Column: To combat mass shootings, Congress must address the larger issue of gun violence

In the span of three days, 17 people died and 62 people were injured in a string of nationwide shootings last weekend. Less than two weeks earlier, 21 people were killed at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas – the deadliest school shooting in the United States since 2012. As the cycle of loss, mourning and anger plays out in Buffalo, New York, Tulsa, Oklahoma, Chattanooga, Tennessee, Philadelphia and Uvalde, actual legislative action on Capitol Hill has been slow to manifest. While the U.S. House of Representatives passed a wide-ranging gun control bill on Wednesday, it has almost no chance of passing a Senate engaged in its own slow-going and tense negotiations. Yet as Congress attempts to address the factors underlying these shootings, our representatives need to understand that mass shootings exist in a larger system of gun violence that slips through the cracks of media coverage and political concern.

As of Friday night, 255 mass shootings in which four or more people, excluding the shooter, were injured have occurred in the United States in 2022. That statistic can change somewhat depending on how one defines mass shootings, but the point stands – Americans are dealing with an epidemic of gun violence that the economic and social turbulence of the COVID-19 pandemic only accelerated. But if gun violence has worsened over the last two years, why did it take Congress until now to act? Why did it take two mass shootings at a Buffalo grocery store and at a Uvalde elementary school to finally force the government’s hand? If tragic mass shootings can barely overcome the political inertia required to make real change, then far less deadly but far more frequent shootings are practically off politicians’ radar. If our leaders are serious about addressing gun violence, they need to address it in all of its forms.

Based on a rather literal definition of “gun violence” as the use of a firearm to commit a violent act, accidental discharges and stray bullets, individual homicides and suicides, armed robbery and domestic abuse are all forms of gun violence. The key truth to understand is that gun violence goes beyond mass shootings, and individual instances of gun violence are not always equally lethal or lethal at all. At first, that definition of gun violence seems broad – perhaps too broad, even. But that’s the point. Gun violence is a broad category because there are so many ways in which guns enable and sustain harm – even if they don’t cause a fatal injury.

Gun violence doesn’t always manifest as mass murder, and that fact often invites attempts to downplay shootings and gun violence that involve one or no victims at all, especially when these shootings occur in or near schools. This temptation to dismiss such instances of gun violence based on the number or lack of victims alone is logically and morally repugnant – it implies that these people aren’t victims, that they haven’t suffered a terrible ordeal even if they emerged alive.

A mass shooting and a stray bullet soaring through the front door are both instances of gun violence. I’m not going to pretend that these examples are the same, but to minimize or outright ignore the latter because no one died is utterly cruel – it makes the victims and survivors of gun violence, and their families, invisible. When the survivors and families of the victims of the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings testified before Congress earlier this week, how many other Americans, including D.C. residents, needed Congress to hear their voices and listen to their stories?

Because if Congress is finally coming around to the idea that mass shootings are bad, just wait for them to address gun violence writ large. I mean that literally – wait, and keep waiting. “We don’t have to end the epidemic of gun violence with one piece of legislation,” Senator Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who is working to shepherd legislation through the U.S. Senate, has said. I don’t want to pillory Murphy, who understands as much as anyone that Congressional action is long overdue. But his statement in the spirit of compromise highlights the abhorrent “mustn’t-be-too-hasty” attitude underlying these negotiations and perhaps a continued desire among some politicians to continue to do nothing at all.

What scares me most is the feeling that that’s precisely what’s going to happen – nothing. The only reason these negotiations are continuing is because the cycle of loss, mourning and anger hasn’t yet arrived at the point when some other news event subsumes gun violence. And I truly hope that I am wrong. Because the idea that more people, whether grandparents or school children, teachers or doctors, cashiers or security guards, are going to die for nothing is equally heart-wrenching and infuriating.

The unfortunate truth is that, albeit to vastly different degrees, every American faces the threat of gun violence. And until our leaders act, the names of their towns and cities, schools and neighborhoods, houses of worship and even hospitals will become hashtags and headlines announcing life and death, tragedy and resolve. How many other places will America come to learn, not for those who lived there, but those who died there? And how many will we never hear about at all?

Ethan Benn, a rising junior majoring in journalism and communication, is the opinions editor.

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