of government and particularly of government intervention and government control.

And that distrust leads people to think that any regulation of guns is at the expense of personal freedoms, and the first step is really is the first step, and there will be many, many steps if you let something happen.

By the same token, large, large numbers of people really recognize that guns are a risk factor, and most Americans would support what they would call sensible gun regulation. But what sensible means tends to fall apart when you start to look at the details.

And it is really true that we have so many handguns in America and so many guns of other types that reasonable policies that would begin to restrict those are very tough to imagine politically in a feasible way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Professor Swanson, how — as somebody who looks at this all the time and looks at the issue of violence, how should we as a country begin to think about doing something about this intersection between access to guns and mental illness or mental disturbance?

JEFFREY SWANSON: Well, it’s not a one-thing problem and it’s not a one-thing solution.

We certainly need to think about getting upstream and addressing the social determinants of violent behavior, having healthier communities with fewer kids exposed to trauma who grow up to be perpetrators.

But we really need to do something about limiting access to such an efficient killing technology at the time when people are at risk. There are times we know when we know when people are at risk or at elevated risk. For example, if they’re brought into a hospital in a short-term involuntary hold, and don’t progress to a gun-disqualifying involuntary civil commitment, there are ways that people could be prohibited temporarily from firearms.

And also there are some innovative legal approaches in a couple of states like Connecticut, and Indiana and in California that allow family members of law enforcement to take steps to remove firearms from people that they might be concerned about who are at risk of harming others or themselves.

And there was — the gun violence restraining order in California was passed after the Elliot Rodger shooting. And I think all of those things together may help us in the long run.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Professor Todd Clear, Professor Jeffrey Swanson, we thank you both. It’s a conversation that a lot of people are having tonight all over this country. Thank you.

JEFFREY SWANSON: Thank you.

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