Opinion | D.C. Naval Yard shooting raises questions on how to move beyond the usual gun rhetoric
Published: Friday, September 20, 2013
Updated: Friday, September 20, 2013 00:09
After the tragic shooting Monday at the Washington Naval Yard in D.C., I had a crisis of confidence. That is to say, I began to question my stance on guns.
Aaron Alexis, the gunman, killed twelve people with a shotgun and a security guard’s 9mm handgun (another handgun was found at the scene too) before being killed by a D.C. police officer.
Guns make me nervous. I went to a firing range once and shot a handgun of some kind. The only way I can compare my unease then is the similar feeling I get when holding a baby – I do not know what to do with it. And I find the National Rifle Association (NRA) to be nauseating. Yet, I believed in the Second Amendment and more generally, the right to self-defense. Not because of passion, but principle.
When the news broke in D.C. and thereafter, as I gathered information and reviewed data on mass shootings, I started to wonder if maybe I had been wrong about guns.
Admittedly, at times, if I am not particularly passionate about a subject, I often run it through a libertarian litmus test rather than closely examining the issue. Such was the case with guns and as I read copious libertarian literature on the subject, the answers were no longer satisfactory.
I looked at the evidence from Mother Jones’ award-winning investigation into mass shootings, which indicated they were on the rise within the last five years. At most, what I kept encountering in my libertarian reading amounted to a fear of the government taking away guns. There was a cognitive dissonance there that was irksome. I wanted a fact-based, rational, middle-of-the-ground solution to what was seemingly a worsening problem in the United States. I wanted to know why this was happening.
Then my research unraveled and compounded in complexity when I encountered the work of James Alan Fox, professor of criminology at Northeastern University in Boston. Essentially, Fox and Mother Jones were looking at the same data, but using different methodology to arrive at different conclusions.
Mother Jones relies predominantly on the work of Pete Blair, expert on criminal justice at Texas State University, and his data suggests “public shooting rampages have spiked in particular over the last few years.”
Their criteria for mass shootings, which forms the basis of their data, was that the shooter took the lives of at least four people, was a lone shooter (with the exception of the Columbine and West Side School killings, which had two shooters, respectively), occurred in public, and the shooter died or was injured, along with a few incidents of “spree killing” that closely fit the aforementioned criteria.
Fox took issue with their criteria, noting, “Notwithstanding the questionable motive-based selectivity built into the Mother Jones analysis, it seems odd to ignore shootings with large death tolls just because there was more than one shooter or because the shooter was related to his or her victims.”
Using data accrued in reports to the FBI from 1976 to 2010, data which Fox says, "does not exclude cases based on motive, location, or victim-offender relationship," then, there have been on average, 20 mass shootings a year in the United States. This indicates to Fox neither an upward or downward trend in mass shootings. Fox admits that in recent years there has clearly been a cluster of such events, but a cluster is not the same as an epidemic, as Mother Jones, and other sources, have proclaimed.
According to the New York Times, Alexis was denied an AR-15 assault rifle at a Virginia gun show because “state law there prohibits the sale of such weapons to out-of-state buyers.” On the other hand, the shotgun used in the shooting was acquired legally at Virginia’s Sharpshooters Small Arms Range, which Virginia State Police said, “Mr. Alexis had passed all state and local background checks to buy the shotgun.”
Moreover, according to the Washington Post, Alexis had a valid pass and ID card, which he used to gain entry into Building 197 of the Navy Yard. Additionally, the Navy ignored warnings from local police about Alexis, who had been “hearing voices” in his hotel room about a month ago.
Yet, on the other hand, as Mother Jones pointed out in their investigation, more than half of the killers they looked at possessed weapons and high-capacity magazines, they say, would have been banned under Sen. Dianne Feinstein's Assault Weapons Ban of 2013. While they admit both “assault weapons” and “high-capacity magazines” are loaded politics terms, they say the new legislation would “outlaw weapons that let a shooter fire a large number of bullets quickly without having to reload.”
When I look at this data, I think Fox is right that if a less selective criterion is used, there is not an upward spike in mass shootings – media sensationalism is more to blame for that perception. Yet, on the other hand, mass shootings, especially in the last five years and even last year, have worsened in number of victims. Perhaps the accessibility of high-capacity magazines and assault weapons is to blame for that. Banning them could make a difference, although, certainly, I would concur with Mother Jones that the definitions of each ought to be less politically loaded and more fact-based; only then would such a piece of legislation be effective.