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What these numbers tell us about the gun debate in 2019

The seven people who were killed in a mass shooting in and around Odessa, Texas, on Saturday are among the more than 10,000 people who have died from gun violence in the U.S. so far this year.

The Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit organization that tracks gun incidents, estimates there have been 10,018 deaths and 20,061 injuries from gun violence in 2019. Those figures do not include suicides by firearms that claim about 23,000 lives each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s easy to lose track of the big picture when high-profile shootings seem to happen so frequently. Aside from the national sense of deja vu when another outburst of violence occurs, every new event — with its own specific tragic contours and lives lost — may make it hard for us to keep in our minds just how often it occurs.

Gun violence is on top of Congress’ agenda when it returns to session next week. But data can help reveal why making significant reforms has been an uphill battle, politically speaking. Here are some of the numbers that paint a picture of gun violence in the U.S. right now.

Mass shootings so far this year

There’s no single definition of a mass shooting, which makes tracking them complicated. The Gun Violence Archive, which compiles its data from police and media reports, has one of the broadest definitions, describing a mass shooting as a gun incident where four or more people are shot or killed. It includes violence related to drugs or gangs. Under those guidelines, there have been 287 mass shootings in the first eight months of 2019.

The Associated Press, which keeps its own database with USA Today and Northeastern University, only counts “killings involving four or more fatalities, not including the killer.” By that definition, there have been 26 shootings this year.

The FBI doesn’t track incidents this way, instead tallying “active shooter incidents” in which “one or more individuals actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area.”

The Department of Justice defines a mass shooting as three or more deaths, excluding the gunman. Based on that definition, using the Gun Violence Archive’s data, there have been 35 mass shootings this year.

According to the Gun Violence Archive, there were six other mass shootings across the U.S. on the same day as the Odessa shooting, Aug. 31. Those incidents in total killed another five people and injured an additional 20 people.


Number of Texas shootings where 8 or more people were killed since 2017

Aug. 31, 2019: Odessa – 8 killed, 22 injured
Aug. 3, 2019: El Paso – 22 killed, 24 injured
May 18, 2018: Sante Fe – 10 killed, 13 injured
Nov. 5, 2017: Sutherland Springs – 27 killed, 20 injured
Sept. 10, 2017: Plano – 9 killed, 1 injured

Source: Gun Violence Archive

4 percent

The percentage of all violence believed to be linked to mental illness

Many Republican lawmakers say new laws to address gun violence should focus on identifying people with mental health issues, opposed to widespread restrictions on gun ownership.

After the Odessa shooting, President Donald Trump said on Sunday that he and other federal lawmakers are looking at a variety of options to address gun violence. At the same time, he downplayed the possibility of expanding background checks and said mass shootings are “a mental problem.”

But mental illness can’t predict a mass shooting.

Health experts, including Jeffrey Swanson, a psychiatry professor at Duke University, have cautioned that psychological distress is not a good predictor of who is most likely to commit a mass shooting.

READ MORE: Why mental illness can’t predict mass shootings

A study published by the National Institutes of Health in 2015 found that even if serious mental illness was somehow cured, violence would decrease only by about 4 percent.

Improving mental health “is an important solution to a totally different problem,” said Swanson, one of the authors of the 2015 study. He added that more resources need to be devoted to helping people with mental illness, especially as a means to reducing firearm-related suicides.

71 percent vs. 51 percent

The number of Americans who wanted stricter gun laws immediately after the Parkland school shooting, versus one year later

A PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll in February 2019 found 51 percent of Americans wanted stricter gun sales. That number was 20 percentage points lower than it had been after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a year earlier.

Public support for more gun control tends to rise directly after a mass shooting and fall in the subsequent months. That means there is typically a short window after a mass shooting in which there could be enough political will to enact meaningful change to gun laws.

59 percent

Republicans who don’t want gun laws to change

Gun control advocates often point to overwhelming support for background checks or red flag laws as arguments for restricting gun sales. In the latest PBS Newshour/NPR/Marist poll in July, 89 percent of U.S. adults said they thought background checks were a good idea.

But other data indicates why some lawmakers are hesitant to take action.

Fifty-nine percent of Republicans think gun laws should be kept as they are and another 17 percent think they should be less strict, according to the NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll from February. And 41 percent of all adults in July’s poll said they thought a ban on the sale of semi-automatic assault weapons like the AK-47 or the AR-15 was a bad idea.

In more conservative states like Texas, Republicans tend to be even more averse to gun control laws. Forty-eight percent of Texas’ Republican voters think gun laws should remain the same and 29 percent think they should be less strict, according to February polling from The Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Elected officials are risk-averse and focused on minimizing the uncertainty in their election campaigns,” said Texas Politics Project director James Henson. “This is a fight that [lawmakers] have not wanted to engage if they are a Republican incumbent.”

Voters who support gun ownership tend to rank that issue as one of their top priorities, whereas people who support gun control are more likely to rank other issues like immigration, jobs or health as their top issue.


The number of bills loosening Texas gun laws that went into effect a day after the Odessa shooting

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, signed 10 bills into law this year to loosen gun restrictions. Eight of those laws were enacted the day after the Odessa shooting.

The new laws prohibit banning guns from school parking lots, rental properties and foster homes. They also allow Texans to carry guns in places of worship unless the location has signs that expressly prohibit firearms.

The laws come less than two years after mass shootings at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas, and at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

In Sutherland Springs, a man who confronted the gunman with his own firearm has been hailed as a hero. Law enforcement officials have warned that civilians with guns are usually not trained to handle a mass shooter situation and make it more difficult for police officers to identify the assailant during shootings.